Rebuilding the heart of Edinburgh

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At about 8:30pm on Saturday 7 December last year in the Bridge Jazz Bar, owner Bill Kyle smelled smoke. Bad timing, he thought. A concert was about to begin, with Tommy Smith topping the bill in a tribute gig for Edinburgh saxophonist Gordon Cruickshank. The club was packed.

Kyle went down to the beer cellar, one further floor down into the network of buildings which linked his South Bridge premises to the Cowgate below. The smoke seemed to be thicker, as if it were coming up from below. He decided he had to evacuate the venue.

"We thought it was just an old fridge motor burning out or something, and we’d be back in half an hour," he says wryly. That was the last time he saw the inside of the building he had spent "a fortune" fitting out as a purpose-built jazz club. Within a few hours, fire had engulfed it. In what has been described as the "most devastating fire in living memory" in Edinburgh, there was nothing to do but watch.

"We stayed in the area till the middle of the night, watching the devastation, with occasional visits to the Royal Oak for sedatives," Kyle says. His club, which offered unprecedented opportunities to Scottish jazz musicians and was beginning to gain a UK-wide reputation, had traded for just seven months.

A year later, he’s struggled to recoup a fraction of his losses. "It was a personal financial disaster. I had borrowed so much money to keep the place going which was going to be paid back from the business, and suddenly the business wasn’t there. I got a fraction of what I hoped from the insurers. It’s been a nightmare." Musicians and other venues have rallied round. Benefits in aid of the jazz club have been held - the next is at the Queens Hall on 31 January.

Since the fire, Kyle has looked at 59 other properties, but none has matched the combination of space and accessible location that South Bridge offered. Ideally, he says, he would like to return to the area when it is rebuilt, but as he was a tenant, not a property owner, he has not been involved in the discussions about rebuilding.

As day dawned on Sunday 8 December, the last bleary-eyed party-goers straggled home astonished to see firefighters in South Bridge, hosing water into buildings which, just a few hours before, had been busy pubs, clubs and shops, a university department, an amusements arcade. A cloud of smoke hung over the Old Town, but the blaze had been contained. Mercifully, no lives had been lost. Relief was tinged with horror at the extent of the destruction of property and livelihoods.

A year on, the reactions are still mixed. There is some pride at having been able to contain the blaze, at handling the 1million clean-up smoothly and reopening the Cowgate ahead of schedule. Some businesses have reopened and want to put the disaster behind them, others wait impatiently for rebuilding. There is gritty determination to rise from the ashes, but there is also despondency, as if the time which has elapsed has only served to underline how much was lost.

Council Donald Anderson, Leader of the City of Edinburgh Council, says: "This fire was the most devastating in living memory, but we can thankfully breathe a sigh of relief that there were no casualties or fatalities. It did, though, destroy many businesses and left a gaping wound in the heart of the city.

"Making this fire-ravaged site safe was no easy task and credit should go to all those who worked long and hard to make it happen. The future of the site is one we all await with anticipation."

Karen Koren, director of the Gilded Balloon, the vibrant Fringe venue which was wiped out in the blaze, still feels bruised by the loss of the building she had inhabited for 18 years, but vows: "We will be back, stronger and better."

"That night is going to stay with me for a long time. My granddaughter was born that day, and I was across in Kirkcaldy seeing the baby. I was driving back to Edinburgh when I took a call from my bar manager saying they had evacuated the bar due to smoke, but it was coming from two doors up and wasn’t anything to worry about."

But as the night wore on, it became clear there was plenty to worry about. A friend who was watching the fire sent her a text message: "I saw your office go up at 3am." "I went down at 9am and got past the cordon. Actually my office was intact, although the roof had come down and the building had fallen in on itself. I was desperate to get a ladder and go up and get some stuff, but I wasn’t allowed anywhere near it."

The first few months passed in a whirl of supportive attention, e-mails, letters and phone calls from all over the world, a major comedy benefit. "But when you get to a year you realise that not as much has moved on as you wanted, and you feel a bit depressed about it all. Even now I think, ‘I’ll just look that up’ and realise I can’t because it was lost, with 18 years of material."

The Gilded Balloon rose from the ashes for the Fringe and Koren is now running the city’s Winter Wonderland ice rink. "If we didn’t have the ice rinks and Teviot (student union building) in the Festival, we would definitely not be here today," she says. "It’s been a hard year. What I would like to get is an all-year-round building once again, but it’s not coming as fast as I would have liked." She too would like to return to the Cowgate but, also like Kyle, she is a tenant, not a property owner, and has not been included in discussions about the site.

