ITS classical columns are one of the reasons Edinburgh is known as the Athens of the North.
For decades the A-listed former Royal High School has stood neglected, falling into serious disrepair without any settled long-term use. Now the much-loved city landmark finds itself at the centre of a heated battle which has even been portrayed as a struggle for the essence of Edinburgh.
Does the Capital want to pursue its position as one of the world’s elite tourist destinations, an essential stop on the itinerary of the international jet set who demand hotels even more luxurious than the Balmoral and Caledonian?
Or is the development of the historic site a step too far that might even put the future of the city’s status as a World Heritage Site on the line?
The £75 million plan to convert the Calton Hill site into a luxury hotel will go before councillors tomorrow after splitting opinion in what has become a key test of approaches to Edinburgh’s development as a dynamic European capital.
Featuring two stepped extensions – said to be reminiscent of the structure of an Inca temple – the proposal from Duddingston House Properties (DHP) has galvanised supporters and critics into mounting vigorous campaigns which have sparked discussion and disagreement across the city.
The developers have indicated that a hotel – to be occupied by luxury operator Rosewood, whose other hotels around the world attract A-list guests such as Mick Jagger and David Beckham – would create 640 jobs and contribute £27m annually to the economy. Their plans are supported by a wide range of businesses and high-profile supporters, including Edinburgh Airport, acclaimed architect Sir Terry Farrell and Harvey Nichols, who see the venture as a major money-spinner for the Capital.
But heritage groups have lodged a passionate campaign warning that the plans would destroy the beauty of one of the city’s architectural treasures.
The temperature of the debate moved up another notch last week when city planning officials recommended the project be rejected.
In a report, they said: “We consider that both wings, and specifically the six-storey western bedroom wing, would, by their height, scale and massing, dominate and overwhelm the listed building challenging its primacy on the site.
“The proposals would, if implemented, diminish significantly the building’s status as an internationally acclaimed exemplar of Greek Revival architecture.”
They added: “The harm to the setting and character of the building would be considerable, it being impossible to view and appreciate Hamilton’s masterpiece, either by itself or in context, without the oversized extensions taking precedence.”
Designed in a neoclassical Greek Doric style by Thomas Hamilton, the Royal High building was modelled on the portico and Great Hall of the Hephaisteion of Athens. It has been praised as Hamilton’s “supreme masterpiece and the finest monument of the Greek Revival in Scotland”.
And the DHP plan is not the only game in town with many of those most forcefully opposed to the hotel plans supporting a late bid by the recently-formed Royal High School Preservation Trust to turn it into a new base for St Mary’s Music School.
The St Mary’s proposal would see a 300-seat concert hall built, alongside a dedicated space allowing the highly regarded school to grow its roll from 80 to 120 pupils.
Those backing the DHP project point to a major survey – said to be the largest of its kind ever carried out in Scotland – which found that 93 per cent of nearly 5000 people quizzed agreed a hotel would be an appropriate use for the site, and a similar percentage approving of the latest designs.
Yet the results are disputed by opposing campaigners, who point to the planning application attracting 2000 objections.
The recommendation to refuse the DHP scheme was published after advisers from international heritage watchdog Unesco said an investigation into how the city handles listed and historic properties should take place.
Today, Marion Williams, director of heritage watchdog The Cockburn Association, said: “Significant concern exists regarding the proposals in undermining the integrity of the building which is acknowledged to be of international importance, being one of the most noted examples of European neoclassical architecture.
“As a ‘temple to learning’, limited fenestration to Regent Road contributes to the purity of the building. The sculptural quality of this elevation makes adaptation to a hotel very difficult, without undermining and compromising its important features.
“A hotel is not a public building – access depends on management policies, which can change. This will not be a public building.
“The presumption will be that visitors will be consumers. Whilst an exclusive hotel serving patrons could bring economic benefits to Edinburgh, given an understanding of the history of the Royal High, as a school serving the whole city, this is not an appropriate use for this civic asset.”
Bruce Hare, boss of Duddingston House Properties, said: “Throughout the whole process of preparing our proposal to turn the former Royal High School into a world-class hotel, we have been heartened by the widespread support for the project across a range of sectors.
“Our diverse list of champions demonstrates how excited people are at the prospect of a Rosewood Hotel in Edinburgh whether they are working in restaurants or real estate, fashion shops or florists.
“They realise the fantastic opportunities and benefits this hotel will bring to Edinburgh and Scotland and want to be part of this new offering to tourists keen to discover and experience the rich heritage of the hotel and the city.”