The Ross Fountain in Princes Street Gardens was made in Paris, spotted on display by a Victorian gunsmith in London and sparked protests from an outraged Edinburgh minister due to its nude female sculptures.
Now the 19th century fountain has fallen into such a state of disrepair that it is in danger of teetering over or collapsing completely.
The charitable trust leading efforts to rescue the fountain say it will have to be removed for the best part of a year to allow it to be properly repaired and restored.
All 122 pieces originally shipped to Leith in 1969 will be dismantled and transported to Wigan, where conservation experts will carry out the work.
The fountain, which has been out of action since 2010, is also said to have suffered serious damage due to “substantial water loss” through its structure.
An “underground chamber” is to be built for the new-look fountain which will allow the water to be recycled when it is switched back on next spring.
The £1.5 million project is being spearheaded by the Apex Hotels founder Norman Springford, who is also helping to bankroll a replacement for the Ross Bandstand in Princes Street Gardens.
The rescue work, which is expected to get underway within the next few months and last for around 46 weeks, will be completed when the fountain is gradually pieced back together in the gardens.
The fountain was created by the Parisian cast iron manufacturer Antoine Durenne and features figures sculpted by the artist Jean-Baptiste Jules Klagmann, who made works for the Louvre and Luxembourg Gardens in Paris.
It appeared along with other work from Durenne’s foundry at the Great London Exhibition in 1862, where it was spotted by Daniel Ross, an Edinburgh gunmaker.
However, the installation of the fountain, which features a number of mermaids as well as four figures representing the arts, science, poetry and industry, was delayed due to protracted protests from Dean Ramsay, minister of St John’s Episcopal Church, on Princes Street. He said the amount of nudity in the sculptures was “grossly indecent and disgusting; insulting and offensive to the moral feelings of the community and disgraceful to the city”.
Wrangling over its location and construction delayed its unveiling until 1872 – but Ross never got to see his gift in place as he passed away the previous year.
Mr Springford said: “When the Ross Fountain was put in back in 1872 they didn’t worry about things like foundations but, in Scottish parlance, is it cowping over at the moment.
“It’s not going to compete with the leaning tower of Pisa, but it is currently dangerous and that’s why it has fencing around it. There’s a concern about what might happen if people start clambering around it. It should be one of the city’s best assets, but it’s hardly an inviting sight covered in fencing which effectively says keep out.
“When you’re dealing with a fountain that’s 145 years old it’s not just a case of giving it a lick of paint. It’s going to be a fairly lengthy process, but it should mean it’ll have a life for another 100 years.”
The Ross Development Trust was set up by Mr Springford to pursue his long-standing dream of providing a new bandstand for the gardens.
It emerged last month that seven design teams are in the running for the £25 million project, which also involves the creation of a new indoor visitor centre and cafe-bar overlooking the castle.
The winning design for the project, which attracted 125 entries from 22 countries around the world, will be announced in August. However the work on the fountain is being carried out separately due to its declining condition.
David Ellis, project director at the trust, said: “The fountain is going to have to be taken down piece by piece so that each of them can be cleaned and repaired.
“In the meantime there will be proper a foundation built as it its base just sits on the soil at the moment. It has started to slip by seven or eight degrees and there is actually a danger, with no-one looking after it, that it could actually start to collapse.
“There will also be a water recycling facility built underground in a small shipping container, which will make the fountain much easier to maintain and clean in future.
“The last thing we want to do is spend all this money restoring the fountain only for it to fall back out of working order in the next few years.”
Richard Lewis, culture convener at the city council, said: “The Ross Fountain is one of the most iconic structures in Scotland.
“Over time, it has required maintenance and refurbishment, but is now in need of major conservation and investment. The Ross Development Trust’s support will enable us to do this.
“Restoring the fountain to its former glory is a key part of the trust’s overall plan to enhance and improve the gardens and, while the timescales for conservation are still being finalised, we’re looking forward to seeing the fountain back in working order.”
The fountain has been dogged by technical problems and fears over its condition for the last two decades. A full restoration was carried out by the city council in 2001, but the water was turned off for safety reasons nine years later.