Belfast is full of beautiful buildings and stunning historic properties. But like much of the UK, many heritage properties in the city have fallen into disrepair, neglected due to low funding and lack of use.
Here at Signature Living, our most successful hotels started their Signature journeys in much the same state. From the derelict 30 James Street in Liverpool, to the Exchange Building in Cardiff which was falling apart in front of the city’s eyes, we haven’t been afraid to take on projects that have been called impossible and transform them into usable buildings that preserve the rich heritage and DNA of these landmark properties.
And now we’re doing the same in Belfast, transforming the dilapidated Crumlin Road Courthouse and Scottish Mutual Building into luxurious hotels for everyone to enjoy, while preserving the heritage of the buildings for future generations.
And in anticipation of the future, we thought we would look at some of Belfast’s biggest restoration success stories and discover the preservation projects that have brought the city’s most beautiful and important buildings back to life and into use again…
The Rosetta Cottages
Last year, this row of half derelict cottages represented one of the most important historic sites in Belfast. The tiny, dilapidated homes were some of the oldest buildings in Belfast, built in the 18th century to house saddlers who plied their trade on the nearby road. But for 20 years, they had remained unoccupied, falling into ruin.
Luckily, a housing association took the Rosetta Cottages on last year, with the aim to restore six of the grade 2B listed cottages into homes. Promising to retain the original character of the properties, the cottages have been re-roofed and refurbished, making them fit for two family homes. Original features, including doors and windows, were kept.
The homes will house two families, ensuring that a historic part of Belfast is kept in use for the future, but the history behind them is preserved.
The Tropical Ravine at Belfast Botanic Gardens
A recent restoration project at the city’s Botanical Gardens saw plants estimated to be over 150 years old painstakingly moved between buildings to protect them from construction and the cold.
The Tropical Ravine at the gardens was in such a state of disrepair before the work that it had been closed to the public and the dilapidated structure had begun to threaten its ancient inhabitants.
The building, which dates back to 1887, took three years to restore and cost over £3.8 million. A number of the largest plants in the building were too rooted to be displaced and had to be covered with insulating materials and warmed with portable radiators during the building work.
The restoration required triple glazing to be installed in all the huge windows (and glass roof) of the greenhouse to improve energy efficiency and some of the stunning Victorian features inside the glasshouse to be replaced.
Today, the Tropical Ravine is split over two levels, and visitors can peer down into the ravine at the centuries old plants within. Dripping with ferns and tropical plants, it’s one of the finest and largest fern houses in Europe. If you visit, look out for the endangered Killarney fern and the giant elephant food fern.
St George’s Market
Dating back to the 1890s, St George’s Market is one of the city’s oldest attractions and today its beautiful Victorian structure is a highlight in any tourist visit to Belfast.
The market has had a rich history, and hasn’t just been a place to buy your apples and pears. During the blitz of World War II, the building was used as an emergency mortuary, with approximately 255 bodies brought into its hall for identification.
But in the 1980s, the stunning property had fallen into a state of disrepair. Developed into a general market, it became increasingly pressured with rising maintenance costs and changes to regulations around food selling.
Hoping to save Belfast’s last surviving Victorian market, the City council launched a campaign which resulted in a £3.5 million refurbishment programme, backed by Heritage Lottery Fund. The restoration included replenishing deteriorated brick and stonework and renovating the interiors to reinstate the hall’s elegant Victorian character. The market reopened its doors on 14 May 1999.
Today, St George’s is still thriving and has won a number of recent awards, including Best Large Indoor Food Market 2014 and taking third place in the Observer Food Monthly Awards for best market in the UK in 2004.
The Crown Liquor Saloon
The Crown Liquor Saloon might have still been a working pub when the National Trust started a refurbishment after purchasing it in 1978, but it was in dire need of some attention.
The burden of history had begun to show in the Victorian Gothic extravagance, with years of bombings and plenty of indoor smoking taking its toll on the beautiful pub.
One of Belfast’s best known drinking holes, its elaborate design was first installed in 1885. The owner Michael Flanagan persuaded Italian craftsman, who were working on many new churches being built in the city at the time to help out refurbishing the pub after hours.
Hence, the interior of the Crown is surprisingly ecclesiastical in style with ornate mosaics, highly decorated ceilings, stained glass windows and 10 private ‘snugs’ which somewhat resemble confession boxes.