Raymond Codona, owner of the Leisureland amusements complex on South Bridge, knew immediately that the fire was serious when staff called him, along with the Fire Brigade, just after 8pm on 7 December. His building was also completely destroyed. "We were absolutely devastated. We have been trading there since 1984, we owned our property, it was part of our lives. We lost our offices, every piece of paperwork we ever owned." A year on, he is still "fighting with the insurance company", while trying to re-open in new premises across the road by Christmas.

By contrast, Festival Inns which owns Biblos, the Cellar Bar and Faith nightclub, had a lucky escape. Iain Pert, operations manager, wonders if the fact that Faith is an old church had anything to do with its miraculous escape from the flames. It had opened after a 2.5m refit two weeks before the blaze, but, despite being next to the Gilded Balloon, suffered only water damage. "They were firing water over the top of Faith to try to stop the fire spreading from the Gilded Balloon," he says, incredulously. Biblos reopened in January, Faith just a few weeks later.

However, all the Festival Inns properties in the area, including the Three Sisters pub and Beluga, were affected by the road closure and the decrease in passing trade. "Now it is starting to come back to what it was, but it has taken a while."

Frank White, the investigating officer for Lothian and Borders Fire Brigade at the time of disaster, says that the cause of the blaze will remain a mystery. However, there is a hint of pride in his voice as he describes the brigade’s success in containing the fire, given how far it had spread before they were called to the scene. "We also controlled 70 other incidents in that weekend, so we still had full fire cover."

Meanwhile, the site remains a gaping hole at the heart of Edinburgh, the coloured walls of the former Gilded Balloon standing open to the elements. Occasional wrangles appear in the press about what might replace them: the same number of licenced premises or fewer, a historic building or a modern one.

An architectural competition for ideas was held, and was won by Ron Galloway Associates, who suggested a complex of historic wynds and closes, topped by a 12-storey modern tower.

The property has been handed back from the Council to the eight owners who have formed a consortium to work with leading Edinburgh architect Malcolm Fraser toward rebuilding. Recently, the University of Edinburgh, which lost 2,500 square metres of academic space in the fire - about a third of the total space destroyed - agreed to join the consortium.

Malcolm Fraser says that the owners working together is itself significant. "It sounds obvious and simple, but it’s not a given in a situation like this. A site burns down, there are eight owners, it’s possible that each owner will appoint a lawyer, and they entirely use up the insurance money fighting each other over rights that don’t exist any more. To sit down together and appoint one lawyer, agree their share of the site, how much it’s worth, and to carry out a feasibility study is very good. We’ve made good progress in a year, but it will be a while before anything happens on the site."

Fraser is not yet at a stage to discuss the replacement buildings, but says it will be "a new building, based on understanding the history of the site, and not some wonderful all-singing all-dancing modern monument, it’s the wrong place to do that".

"I would like it to have a mix of uses, that’s what good about the centre of Edinburgh. I would like there to be some housing on the site, and I do feel some sort of Festival icon like the Gilded Balloon is important. To restore some element of South Bridge as it was intended, the grand heroic entry into historic Edinburgh, is also essential. But the rest of it was on more of a medieval plan. We should look at how closes and courtyards could be made to work, perhaps rendering them in a modern model, confident and light-filled."

However, before anything is built, the very ground will be dug up if city archaeologist John Lawson gets his way. He and an archaeological team were involved in painstaking analysis of the buildings during the demolition process, and were delighted at what they found. "The line of Hastie’s Close dates back to late-15th century, and we have pockets of buildings which have survived from the 17th century, much earlier than we expected," he said.

"What we found brought into focus how much could actually be hidden in areas which might be seen to have limited historical worth. It raised a lot of issues about how we protect our buildings. It’s a case of don’t judge a book by its cover. It might look like the site was completely developed in the 19th or 20th centuries, but take away the faade and you find out that what they have done is build on, incorporating a lot of earlier buildings.

"What we would like to find is some evidence of the medieval occupation of the site. We know very little about how the Cowgate was laid out in the 12th or 14th century, there have been no modern excavations in that area going back to that period." An evaluation will be carried out to determine whether a major excavation is required.

Meanwhile, beneath the ground in another part of Edinburgh, the subtle sounds of jazz herald another fresh start. Bill Kyle is programming music in the cellar bar at 80 Queen Street, Fridays to Monday, smaller than his South Bridge venue but already proving popular. It’s a beginning. Though, for him as for many, the date of 7 December will remain etched on his memory. "The same date as Pearl Harbour," he says. "A night that will live in infamy."