A Tale of two Centres

From The Edinburgh Bahá’í

The old centre in North Fort Street.
The Old Centre — The Old Centre in Leith went up for sale on the market in early April, and after some devoted efforts put into making the building tidy, the first viewings began regularly from 14th April, every Thursday at 7-9 pm and Sundays at 2-4 pm, with a few out-of-hours visits thrown in. It was quite an amazing experience showing everyone around, discovering just how many rooms, cupboards and particulars were there, which you really never had imagined existed. You could almost begin to worry that you had lost some of your visitors in the grip of some dark cupboard as you toured the parties round; there were usually 4-5 parties each session, sometimes more, and by the time you had covered one or two of the four floors, the doorbell would send you sprinting down again to let in another group who would enrol into the existing troop midway for the tour.

Many of them were eager to buy the old centre for a family home, often from nearby or just along the street, whilst a few, occupying only a portion of their own residence, came to satisfy their curiosity, to see what the rest of their own building looked like. One particular family arrived with a large retinue of relatives, children, parents and grandparents, and you swung open the door, to be overwhelmed by an uncountable flood of faces. This very special group had been in the building quite regularly in the 1960's, explaining how the Bahá’í Centre used to be a Bakers Union, the place on the street where all the parties happened! Many of the visitors were particularly fascinated by the unusual window up on the first floor between the library and archive room, which on consideration seemed to be an original false window boarded over.

In a curious act of fate, at the very height of one memorable Sunday viewing, a stream of ants who until then had been content to live their daily lives outside, decided they would come marching in an unstoppable column for an unarranged viewing of their own, through the front door, all the way down the hall and into the kitchen itself; we had not had witnessed such an unsettling thing before, and it was far from obvious what they were attracted to, and all one could do was position a strategic dishtowel to keep them far from the mind. The highlight of the viewing was always upon reaching the Centre’s giant and majestic plant, as it soared ever skywards toward the light that shone through circular window in the roof.

These regular viewings were brought to a close after a few weeks, with the sure knowledge that we had acquired four notes of interest, the need consequently to maintain the interested parties’ enthusiasm by starting off the bidding, and the absolute necessity of getting the whole process completed so that we would know just how much would be available to offer for the New Centre on Albany Street, whose closing date was, miraculously, just a week after our own.

The biddings closed as midday struck on Wednesday 11th May, and the Assembly met during lunch hour at work, by means of a planned conference call for 13.00, in order to decide on the outcome. There were, we discovered, six offers in all for the Old Centre, ranging variously between £250K and £316K, with the two flying contenders being a clean offer of £280,800, and a much higher bid of £316,000 that had conditions of survey attached and a much later payment and entrance date; with our needing to know the outcome very quickly for our Albany Street bid, the lower certain figure seemed at first the most attractive; however after taking advice from the solicitors, the higher bidder was given the chance rapidly to sort out the surveys they wished to make, and propose a fixed offer without conditions. A few days were anticipated, which once passed seemed to stretch on inexorably in a day-by-day march toward the deadline of the Albany Street bid; a fixed time-limit was arranged for the day before our Albany bid; and on this date, after a number of surveys, the revised and unconditional figure of £302,600 was offered and accepted, a reduced figure taking account of required maintenance work such as for some areas of damp found downstairs.

With the sale of the current Centre in Leith, many memories would also be passing from our hands. It was purchased for £17,000, being donated to the Bahá’ís in 1978, and since that time has remained structurally unaltered, with major improvements of a new boiler system, lino flooring and cosmetic redecoration. Its initial dedication ceremony received a wide publicity, and set a precedent in the Scottish Councils by the arrangement of a 100% rates annulment, leaving only water bills. A wedding held within its walls, became the first legally-accepted marriage ceremony in the United Kingdom outside the Christian Faith, and received, as a result, national publicity in the press and radio. Rúhíyyih Khánum herself visited in 1981, and in 1982 it became a venue for an exhibition of painting, photography and pottery, and also of a show of Celtic Music and Poetry called “Shores and Streets”, which was enjoyed there by more than 150 people; in addition, a portion of the Heaven and Earth show was recorded there in 2002 for an exploration of Omid Djalili; whilst the many decades of Feasts, devotional meetings, consultations, social gatherings, workshops and regular Sunday meals have all impregnated its walls with a deep and homely sense of spirit and life.

The new centre in Albany Street
The New Centre — When the Universal House of Justice surprised the United Kingdom by pointing to its need for a new Centre in Edinburgh, it immediately became a priority goal for the National Community. The Edinburgh friends quickly held a brainstorming Feast, generating a long list of suggestions for the New Centre. These ideas formed the basis for a consultation between the Local Assembly and the National Task Force, which comprised of Barney Leith (external affairs), Allan Forsyth (Bahá’í Council for Scotland) and John Parris, and led ultimately to a clearer picture of what we should all practically be looking for. Whilst the ultimate goal envisaged buying the property outright rather than expending ourselves on rent, the prevailing conditions were far from favourable for this hope; with property prices on the rise, it was expected that people would be holding on to buildings to rent them, and only with the prices reaching their peak would they stop rising and be sold.

