The Georgian terrace blocks of Marshall Place, for which plans were drawn in the early 1800s, were constructed in the 1820s. Three blocks had been envisaged, but only two-and-a-half blocks were built, for there was an area which commercial builders were reluctant to touch due to the presence under the site of an old branch of Perth’s Lade. For sixty years there remained, facing the South Inch, an unsightly gap site, latterly occupied by the wooden studio of Perth’s Victorian photographer Magnus Jackson.
In 1882, in what can be seen as a bold move, a leap of faith, this site was acquired by the congregation of Free St Leonard’s, confident that any problems could be overcome. Determined to erect a building of high quality, they invited a number of leading church architects to submit designs and proposals. The choice fell on John J Stevenson, originally from Glasgow, now settled in London, in the happy and prosperous position of a ‘gentleman architect’ who would accept commissions where he would be able to insist on the highest quality both of design and of materials (Stevenson churches did not come cheap). He had at one time considered entering the Free Church ministry, and this may have influenced the choice made by well-off Free Church congregations.
Stevenson’s proposals for Free St Leonard’s were based on what he referred to as “later Scotch Gothic”; he held that, while Gothic architecture had spread all over Europe, individual countries had developed their own characteristic styles, and, drawing his inspiration from such churches as St Giles in Edinburgh, St Michael’s in Linlithgow, and St Monans in Fife, he envisaged a building which would be both typically Gothic and typically Scottish. His vision culminated in a crown tower, and the tower which adorns St Leonard’s-in-the-Fields may well be the first post-Reformation crown tower in Scotland.
Building work started in May 1883; the stone – there may be as many as 1,000,000 blocks of dressed stone in the church – came from the quarry at Polmaise near Stirling, the slates from Elterwater in the Lake District. With one exception, all contracts for the different trades – mason, joiner, slater, glazier, plumber, painter – were awarded to Perth firms. Again with one exception, the materials used – stone, slate, glass, wood, lead – were those which would have been available to medieval builders: that exception is cast iron, used in the internal pillars (think how much slimmer these are than the stone pillars in old churches, and yet they support at least as much weight) and in the beams underneath the gallery.
Much of the correspondence between London and Perth during building operations survives, and makes interesting reading – especially when the Building Committee had ideas of cutting costs, to Stevenson’s extreme and acerbic annoyance: they eventually learned their lesson.
Externally, the church and halls are virtually unaltered: they are ‘A’ listed, a category that comprises buildings “of national and international importance.”