Derry’s disappearing heritage

This neglected building on Carlisle Road was demolished some years ago to facilitate redevelopment. It remains a gap site.
This neglected building on Carlisle Road was demolished some years ago to facilitate redevelopment. It remains a gap site.

It was a miracle that the building collapse at Kennedy Place on Friday morning did not result in any injuries, given that it’s located in a residential area, close to a playgroup and primary school and located in streets much used for parking by city centre workers.

Quite rightly, a city councillor has called for an audit of all derelict buildings across the district.

However, I hope that this audit will not result in a further cull of Derry’s already depleted stock of historic buildings.

The Ulster Architectural Heritage Society (UAHS) will launch its publication ‘City of Derry. A Historical Gazetteer to the Buildings of Londonderry’ this Thursday evening in the Verbal Arts Centre.

It will be interesting to contrast this inventory with its predecessor published in 1970.

In the intervening 40 years, so many of the buildings and streetscapes that made Derry “Ireland’s Historic Walled City” have gone. What is really sad is that, whilst the pace of change has slowed in the last decade, the annual trickle of demolitions continues and many local landmark buildings remain on the NI Buildings at Risk Register until past the point of rescue.

Obviously, there will be an official investigation into why the Kennedy Place building collapsed.

However, speaking generally, old buildings do not collapse because they are old.

They usually collapse because they have become unloved and uncared for.

If they are not properly used and maintained, any derelict building, old or modern, will become a hazard.

I wonder if the day will come soon when a visitor sues the city for misrepresentation under the Trades Description Act.

We market our city as “historic”. and we invite visitors to walk Derry’s “medieval cobbled streets”.

Yet, even within the City Walls, much of the area is covered by post-1970 buildings and gap sites. Preserving the remaining historic fabric of Derry is not just important for tourism. Industrialists hoping to attract and retain skilled workers like cities which are in themselves attractive.

People like to work, live and study in cities which have character and which are distinctive.

The author of the UAHS Derry Gazetteer, Dan Calley, is quoted as saying: “The greatest inspiration for this volume is the city itself.

“Its many steep streets, usually with Foyle views, walls mixture of styles and periods, and use of native materials, notably the beautiful combination of schist and Dungiven sandstone, create a unique setting of international importance.

“This precious legacy is a fragile one.

“Every time a building is demolished, a plastic framed window inserted, a cast iron lamppost cut from the ground, or a garden is built upon, a tiny unique thread is rent from the city’s fabric, forever lost.”

But all is not lost.

There is great work going in the City and District. Derry City Council is using the DOE’s £500,000 environmental improvement scheme to great effect. Even though the scheme is largely cosmetic, it should have a long-term impact, as you can see with work completed on the factory at the bottom of Abercorn Road where the regularity of the trompe-l’œil painted windows and doors brings back a coherence and vitality to the derelict building and demonstrates the building’s future potential.

The Foyle Civic Trust’s Walled City Partnership is working wonders with the Heritage Lottery funded Townscape Heritage Initiative on commercial buildings within the Waterloo Street/Shipquay Street quadrant of the City Centre’s Conservation Area.

Now that work is underway on the “Wee Nuns School”, the NITB, DOE and Heritage Lottery-funded Walled City Built Heritage Programme will be soon completed, fully conserving and restoring the main community-owned cultural tourism attractions in and around the City Walls.

But the collapse of the Kennedy Street building is a timely reminder that there is much more work to be done, and at an accelerated pace, if we are to halt the erosion of the very building stock which makes Derry an historic city.

In addition to an audit of derelict buildings, the City Council and DOE Environment could at the same time examine the reasons why so many buildings have become derelict and to find solutions to make these buildings used and cared for once again.

The city’s architectural heritage needs an official champion, someone who is able to be guide policy from within the public sector and, at the same time, is able to develop and implement solutions to prevent buildings going into dereliction.

In its current reorganisation, city councillors might consider the merits of appointing a development-focused conservation architect to work at the ‘coal-face’ with property owners and community-base heritage groups.

Forty years from now, let those writing the 2053 UAHS Derry Gazetteer write: “Legacy intact”.

n Mark Lusby is co-ordinating the City Walls Heritage Project for the Holywell Trust.