We Dream the Same Dream
This isn’t a tale of two pities. At last! A country house in Ireland not being converted into flats or a hotel or worst of all abandoned? Rather, being returned to its original use? Well, that is a good news story. Ok, it’s a country house historically if not geographically cause it’s plonked in Ballyhackamore, Belfast’s very own East Village, off a busy dual carriageway, but still. Restoration is ongoing – already, correctly detailed skylight windows in the stable block and proper cleaning of the sandstone suggest it’s all going to be terribly smart. Consarc are the architects of its revival. Ormiston House had a narrow escape. Planning permission was granted in 2010 to carve it up into 20 frightful flats. Thank goodness for a knight and madam in shining white armour in the form of the owners of Argento Jewellers. Past distinguished owners include Sir Edward Harland of Harland + Wolff fame.
With a burst of turn of the century optimism, the Northern Ireland Assembly bought Ormiston for a whopping This Boom Will Never Bust £9 million. Late 20th century uses had included a boarding house for nearby Campbell College and a police station. The final sale price to Peter and Ciara Boyle was a few quid over £1 million. Scottish architect David Bryce’s 1860s baronial pile is back in town. A grand 57 square metre staircase hall accessed through north and south lobbies sets the tone. Back of country house essentials such as a pastry kitchen and boot room aren’t forgotten. The four staircases will be put to good use, linking two floors of formal reception rooms, informal entertainment suites and bedrooms to a turreted top floor of two airy eyrie guest rooms.
A smorgasbord of cafés, restaurants and bars now consumes Downtown Ballyhackamore. Highlights include Graze (farm to plate), Il Pirata (Italian tapas), Jasmine (bring your own Indian although a free digestif is served – it’s never dry in Belfast) and Horatio Todd’s (a lively bar cum brasserie named after a dead pharmacist). Belfast prides itself on local chains. Clements (coffee), Greens (pizza), Little Wings (more pizza) and Streat (more coffee) to name a few. The #keepitlocal campaign garners plenty of support. Back in the day, Deanes behind the City Hall was The Place To Go. Chef turned restaurateur Michael Deane’s empire now spans Deanes Meat Locker, Deanes at Queen’s, Deane + Decano, Deanes Deli Bistro, Eipic and Sexy Love Fish. It’s even spawned a tour Dine Around Deanes (‘January to March sold out!’ screams the website).
The greening of East Belfast (not a political pun) continues to grow. New allotments on the Newtownards Road (who would’ve thought?) | East Belfast Mission’s vertical garden clinging to the Skainos Building, also on the Newtownards Road | Comber Greenway – the city’s answer to New York’s High Line. Quick city centre interlude. Still recovering from a driveby sighting of the shocking Waterfront Hall extension (wrong place, wrong shape, wrong materials, plain wrong – see the Ulster Museum for a lesson in How To Extend Well) squashed along the River Lagan, it is joyous to behold the new Queen’s University Library. Designed by Boston architects Shepley Bulfinch in association with local architects Robinson Patterson, it’s pure Ivy League architecture. The buttressed elevations and tapering tower are a suitably dignified addition to the campus.
Down the East Coast to cool Woburn House (no deer, not that Woburn). County Down’s very own Woburn is in the mould of a trio of mid 19th century Italianate villas-on-steroids in Newtownabbey: Seapark House, Carrickfergus (Thomas Jackson designed) | The Abbey in Whiteabbey (a Lanyon special) | Abbeydene in Whiteabbey (‘Jackson’s office or Lanyon’s office? Not without hesitation I vote for the former,’ pondered Charlie Brett in his 1996 guide Buildings of Antrim). Turns out Woburn is by neither of these Irish greats. The house sprung up in the 1860s to the design of John McCurdy of Dublin. Woburn’s tenuous connection to Ormiston is that it’s state owned. It was last used as a training centre for prison officers and now lies bleakly empty. Up to the 1950s, Woburn was the seat of the Pack-Beresfords until death duties necessitated its sale. It would be great to see both buildings even better connected, restored as single houses. That would be one helluva twist.