Signs went up this week on a number of landmark buildings inside the historic Walled City indicating that they had been acquired by the Inner City Trust for development.
Among those earmarked for development is 24 Bishop St, better known as the Northern Counties Club building.
Planning approval and listed building consent to transform the Grade B1 listed building into a 31 bed hotel, restaurant and associated facilities have already been applied for.
If all goes to plan, building work will get underway later this year and a new luxury hotel in the heart of the city centre will open in the summer of 2015.
The proposal to transform the vacant Northern Counties building and associated properties in London Street (the Inner City Trust owns numbers 3 through to 13 London Street and these back onto the Northern Counties building) into a luxury hotel is ambitious and visionary - hallmark characteristics of other successful Trust projects over the past thirty plus years.
Helen Quigley, Managing Director of the Inner City Trust, says the refurbishment of the Northern Counties building will complement the Garden of Reflection and the proposed Textile and Fashion Centre at 31-33 Shipquay St – two of the Trust’s other current projects for the Walled City.
“The overarching strategy for all three projects is to improve the physical, economic and social fabric of the inner city, in keeping with the overall ethos of the Inner City Trust,” she says.
Developing a luxury hotel in the Historic City Conservation Area is seen as an important catalyst for the regeneration of upper Bishop Street and the Cathedral Quarter.
“This part of Bishop Street had been blighted by security installations for more than thirty years and, as a result, there was very little commercial activity in the immediate area,” says Helen. “Like a number of other beautiful historic buildings in the inner city, the Northern Counties building had been lying empty for some time and was in danger of falling into further disrepair.
“This is a prime location. The proposed hotel project will breathe new life into an architecturally important building to restore it to its original grandeur, resulting in a significant boost to the economic and tourism product in the city centre.
“Jobs and training opportunities for traditional building skills will be created during the refurbishment phase and, when the hotel opens next year, there will be further employment and training opportunities. In addition, other city centre businesses will stand to benefit from having a luxury hotel on their door step.”
The Northern Counties building may have seen better times but it is still very easy to conjure up an image of what it would have been like it its heyday, says Helen.
“It’s a very impressive building with a lot of interesting features. I particularly like the sweeping mahogany staircase and the way the light comes flooding though the huge leaded windows at either end of what was the ballroom.
“It’s like stepping back in time and that’s the impression we want to create for our visitors. This will not be just another hotel – it will be something really special: a luxury hotel with an ambience of yesterday but with all the comforts and convenience that visitors would expect in a modern luxury hotel.”
After being shown around the building this week, Environment Minister, Mark H Durkan said he was ‘blown away’ by the potential of the refurbishment project.
“The Inner City Trust are to be congratulated for taking on such a major project which has tremendous potential to boost tourism significantly in the historic inner city,” he said.
“The Trust has a most successful record of helping to protect and preserve our built heritage. I look forward to seeing this magnificent building being brought back to life and restored to its former glory.”
At the turn of the 20th century, when Derry was enjoying an economic boom, the Northern Counties building was remodelled by Alfred Foreman, an architect best known for this flamboyant and quirky décor. It is believed the lavish remodelling in 1902 was the Northern Counties club members’ way of impressing their visitors and showing that ‘they’d arrived’.
Building on the success of Derry’s year as City of Culture, Helen Quigley hopes this latest remodelling of the Northern Counties Building will tell visitors to the historic Walled City that Derry has, indeed, arrived.
The £2 million+ Northern Counties hotel refurbishment is the just part of jigsaw that is the Inner City Trust’s £5 million regeneration of the city centre.
The Trust has secured £784,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund for the project. The Northern Counties building was one of five historic buildings across the UK earmarked to receive funding through the HLF’s new Heritage Enterprise scheme which is designed to bring vacant buildings back into commercial use.
Bishop Mehaffey, chairman of the Inner City Trust, says he is looking forward to seeing the Trust’s plans for the regeneration of the Cathedral Quarter coming to fruition.
“Shortly after I was appointed Bishop in 1980, I was returning home from a meeting in London Street one evening and was struck by how deserted the street was. There was no one about – I could even hear the echo of my own footsteps.
“Today there is vibrancy about this part of the city and the Trust’s proposal to develop the Northern Counties building as a luxury hotel will give the Cathedral Quarter a new lease of life.”