David McLean: Return of the Forsyth Sphere, better late than never

Forsyth Sphere being taken away.
Forsyth Sphere being taken away.
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Perhaps you never noticed the Forsyth Sphere was there in the first place, but that doesn’t make the fight to have it reinstated any less important.

The striking former RW Forsyth department store on Princes Street has been regarded as one of Edinburgh’s finest buildings since it opened in 1907. Since the early 2000s, the A-listed structure has been owned by the Arcadia Group. The lower floors house its flagship Topshop store north of the Border.

In March 2012, the upper portion of the building was being converted into a Travelodge hotel. During the conversion engineers found that corrosion within the spire holding the building’s crowning feature, its three-tonne decorative sphere, could one day cause it to buckle. So the sphere was removed. Fair enough, right? Well, to remove the intricate structure required prior consent from the authorities – no such permission had been sought.

It was anticipated that the sphere, a much-loved city landmark which Historic Scotland described as “the third or fourth most iconic item on the Princes Street skyline”, would return within six weeks. It’s now been four years.

A few months after the sphere’s disappearance, rumours circulated that Arcadia had “baulked” at the £200,000 restoration cost. The firm fronted by billionaire fashion and retail magnate Sir Philip Green reportedly approached Edinburgh World Heritage in a bid to secure a share of the organisation’s limited funds. I wasn’t privy to their correspondence, but I can take a wild guess at their response . . .

Arcadia had removed a vital architectural feature of an A-listed building situated on the main thoroughfare of Scotland’s capital, offering little indication when it would return. Edinburgh council possessed the power to issue an enforcement order, but calls to do so seemed to be falling on deaf ears. If there were to be no repercussions then others could easily follow suit. A city so reliant on its historic architecture like Edinburgh could not afford such a risky precedent to be set.

With the third anniversary of the sphere’s removal fast approaching, the dithering had to end and, as administrator of a history page with over 100,000 followers across social media, I felt we could make enough noise to prevent the matter from being swept under the carpet.

A petition to reinstate the sphere was launched via the Lost Edinburgh page in January 2015, peaking at 4700 signatures including Irvine Welsh and the great granddaughter of RW Forsyth himself. It did the trick. By May, the council had issued an enforcement notice.

It’s now been revealed that the sphere will return this June. About time really, they’ve had a fair kick at the ba’ . . .

David McLean is founder of the Lost Edinburgh Facebook page