A bid to turn one of Edinburgh’s most celebrated landmarks into a music school and concert venue has won the crucial backing of the national heritage agency.
Experts at Historic Environment Scotland have endorsed an alternative vision for the rebirth of the Royal High School on Calton Hill after objecting to a controversial proposal to transform it into a luxury hotel for “elite” travellers.
Its opposition is believed to have been a key factor in the hotel scheme being rejected by councillors in December after more than five years in planning.
However, it has now told the city council, which owns the building, that the proposed new home for St Mary’s Music School represents a “measured reuse of a nationally and internationally important site and building”.
Its backing has emerged just days after it was revealed that Unesco had begun moves to probe Edinburgh’s world heritage site after being urged by experts to launch a “serious investigation, into the impact of major new developments.
A rival bid to take over the Thomas Hamilton-designed building, which has been largely empty since 1968, emerged last April, weeks after designs of the hotel development became public.
The latter scheme, which was planned to be operated by Hong Kong operator Rosewood, attracted huge opposition from heritage bodies due to designs which included two six-storey “wings” proposed for either side of the original 1829 landmark.
The Scottish Government agency’s objection to the £75 million hotel scheme said the proposed extensions – which were compared by critics to “Inca terraces” and “Mickey Mouse ears”– would lead to harmful overdevelopment.
The city council was warned that the hotel project planned for the old Royal High – which it described as one of Scotland’s most significant buildings – was not possible to be delivered without “unacceptable harm” to the building.
The Royal High School Preservation Trust, set up to pursue a redevelopment of the Royal High on behalf of the music school, has pressed ahead with plans despite having a £1.5m bid for the building rejected by the council.
Its scheme, expected to cost upwards of £25m, involves the addition of a major new school building in the grounds of the A-listed landmark. An entrance hall and foyer will be carved out underneath the existing building to create a public entrance to three separate performance spaces, including a 300-capacity main arena. Other features include a new publicly-accessible garden on the site of an existing car park and roof gardens.
The HES letter to the council, which will decide on the application in the spring, states: “We welcome not only the proposed restoration and repairs to the listed buildings on the site, but also the design of the new school accommodation blocks that, by their scale and positioning, firmly retain the primacy of the Hamilton building on the site.”
Willie Gray Muir, chairman of the trust behind the St Mary’s project, said: “We’re absolutely delighted with the conclusions of Historic Environment Scotland.
“We want our plans to be seen as a solution which fully respects the importance of the building. To get this support at this stage is critical to us.”
A spokesman for Duddingston and the Urbanist Group, the two developers of the hotel project, said an appeal over the council decision was still being considered.