Searching in the Centre of Edinburgh brought with it a vast multitude of extra restrictions and complexities that would have to be met for any property, with the result that, over the year, 66 properties were eagerly assessed and visited – equivalent to one every five days – only to find each time, that even the most favourable candidates possessed something about them that would thwart the overall aims of the community. And so this searching continued, for a year, and appeared outwardly to be losing its initial momentum, until one alert community member spotted an advert in the Evening News for a property on Albany Street; after investigation it was discovered to be extremely exciting, spot on in every necessary aspect. As its deadline for offering bids drew ever closer, prayers and entreaties were being held across the entire United Kingdom, and even spread out amongst some of the friends in all continents, for the successful sale of the old centre and purchase of the new, and for all those involved in the many challenging decisions; much time was occupied by the National Assembly in conference calls consulting upon the premises, and had eventually to include also the input of Shirin Fozdar of the International Board of Counsellors, whilst the Universal House itself had to give its own ratification for how well the building interpreted their request, and which approval was received quite quickly after the decision.

The building in Albany Street was up for sale inviting offers over £900,000; however, on inspection, it was felt people would surely be making offers considerably above this. In offering £1.2M, the Bahá’í bid was, on the day, very much exceeded by a much higher offer from a second party. The days and hours just leading up to and immediately after the closing time of midday on 19th May, was a nerve-racking experience for everyone involved, as various documents were unexpectedly requested and needing instant compliance, and during the five days whilst the vendors deliberated in order to reach their final verdict, all were expiring with anticipation and on tenter-hooks. Only when the legal niceties were finally completed on 10 June could the emotions begin to rest.

And so the building has finally been acquired, meeting the urgent target set.

The choice of the Community’s successful bid came on the very day of the Declaration of the Báb, the news reaching the Bahá’ís just as they were assembling at Arthur’s Seat for a gentle walk together to commemorate the Holy Day, where there was tremendous excitement amongst everyone.

Letter from the World Centre — The Bahá’í World Centre, responded to the news on 2nd June, with the following message to the National Assembly:
Dear Bahá’í Friends,
The Universal House of Justice warmly acknowledges receipt of your letter dated 23 May 2005 (ref. GC-24018), in which you share the welcome news of the purchase of a new Bahá’í Centre in Edinburgh, Scotland, and report on the successful sale of the old Centre. The House of Justice was pleased that the friends have already given generously toward the acquisition of the building and trusts that their continued flow of contributions will help to substantially reduce the remaining balance. Be assured of the prayers of the House of Justice in the Holy Shrines that the newly acquired Centre may lend further impetus to the efforts of the dearly loved friends in Scotland to serve with steadfast devotion the central aim of the Five Year Plan.
With loving Bahá’í greetings,
Department of the Secretariat

Funds and Ownership — In order to cover the period whilst Funds and Donations are still arriving, with the money from the sale of the Centre in Leith becoming available on 23 September, the National Assembly is kindly securing the payment of the New Centre via a loan with a bank at a very favourable rate. In order to achieve this (which is for the benefit of the bank) the National Assembly will be owning 75% of the building and the Local Assembly 25% of the building, until the full amount has been paid, at which point it will be owned wholly by the Edinburgh Community.

There have been tremendous sacrifices and extraordinary fundraising activities in order to achieve this, and which continue apace. One particularly dramatic instance of this, has been Chris Oak’s cycling all the way from London to Edinburgh, and all across the UK, Bahá’ís are contributing in their own unique way. This sense of community coherence is rarely seen in society around, with everybody feeling the shared goal as their own, that they are part of a collective endeavour and responsibility, in rather the same way that the Five Year Plan is a world-wide collective endeavour by an integrated yet diverse world community who feel and respond to each others’ pains and joys.

The assembly receives (this was, obviously, written before entry – Ed.) the keys for the New Centre on 15th July 2005, after which there will be a little space of time between then and 23rd September, in which to move any things we wish to keep from the old centre over to the new, for instance the large table, the library books, archives and pictures; quite probably much that is in the current centre will be sold and thereby contribute to obtaining better replacements. There have been many generous offerings from friends of furnishings for the new centre. We will have only the lower floor of four floors in the new centre. The upper floors have a legally-binding lease out to Mori, and therefore three of the floors containing the most spacious rooms will remain unavailable to the Bahá’ís for a further year, at which point there is a break in the lease.

Activities — This story is just the beginning, for the Centre is not an end in itself, but a means to spring into a new and creative journey together, far into the future. The Assembly envisages a range of activities taking place such as Feasts, consultations and meetings; music, devotional meetings, and creative arts; deepenings, firesides, reading and learning; study circles; workshops, seminars and children’s classes. The only limiting factor on the kinds of activities being held is the imagination of those who wish to use the building, and fire regulations.

In a sense, we have now to live up to the possibilities that have been latent within us all along. With Manchester and London becoming the first ‘A’ Clusters in Europe, west of Turkey, we have shining examples of what we can be, and what we can do. Insomuch as both Greater London and Greater Manchester are both regions with multiple assemblies (32 and 4 respectively), we may even wish to consider sharing mutual forces with Glasgow to achieve the common goal of bringing to humanity its healing remedies. The first stage has been already to explore what are the so-called ‘Movers’ and ‘Blockers’, both as individuals and as a community – what are assisting the goals we set or would like to set ourselves, and what processes are hindering us, often very practical things. A day-long meeting has been arranged for 3rd July to which Glasgow and Edinburgh as priority clusters are invited to consult together upon this topical endeavour.