Great James Street church becoming the cultural and music destination of choice

The former Presbyterian Church and Manse at Great James Street is slowly morphing into a music and cultural hot spot.

Much has been made, both good and bad, of the UK City of Culture 2013 legacy and it is fascinating to occasionally happen upon inspirational and creative thinking that results in surprising outcomes with the potential to be hugely positive, culturally and economically.

One of those imaginative ideas is the three-phase rescuing and re-purposing of the former Presbyterian Manse, which dates back to 1837 and closed in 1982 and church on Great James Street, where £2.5 million is being ploughed into the two historic and architecturally important buildings for the benefit of generations to come. The final outcome will be a music and culture hub that will add a new dimension to the city - already famed the world over for its immense wealth of arts and music output.

The first phase of the project - a £500,000 restoration of the Manse, providing a suite of music rooms that are open to use by groups, organisations, schools, the public, teachers, whoever, has been completed to a high standard.

The second and third phases are a little more challenging perhaps, but no less important, as it will see the church building itself brought back into regular use, resonating with music, with a nod to it’s architectural and spiritual past, but with a future as a cultural and music venue of exceptional qualities, open to all. The next phase will be a glass block ‘link building’ which will integrate the two church buildings to the Culturlann Ui Chanain complex next door.

On a tour of the two old buildings with Eibhlin Ni Dohochartaigh, arts director of an Culturalnn and marketing officer Odhran Mullan, I am given an overview of the life Great James Street Presbyterian Church, which dates back to 1837 and closed in 1982, the congregation moving to Kilfennan Presbyterian Church in the Waterside.

“After the church closed in 1982 the building was used for different purposes,” said Eibhlin.

“I remember the library was here before it moved into the purpose-built library on Foyle Street. But it was here for a number of years and had been transformed into a library. They used both floors of the church and as you go through the building you can still see some of the changes they made. There are stairways and a lift, so the building was re-profiled for the purpose that it was used for at that time. The basement was actually the Irish section of the library.

“Then it was bought by private owners and you can see it on the sign outside, that it is actually referred to as The Glassworks, because there was a company here that actually made stained glass and did a lot of work with schools and churches that had stained glass. So, they were there for a number of years and the building was sold on again to private developers and there were plans to turn it into a boutique hotel and restaurant.

“The economic downturn effected it and those plans never actually went through, so it was rented out for a time,” she said.

Over time, however the building suffered and the elements took its toll.

When An Culturlann took the buildings over and the building was one of the focal points of the Fleadh in 2013, the building was appraised in terms of legacy from the City of Culture and the Fleadh.

“We looked at the Manse adjoining the Culturlann building as a potential home for a music academy and we ended up buying the two buildings. The Manse has been fully restored and is up and running now as a school of music. The Manse was in worse condition than the church.

“The Foyle Language School was here for a number of years but the building lay vacant for 10 years, so it was exposed to the elements and was just one step away from having to be demolished, so it was timely that we did come along and secure funding to restore it. We had to take it back to the bare brick,” said Eibhlin.

Inside the building the only visible remainder of the original internal wood is on the top floor, where an exposed roof beam has been left exposed. The ravages it has had to endure are etched into its distressed surface.

“Although it is restored and meets modern compliance standards, we restored it in compliance with its status as a listed building,” said Eibhlin, who revealed that they even had to comply with strict rules about how they treated and painted the outside of the building, so that the aesthetic of the building was not compromised. Such attention to detail also put pressure on the restoration budget.

“We were very lucky in having builders that were spot on. We didn’t foresee that we would have to put in a new roof and comply with that in terms of the Bangor Blue slates, so, somewhere along the build that came into the mix that we had to do that. So, that was a bit of an extra cost.”

Asked how she felt about how the project was shaping up, Eibhlin said she felt really proud.

“Not only do we have two brilliant venues and creating a culture complex here, but we are actually rescuing two buildings that were listed buildings and might not have been here for the future.”

Eibhlin said she was also proud of the fact that in rescuing the buildings they were also preserving a little bit of the music culture for which the city is famed, albeit in a different vein.

“The second phase is the glass link block. There are things we cannot do to the exterior of the buildings, so the glass link block will mean we can access the buildings as a complex,” she said.