By 1978, however, the stunning interior of the pub had suffered with time. The bar might be Belfast’s most famous, but it’s also the most bombed. Sitting directly opposite the infamous Europa hotel, it suffered much collateral damage over the years. And with age comes overuse – ailing tiles, gaps in the ceiling, furnishings coated in decades worth of nicotine and tar.
Luckily, the National Trust stepped in. Three years after buying the property in 1978, they had completed a £400,000 renovation restoring the bar to its original Victorian state. And rather than ending the years of service as a public house in the name of preservation, the Trust reopened the Crown’s doors, ensuring a national treasure continued its important role in the community.
Today, the Grade A listed building is still owned by the Trust, but run as a Nicholson’s Pub by brewery Mitchells & Butlers. A second restoration took place in 2007 at the cost of £500,000, cementing the bar as a must-visit tourist attraction in the city and an architectural gem in Belfast.
This former warehouse on Ann Street stored the products manufactured by Musgrave Foundry for nearly 100 years. From nails to girders, the magnificent brick building on the edge of the Lagan, served as the warehouse of all Belfast’s ironware and steel stock supplies.
Built in 1865, the Grade B1 listed building has also been used as a store space for the Police Authority for Northern Ireland during the troubles, but lay unused for many years into this century.
However, following a number of successful pop-up concepts inside the shell of the building – which showed the potential for the hulking warehouse – it was recently announced that the property will be transformed into an art gallery by a restoration specialist company.
The fund is planning to restore the beautiful Victorian façade, along with the interior cast iron galleries and glazed atrium, to create an arts venue for the city. The Royal Ulster Academy, which has partnered the fund, has announced that the gallery will showcase work by Northern Irish artists past and present, as well as hosting the country’s largest annual art exhibition.
The Titanic Quarter
Visiting Belfast’s tourist hotspot of The Titanic Quarter today, it’s difficult to believe that the area was an ailing, empty dockyard only a few decades ago. The waterfront regeneration has transformed the area into a leading attraction for the city and an incredible working monument to the city’s history of ship building.
Operating as a maritime construction site as far back as the late 1700s, the area, previously known as Queen’s Island, has been home to the renowned Harland and Wolff shipbuilders since 1854. The company, which still operate in the area today (you can spot their two twin gantry cranes Samson and Goliath on the Belfast skyline), eventually reduced it’s property holdings as cruise-lining reduced in popularity and the area began to decline.
But at the turn of the century, Belfast was looking to improve it’s tourist attractions. Over 185 acres of land was redeveloped during the creation of Titanic Quarter, which aimed to reflect the achievements of the past while planning for the future of Belfast. Key restoration projects included the preservation of the dry-dock where Titanic and her sister ships were built, and the re-innovation of the Titanic slipways. The crumbling drawing offices of Harland & Wolff (RMS Titanic’s builders) were redeveloped into a boutique hotel, while unused brown-field sites saw the building of over 470 apartments with 5,000 more homes proposed in the next 15 years.
Today, over half a million visitors are estimated to visit the Titanic museum in the area alone and the gigantic slipways have become Belfast’s most sort after outdoor venue, hosting an MTV concert, one of the world’s largest ever firework shows and the fan-zone during Ireland’s Euro 2017 journey.
The restoration of the area has kick-started Belfast’s newly found tourist destination status and ensured that the history of shipbuilding is preserved for future generations.
Crumlin Road Courthouse
Crumlin Road Courthouse might be one of Belfast’s most iconic buildings, but for nearly 20 years it’s been an undeniable eyesore in the city.
Growing more derelict by the day, the rich history and important heritage of the building was in danger of being lost under the jungle of plants growing throughout the dilapidated property and the ominous possibility that the roof would fall in.
But last year, Signature Living bought the property and has laid out plans to restore the Courthouse to its former glory as The Crum – a luxury hotel, restaurant and events venue in the heart of Belfast. Equipped with experience preserving historic buildings in Liverpool and Cardiff, we will be putting all our skills to the test in pulling Crumlin Road Courthouse back from the brink of irreversible damage.
The courthouse has been the sight of some of the most important criminal trials in Northern Ireland’s history: within its walls are over a century of heritage that we can’t let rot away.
Our plan is to sensitively preserve the building, and its rich stories of the past, while ensuring the stunning building designed by Charles Lanyon is restored for generations into the future.
We can’t wait to reopen the doors of this landmark in Belfast, and complete another amazing restoration project in this beautiful city. For news and information about our progress, make sure you’re following our Facebook Page.