Lost Edinburgh: Reinstating the Forsyth sphere

Picture:  Dave Henniker
Picture: Dave Henniker
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WHEN the R W Forsyth sphere was taken down in 2012, it was expected to return within six weeks.

Three years on and it’s still absent from Edinburgh’s skyline.

Picture: submitted

Picture: submitted

The former R W Forsyth department store on Princes Street hasn’t been looking its best of late. In March 2012, while the landmark building’s upper floors were being transformed into a Travelodge, owners Arcadia Group took the decision to remove its iconic armillary sphere on safety grounds. It is understood that no consent had been granted from the city authorities.

The sphere, designed by Gilbert Bayes, had been an integral feature of the Category A listed building since it was built in 1907. Repair and reinstatement was expected to be done and dusted within just six weeks. However, as the third anniversary of the sphere’s removal approaches, there appears to be little sign of it returning, and its absence has been difficult to ignore for those who know the city centre well.

History

R W Forsyth was a Glasgow company, opening its first store on Renfield Street in 1872. Great success and prosperity followed, and by the turn of the century the firm began to look eastwards.

Picture: submitted

Picture: submitted

Construction on Forsyth’s stunning new £40,000 Edinburgh store began in 1906 to the baroque-influenced designs of acclaimed architect, J.J. Burnet. It was also notable for being the first fully steel framed structure in Scotland. Forsyth’s extended to the west and north between 1923-25.

Burnet’s design for the store was praised far and wide, but it is another architect, Gilbert Bayes, who can claim responsibility for perhaps its most iconic feature: the armillary sphere. This gilded steel sphere was of intricate design and featured the signs of the zodiac flanked by cherubic figures.

Weighing in at over 3 tonnes and visible for miles around, it truly was the cherry on the Forsyth cake.

For over 50 years, R W Forsyth flourished in Edinburgh and made a name for itself in supplying a wide range of high quality goods. If Jenners was the Harrods of the north, Forsyth’s could well be considered Edinburgh’s answer to Selfridges. The department store closed in the 1980s and was quickly snapped up by the Burtons group. Since Arcadia took over the building in the early 2000s, it has been most well-known for housing Top Shop and Top Man on the lower floors.

In 2012 it was announced that the building’s upper floors would be leased to Travelodge. The maintenance checks which followed revealed substantial corrosion in both the building’s sphere and its supporting spire. Afraid that it was in danger of toppling, Arcadia hastily removed the sphere by crane in March of that year. Despite pressure from the likes of Historic Scotland, City of Edinburgh

Council and the Cockburn Association, it hasn’t been seen since. An unsuccessful attempt was made by Arcadia to obtain funding for the sphere’s repair from the Edinburgh World Heritage group – a charitable organisation which receives much of its own funding from public donations.

As revealed in yesterday’s Edinburgh Evening News, Arcadia now insist that they have ‘no plans to reinstate the sphere in the immediate future’. City of Edinburgh Council are currently in discussions over a potential enforcement order regarding the sphere’s reinstatement.

The reinstatement campaign

Earlier on this week, a Change.org petition was created on behalf of the Lost Edinburgh Facebook page with the aim of urging Arcadia Group to repair and reinstate the R W Forsyth armillary sphere.

The petition argues that as custodians of a Category A listed structure within a World Heritage site, Arcadia Group should be held accountable for any of its repairs. It also notes the hugely detrimental effect which the sphere’s demise has had on both the building’s aesthetic quality and the Edinburgh skyline, and underlines its status as a valued, much-missed piece of the city’s rich heritage.

In just four days an incredible 1,500 signatures have been collected. This wealth of support shows that the case of the absent R W Forsyth sphere is far from its conclusion.

You can sign the petition here: www.change.org/p/arcadia-group-reinstate-the-r-w-forsyth-
sphere?after_sign_exp=member_sponsored_donation