A spectacularly refurbished Artillery Chambers building has breathed fresh life into London Street while retaining all of its original charm. In this article, IAN CULLEN explores how the Georgian building’s rehabilitation sets a prime example for the overall regeneration of Derry.
The careful regeneration of Artillery Chambers - while ensuring that the 1870s structure retained its rich heritage - was far from easy. Even a ghost from Derry’s turbulent past turned up to slow down the work when builder’s made the grisly discovery of a skeleton dating from the time of the Great Siege of Derry.
However, the work was completed and the end product is proving to be a catalyst in the regeneration of the historic London Street area - just yards from Derry’s Walls and other key historic buildings such as St Columb’s Cathedral and the Playhouse (formerly a convent). The end result has no doubt turned many heads in recent times while also being publicly praised by Derry City Council and the Executive.
When the senior partner at Caldwell and Robinson, Philip Gilliland, began thinking about the location of a new home for the business after 97 years at Castle Street, he took little time in making a decision. “I knew right away, when I looked at the three derelict buildings at the top of Artillery Street [London Street junction], I said: ‘that’s the place’.”
But it is was to take much more than little work and a small bank balance to breath fresh life into the Georgian building.
The buildings were in a terrible state of disrepair but together they would be an ideal new home for one of the North’s leading and most established law firms. “We needed 3,000 square feet of office space on one floor and I knew the buildings would be perfect for that. Caldwell and Robinson had been based in Castle Street for 97 years and the company had very much outgrown the old building which had been damaged by a number of bombs during the 1970s.”
In taking on the Artillery St project, Mr Gilliland was keen to ensure the survival of as much of the original building as possible. “It would have been much cheaper to demolish the building and rebuild a replica but we didn’t do that for two main reasons: first of all you can’t rebuild character and second, to a lesser extent, we would need planning permission to demolish it. I became passionate about it and now to see a part of old Derry brought back to life is great. You need only to look at Artillery Street now to see what can be done to protect the city’s built heritage. You can’t simply rebuild a building with such character.”
The Department of Social Development also helped to protect charm of the old building through urban development grant assistance. “The grant did exactly what it was designed to do in the case our building - it did its job well and that’s certainly in the public interest. The grant paid for the difference between a new build and rehabilitation of the old building and so ensured its protection.”
And there was a certain degree of unexpected expense - not least the finding of a Siege skeleton in the foundation of the building. “We had a archaeologist working on site throughout the process and so the skeleton was carefully removed and preserved.” But the find was far from normal, as Mr Gilliland explained. “The skeleton was not found in a traditional configuration, it was more in a packaged up form. It had obviously been dug up and re-interred by a builder who constructed the buildings in the 1870s - or even the preceding buildings a hundred years earlier - to avoid any hooh-ha.”
Unlike the unfortunate individual found in the foundations, the building has retained many of its striking features including sliding sash hardwood Georgian style windows to the front/side elevation, feature brick fireplaces and exposed brickwork interior feature walls.
The rehabilitation of the building, along with the prior refurbishment of the Playhouse building, has set the scene for the rehabilitation of Artillery St and the London St area and is no doubt seen by many in the city as a prime example of how to regenerate a city with heritage as rich as Derry’s.
Mr Gilliland said the move reflected his firm’s long association with the city. “Caldwell and Robinson is now 102 years old and this move is a firm statement of our investment in the future fabric of the city. It would have been easy for us to move outside the city Walls but we always want to be inside the city. We wanted our building to reflect and embody our values of marrying heritage with modernity and confidence. And I think the building has answered magnificently.”
Caldwell and Robinson now occupy the first floor of the building but the ground and top floors remain vacant. However, such is the aesthetic draw of the rehabilitated 19th century building that the newly launched Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) Derry~Londonderry is to make its home on the ground floor later this year. Aileen Burns, co-director of the organisation previously known as the Context Gallery - which has been based at the nearby Playhouse for 20 years - said the building will meet the gallery’s needs in every way. “We think it is fantastic for the CCA with its great combination of domestic-type front and open warehouse space to the rear where we will have two gallery spaces.”
Speaking at the time of the refurbishment of Artillery Chambers, then DSD Minister Margaret Ritchie said the building “is an important part of the fabric of the city”.