First phase of restoration nears completion at Old Cathedral School

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One of the city’s most picturesque historic buildings, the Old Cathedral School, is half-way through an imaginative £2.9 million restoration project.

The first phase of the work, which has saved the building from crumbling, is complete, with a new roof and every brick re-mortared.

Eventually the red brick structure will house a cafe, interpretive centre and community and business space, but for now, the shall is being slowly dried out - a process that will take upwards of 15 months.

At one stage the prospects were very bleak for the old school, but administrator Robert McGonigle, who has been closely involved in the restoration process, says he is encouraged and delighted with the work so far.

The brickwork and the roof had to be extensively restored. The mortar joints for all the brickwork had to be scraped out and replaced. Close examination of the face of the building will show that a number of new bricks have had to be inserted into the facade of the building, where parts of the building were falling apart.

A lot of the slates had been removed and some of the internal structure, so, while there was not a hold in the roof, there was enough that there was nothing protecting it and eventually the water seeped through. For anyone standing inside the building it almost felt like it was raining.

Spick and span: The front facade of the Old Cathedral School. Photo: Robert McGonigle.

Spick and span: The front facade of the Old Cathedral School. Photo: Robert McGonigle.

“The roof itself, when the contract started last September, was partially open to the elements and that is what caused all the damage to the roof. It is now completely restored and there is a new roof on it,” said Robert.

“Twenty per cent of the slates were salvaged; that was one of the conditions that we had to meet, that we had to salvage as much of the slates had to be salvages, as well as the rest of the building as far as possible. So that was done and part of the roof at the back is where the older slates were replaced again. The rest is completely new Bangor blue slate and restored to a very very high standard.

The three chimneys at the back were virtually rebuilt, according to Robert.

“This was done using old photographs taken about a year ago it was quite difficult even to identify any of the chimneys,” he said.

Grateful to all the funders as well as the contractors, Robert said there had been some hiccups a number of years ago, which, thankfully were overcome, allowing the restoration to move forward.

Woodvale were the original contractors on the site and work was done to ensure the original contract and the design team were retained to ensure the integrity

and vision of the project, which has cost £1.4 million so far.

With the legal hurdles overcome, the project team were able to retain the cocktail of funding that they had secured from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, now Tourism NI.

“We were successful in that. It was a long, long task and at some stages we really felt we were not going to make it and thought the building might fall down and wondered ‘where to we go from here’. It really was as bad as that.

“We eventually got everything signed up in or about July, 2014, and we got Woodvale Construction back on site in September 2014. They completed and handed it back to us on August 29. We are all very proud and delighted,” Robert said.

Historically the building was used as a school by the Cathedral; There were a number of schools around the city and this was one of the ‘Cathedral Schools’ used by various churches and this was the one that was in the Cathedral’s ownership, and was used as a school up until the 90s according to Robert, although he is not sure of the exact date that it ceased to operate as a place of academic education.

The Verbal Arts Centre took the building over for a time, but those offices and businesses have decanted back to their home now on the City Walls.

Laterally, North West Regional College took the building over for a number of years and after that the building passed back into the hands of the Cathedral.

“At that stage it had become run down and we knew we would have to do something,” said Robert.

Walking into the building from the Cathedral car park, the first room downstairs is what will eventually be the ‘community’ space where Sunday School will take place and which will be rented out to the public.

At the minute the entire insides of the building have been taken back to the very brick outer shell in a bid to rid the building of water damage. The newly mortared red brick looks remarkably well though. There is no floor and looking up there are gaps in the ceiling which offer an unobstructed view of the new roof.

“We have a 15-month to 18-month drying time. I look around this building and it is something just completely different from 12 months ago. Other people will look at it differently, but I can see that it has already started to dry out, but it still has a huge amount of drying out to do within the brickwork and within the rest of the fabric.”

Even it the money was available right now, the Cathedral School project team would not be able to move forward as they will have to wait until the building has completely dried out. Only at that stage will the second phase of the restoration project, the internal refurbishment, get underway.

“The idea is that, hopefully, we will sign up with the National Trust and they will take on finding the money and procuring the contract and the design team.

The first phase was a cocktail of funding, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and the Heritage Lottery Fund. On this element of the project so far we have spent £1.4 million, but it an absolutely beautiful building and I know whenever the National Trust first became interested, and they have been in and out to see it, and they loved it then and I can’t wait for them to come back and see it since we have taken it over; I’m so impressed I just cannot believe what this looks like already.

Asked if he thought the success of the £4 million refurbishment of St Columb’s Cathedral, nextdoor, was a trigger for the green light being given to the restoration of the Old School, Robert said: “It was. The funding was already in place, but the funding that was in place for this building was actually less than the eventual cost of this project, I think it was about £1.25 million. That was a complete fit out at that time, but then, when the building was left to the elements we faced an additional cost of about £1.2 million in dilapidation, in damage to the building and that had to be found. That would have meant the whole project would have been finished in £2.5 million or more, but that wasn’t going to happen, so it was agreed to do it in two phases. This is the end of the first phase, £1.45 million. What’s the cost of the next phase to fit it out? I would imagine it is going to be something similar. Maybe optimistically the second phase will be finished by 2018.”

Giving an overview of the vision of what will be contained in the finished buildings, Robert said a lot of the original character of the building will be replicated, including the old spiral staircase in the round tower, while the upstairs area adjacent to the City Walls will be a cafe, possibly themed on Ceceil Frances Alexander, leading to an interpretive centre.

The interpretive centre will be continued downstairs, combined with a reception desk and foyer area. The community benefit aspect of the building will be the large hall that opens out onto the car park, which will be used for Sunday School, overspill from the Cathedral and for tea and as a social space after big events, for conferences and seminars.

“A lot of people who came here to the school and a lot of people in the Cathedral, the one thing they ask is ‘Is the old staircase still there?’ The old staircase isn’t there because it suffered so much water damage, but we have retained the bannister and we also newells of the staircase, which will be inserted into the rebuilt stairs.

“The project will contain a community benefit and a visitor benefit and to a certain extent, a business benefit as well.”