New tricks for old bricks
CONSERVATION:A trust is rescuing some of Belfast’s standout architectural features, restoring them and finding new purposes for them, writes JANE COYLE
ONE OF BELFAST’S most evocative Victorian landmarks is on the threshold of a major restoration, after lying derelict and unloved for almost 30 years. Carlisle Memorial Methodist Church, which stands at an interface on the edge of north Belfast, was designed in neo-Gothic style by WH Lynn and completed in 1875. It was named after lord Carlisle, viceroy of Ireland, and James Carlisle, the Belfast builder, who constructed it in memory of his son.
Once the heart of a thriving Methodist community, it suffered a body blow when the Westlink motorway was built alongside it in the mid-1960s.
This, together with the outbreak of violence, which had a devastating effect on the area, prompted the sale of the church halls in the late 1970s and the closure of the church in 1982.
For some years, the halls have been used as a cultural centre by the city’s Hindu community, but its once glorious interior has fallen into a sorry state of disrepair and its soaring, ornate spire is garlanded in great swathes of weeds.
Now, help is at hand in the shape of Belfast Buildings Preservation Trust (BBPT), which has just signed the lease on the building, with the long-term aim of turning it into a creative centre for the young people of this socially and economically deprived part of the city.
“It really is in desperate condition, dangerous condition. It’s a monster, but a beautiful monster, which must be rescued,” says the trust’s founder and director Fionnuala Jay-O’Boyle, who recalls writing to Belfast City Council back in 1997 to express her concern at its deterioration.
Derry-born Jay-O’Boyle, whose early ambition was to be an opera singer, was the first woman to be appointed chair of Belfast Civic Trust. During her tenure, she set up – and, through the trust, continues to support – a schools’ debating competition, the theme of which is citizenship and membership of a civic society. They are subjects about which she feels passionately and which fuel the cross-community work of the trust.
A serious fire in 1995 in another Belfast church prompted her to found an organisation whose ethos was, and remains, restoration, regeneration and sustainable re-use.
Speaking in the trust’s headquarters in the restored gate lodge of the Good Shepherd Convent – a small Victorian house, which was once home to a family of 11 – Jay-O’Boyle relives the scenario.
“There was much wailing and wringing of hands at the prospect of losing St Patrick’s Church and its adjoining school in Donegall Street. They did manage to save the church, but the school – the first Catholic school built in Belfast, on what had been the town dump – seemed doomed.
“I called together a group of like-minded people from the Civic Trust and the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society and BBPT was born. We wrested control of the building from the Diocese of Down and Connor and, very pleasingly, in 1997, leased it back to them.”
The renovation cost £1.2 million and now provides premises for the Catholic education authorities, a bookshop and resource centre. The restored “big boys” classroom, once attended by politician Gerry Fitt, comedian Frank Carson and the boxer Rinty Monaghan, is widely used for creative-writing classes and a variety of functions.
The next building to fall under the beady eye of the BBPT was Christchurch, situated between loyalist Sandy Row and republican west Belfast. Built by public subscription for worshippers who did not wish to pay tithes at St Anne’s or St George’s, Jay-O’Boyle describes it as “a church with attitude”. This fine example of late Georgian classicism, designed by Dublin architect William Farrell, counted among its flock another famous architect, Charles Lanyon, and his wife, Helen.
Vacated and deconsecrated in the early 1990s, it had been acquired by the neighbouring Royal Belfast Academical Institution, with a view to erecting a sports hall on the site. But public safety concerns intervened. Now, its splendid £1.4 million reincarnation houses the school library and an IT centre, which is regularly used by people from both local communities.
“Our mission is to combat the widely held notion of a Belfast solution to a Belfast problem, which usually means knock it down,” says Jay-O’Boyle.
“Every project’s solution comes from the building itself. We are about making historic buildings fit for 21st-century purpose. The trust is a living, breathing organisation. We are not twee or fanciful. I firmly believe that if a project is good enough, the money will come. My background is in lobbying and public affairs, about encouraging people to think outside the box.”
Later in the day, she was in London briefing Friends of the BBPT at an event in the House of Lords – “I’ll be telling them about our latest crazy scheme.” Then she was flying to south-west France, where she and her husband have bought a 14th-century artist’s house. “It’s a wreck. It needs major, major work. But we couldn’t resist it.”
As well as acting as brokers to some 50 or 60 projects, the trust is actively involved in a number of ambitious restorations. They include the Convent of Mercy School in the Markets area; the Chapel of the Resurrection, which was the funerary chapel of the wealthy Donegall family; the Throne Hospital; St Joseph’s Church in Sailortown, and the Floral Hall, the art deco ballroom of romance on Cave Hill, which will be restored in partnership with the City Council and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board.
“In the 15 years that the trust has been in place, the climate in the city has changed beyond recognition. It’s much more culturally confident. We offer proof positive that Belfast need never again lose another historic building,” she says.