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Muddy wellies, dust and dirt: painstaking restoration of east Belfast landmark is nominated for prestigious heritage award

The newly restored Ormiston House, which was once owned by Sir Edward Harland, has been shortlisted for a Heritage Angel Award
Beulah-Anne Sinton

Great architecture is not only impressive to behold, it provides us with a living history and a sense of place. As such it’s crucial that buildings are preserved, restored to their former glory and living and breathing for future generations to enjoy. 

Anyone who has watched Grand Designs, Escape to the Chateaux or one of a plethora of these programmes will know that it takes a brave soul to embark on a big renovation project and when it’s also of historical and cultural significance, they ought to be commended. 

Husband and wife Peter Boyle and Ciara Denvir now find themselves in that exact position having been nominated for a prestigious Heritage Angel Award.

The ambitious duo regularly walked past 19th Century Ormiston House in east Belfast with their children and family dog. Without ever giving it much thought they would sometimes say to each other “imagine restoring that and living there”.

“However one day that silly joke we used to make became a reality”, explains Ciara. 

They bought Ormiston House four years ago from the Stormont Assembly. It bought the Grade B listed building in 2001 to provide extra office accommodation for the assembly but the property was later deemed unsuitable. The house remained unused. 

Previous to that it was owned by the Police Authority, the predecessor of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, and in a former guise it also housed boarders of Campbell College for almost 50 years.

Ciara enthuses that “Many people in Belfast have some connection to this house”.

“It was built in 1867, when industry in Belfast was booming, and some of its many inhabitants included shipbuilder Sir Edward Harland and the man behind the Titanic - Lord William Pirrie,” she adds.

However the property lay vacant for some 20 years before Ciara, a barrister and her husband Peter, who owns Argento jewellers and the recently opened Let’s Go Hydro, seized the opportunity to acquire it. 

“We knew from the outset this was never going to be easy, but we both agreed that we were prepared to take on this challenge and see it through to the finish," explains Ciara.

Dedication and determination persevered and the family have realised their dream home while also saving a historically and culturally important building, not to mention a truly beautiful one. 

The name really does say it all as the Heritage Angel Awards seek to recognise the efforts of people like Ciara and Peter who go above and beyond to save these types of buildings. They were approached by the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society and asked to put the house forward.

Peter and Ciara have been shortlisted in the Best Major Regeneration of an Historic Building or Place category and if they win the public vote will be invited, with four other category winners from here, to the Historic England Angel Awards in November where the overall UK winner will be announced. 

Winners from each country will be judged by Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose Foundation supports the Heritage Angel Awards here, and a judge from Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales.

Ciara says: “To be mentioned in this category is an absolute honour.

“We have always had the urge to restore an old building. To have got the opportunity to restore Ormiston, was above and beyond anything we could have hoped for. This is a really important building in terms of the city’s architecture, culture and history.

“It was a labour of love. We took on this momentous task entirely by ourselves. For three years we lived in muddy wellies, dust and dirt.

“Most of our days were spent on site and when the workmen headed home for the day, Pete and I headed back there to check the progress and talk things over.”

Anyone who has ever undertaken a restoration project will know that it’s not for the fainthearted and the painstaking work is usually harder than it would be to just tear the whole thing down and start from scratch.

However Ciara and Peter were determined to preserve as much of the fabric of the building, as possible.

“The house was built by Scottish architect David Bryce in a Scottish Baronial style and is a completely unique house in Ireland,” explains Ciara.

“David Bryce was renowned for designing the Bank of Scotland in Edinburgh but there are few, if any, examples of his smaller houses left.

“It was built for a Scotsman, by a Scotsman, and even the materials were shipped in from Scotland including Giffnock Sandstone and Cumberland Green slates.”

Almost 150 years later when Ciara and Peter came on the scene the intricate roof was failing from the collection of years of leaves and debris and the windows were boarded up. There was significant water ingress a rampant spread of both dry and wet rot. Parts of the building were condemned meaning they could not even look inside. It had also suffered significant vandalism.

Ciara explains the joy at pulling the boards off the windows on the day they were handed the keys.

“What saved the building from collapse was that the original owner, James Combe for whom the house was built, was an iron founder and he had used iron heads in the structure of the house, rather than timber.

“We set up our own construction team, headed by our in-house architect Donna Collins so that we could take our own angle and our own time is doing the house to the exacting standards it deserved.

“I cant even begin to explain what a difficult task we had. Despite the rot, we did our utmost to save as much of the internal fabric as was humanly possible. One of the most difficult tasks was saving the ornate ceilings, where the beams above had rotted. It was an extremely tricky and worrying process.

"We restored half-rotted windows rather than replace them, missing ironmongery was cast using original methods and anything that could be salvaged was taken out meticulously, stored and later put back into the house in some way.”

Ciara says that they were determined to preserve and reuse what they could and she gives the example of original wooden tiling in the drawing room, which was assessed and repaired piece-by-piece for use elsewhere in the home. That’s before mentioning the 13 acre grounds which to call a mere landscaping project was “an understatement”.

“The house was surrounded by a ring of razor wire and weathered tarmac. The gardens had become institutionalised and overgrown. It was like taming a jungle but we managed to save the beautiful mature trees and nurture them back to their former glory.”

Good things go to those who wait and after two and a half years, the family moved in.

“It was just wonderful when we moved in last year and even more poignant as it was some 150 years since the house was first inhabited,” adds Ciara.

For more information on the awards, nominees and to vote, go online at www.ulsterarchitecturalheritage.org.uk

Voting closes on Friday October 19.

 

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