No end in sight for Egyptian Halls saga

It’s not quite pitch black but the sign on the first-floor landing of the Egyptian Halls in Glasgow is still very nearly impossible to read. 

One word is clear: Palace. Another, under decades of grime, is illegible until Derek Souter shines his torch on it. “It says ‘New’,” he explains. “This was a Chinese restaurant.”

The businessman, effectively one of three owners of this city landmark, had just rolled up a graffitied shutter, unlocked a steel security door and gingerly climbed an unlit flight of steps.

“It’s beautiful, this building,” he keeps repeating. But the Egyptian Halls – designed by Alexander “Greek” Thomson and first opened as a commercial base for an iron magnate 1872 – are also dying.

What is left of the New Palace – some records suggest it was also called China Palace – is more like archaeological dig than an abandoned eatery. 

Shafts of light shine through windows still painted with the Chinese characters of its name. Like laser pointers they pick out the room’s architectural and design features: torn scraps of flock velvet burgundy wallpaper; mirrored columns; and exposed lath-and-plaster walls.

At the rear, in what was once kitchens, there is a stack of the old restaurant’s bulbous 1970s light fittings. They look like Greek amphorae. 

Amid the broken glass, the heaps of rotten, powdered plaster and the piles of timber there are abandoned tools, at least two rusted saws.

But repairs never happen, not substantive ones anyway. No-one has raised the money to do them. Last week, Mr Souter was warned he would shortly be issued with a defective building notice – the latest in a seemingly endless series of twists and turns in the story of the Egyptian Halls. 

The building is historic but so too now is the bureaucratic and political saga over attempts to save it. 

Rescue package

THE Halls have stood on Union Street, right opposite Central Station, Scotland’s busiest, for a century-and-a-half. For the last four decades or so – ever since the New Palace and other tenants moved out – its upper storeys have been empty.

Mr Souter, 61, and his two business partners have been trying to put together a rescue package for half that time. 

READ MORE: Egyptian Halls fake facade unravels.

He says he has been in contact with no fewer than 250 public officials and politicians since he first became involved around the turn of the century. He has dealt with several generations of civic leaders, planning and regeneration staffers as he aims to get public money to make redevelopment viable.

The cost of that has ticked up over the years. A website run by Mr Souter’s development firms now puts the commercial deficit at £30 million. However, the businessman declined to go into any further details, saying he believed a new, fifth planning application was “in the pipeline”.

As recently as 2011, there was talk of demolition. The Egyptian Halls’ classic facade – with Greek rather than Egyptian-style columns – has been covered with scaffolding and a protective membrane for more than a decade. Last year, Europa Nostra named it as one of the continent’s 14 most at-risk historic buildings. 

Various schemes have been mooted to turn the building’s upper street into a hotel and to regenerate the ground floor. But relations with local authorities have soured. Mr Souter’s website pins the blame for delays on the council. 

He has a specific gripe which stems from some of the legal complexity surrounding a compulsory purchase order of the building back in the 1990s.

Mr Souter says he was not made aware of a change in the terms of the CPO before he and his partners bought the property. The change, Mr Souter argues, gave a previous owner time to seek compensation and caused a delay to transferring the title to Mr Souter’s companies.

Council’s denial

WHEN this grievance was aired in 2018, Glasgow City Council denied “allegations of misrepresentation and impropriety”. A spokesman added: “Rather than returning to issues from the 1990s, it may be better if the building’s owners join 

with us in a co-operative manner to ensure the preservation and regeneration of this historic building.”

Mr Souter’s website suggests he is now ready to reset relations with the council.

 “The past should not influence how we get to a solution,” it declares. “There is a phenomenal potential to be realised. We need to get a balance of commercial funding and grant funding combined with projected valuation and income uplifts if we take a 10, 15, 20, 25-year perspective. 

“And then assess this financial information with the up-to-date structural position given the Upper Floors have been vacant since 1980, an astonishing 40 years ago and the efforts of the heritage stakeholders.”

Last year, as the Black Lives Matter protests welled in America and the UK, calls again mounted for Glasgow to have a Slavery Museum. The Egyptian Halls was mooted as a potential site for this though the building has no actual connection with trafficking or profiteering from trafficked people.

That, Mr Souter’s website contends, might help plug the deficit. “There is now the option of the Museum of Slavery concept, which would deliver significant tourism, cultural and educational benefits as well as probably unlock non- commercial sources of funding,” it says.

READ MORE: Egyptian Halls revival could cost up to £30m

“And which, from Susan Aitken, Glasgow City Council leader, has found traction reiterating the council’s support for either a standalone museum or a permanent exhibition dedicated to slavery and empire.”

‘Not giving up’

SPEAKING to The Herald on Sunday, Mr Souter struck a diplomatic but determined tone. “Do I love the building? Definitely. We’ve not spent 23 years trying to achieve the original objective to give up now when we believe a solution can be facilitated if everybody lowers the temperature to pragmatic levels.”

Council officials, meanwhile, want to see concrete plans and meaningful action.

The building’s design is very unusual and vulnerable. Its iron frame (“it’s like Meccano, says Souter) has been exposed. Signs warn visitors – who enter at their own risk and only in safety helmets – that the floors held up by the metal are now dangerous.

But the Egyptian Halls are not just important on their own account. This is an anchor building on a street that many city insiders say could be one of Scotland’s finest.

An official spokesman for the local authority this weekend said: “The Egyptian Halls are undoubtedly an important part of both Glasgow’s cultural heritage and its urban fabric.
“Council officers have worked with the owners, over a number of years, to support the appropriate development of the building in order that it can be enjoyed by future generations.

“However, we have yet to see proposals that address the condition of the building and, as a result, we have informed the owner that we will be issuing a notice in the coming weeks.”

Souter travels from his native Dundee to the building every week, to check in with the ground-floor retail tenants. Above the shops, the only residents are pigeons in its attic floor.

On the final landing of the Egyptian Halls, somebody has put two Marigold gloves on broom handles, waving to anyone who makes it in to what was once seen as a Thomson masterpiece. 

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