Northern Counties re-visited

As Derry's regeneration continues, one ambitious city centre project perfectly underscores this potential for change.

The majestic Northern Counties Hotel in Waterloo Place has lied neglected for years - until now. Thanks to the vision of the Townscape Heritage Initiative and the dedication of acclaimed local architect Peter Tracey, this opulent building has been restored to its former glory, ready to meet the demands of a changing city and another hundred years of use as state-of-the-art shop office space. In this article, Peter gives a fascinating insight into a project which has breathed new life into this stunning city centre building.

In 2002, 100 years after it was first built, John Doran, the owner of the Northern Counties Hotel (NCH) building in Waterloo Place, was approached by members of the Townscape Heritage Initiative (THI) to see whether he would be interested in taking on a refurbishment project to safeguard the building's future and prevent it from suffering from the same fate as the recently-demolished Tillie and Henderson Factory. The NCH is the largest refurbishment project in the THI's phased programme of refurbishment and restoration of historic buildings in the vicinity of the Walled City.

I had just finished the refurbishment of the old Strand Building (known locally as "The Tech") which dated from the same era as the Northern Counties. I was involved in another of the THI's scheme – the refurbishment of three buildings in Castle Gate/Waterloo Street - so I was delighted when John Doran called at the office to ask me to undertake the refurbishment works.

During my research of the building, the old photographs showed the NCH was a handsome, prominent building in a very civic setting in Waterloo Place with the neo-classical Ulster Bank opposite, the Northern Bank adjacent and the sturdy architecture of the GPO and surrounding shops and pubs. Horse and carts, trams, buses and bunting all added to the evidence that Waterloo Place, with its proximity to the river and docks business, was 'the' shopping centre of the city.

It was built for a Mrs Gibson, a docks merchant, in 1902, to the designs of local firm, Ashlin and Foreman, in the Victorian Arts and Crafts style which was then in full swing.

With its porte-cochre (carriage porch) and colonnaded faade, it was very much an up-market hotel and it is reported that Amelia Earhart stayed there during her historic record-breaking visit to Derry in the early 1930s.

It held civic dances and my late mother recently told me a story of two characters, in the early 50s, making out bogus invitations for a Grand Ball and inviting the "hoi polloi" of the city. That evening the two rogues took their seats on the first floor of what is now the Gainsborough Bar on Shipquay Place and watched while the city's elite arrived in full formal attire for the Ball that never was going to be!

The building continued as a hotel up until the late fifties/early sixties and more recently became famous for the Steak House restaurant and the Rainbow caf, with the upper bedroom floors changing to office space.

The City Council's accountancy department was housed there until we completed the new Council offices in 1996.

Waterloo Place bore the brunt of the bombs and fires in the early years of the Troubles and the Ulster Bank was destroyed (and infamously replaced with a brown-bricked bunker of a building). The Northern Counties Hotel itself was very badly damaged by several bombs which resulted in the loss of much exterior ornamental detail and the porte-cochre.

Exterior suffering badly

When I viewed the building in 2003, it was evident that the exterior was suffering badly but I was horrified at the condition of the building internally. The well-ordered and proportioned faade gave way to a chaotic arrangement internally with a multitude of level changes, dark rooms, tiresome circulation routes, precarious external fire escapes, leaking roofs, dry rot and an infestation of pigeons.

At the time it was difficult to know where to start.

We took a pragmatic and practical approach - retain and restore the existing historic facades to Waterloo Place and Custom House Street; re-instate the porte-cochre and restore the main entrance to Waterloo Place; restore the shop fronts and get rid of the fortress-like external shutters; and restore the main historic spaces behind, including the first floor dining room.

The old extensions to the rear were utilitarian and crumbling and it was decided to demolish them and build a new three-storey glazed extension which would resolve disability access issues, give the rear - when glimpsed between the GPO - a new modernist dynamic when juxtaposed against the older historic fabric, and open up views across the river to St Columb's Park and Ebrington and downriver to the new bridge.

The repair works included re-roofing with asphalt and natural slates, repairing sections of brickwork with re-salvaged brickwork from demolished parts of the building, repointing the existing brickwork with a lime mortar mix to allow the building to breathe, overhauling the sliding sash windows, restoring and repairing internal decorative corniching, and rationalising the interior of the ground floor shops.

The result is now a refurbished, restored and extended building with high quality office and retail space naturally ventilated and daylit. There has been huge interest from potential tenants for both the office and retail areas and many of the floors have now been let.

Pride of place

The porte-cochre will be installed in June and that, together with the new public realm scheme which has commenced, should see Waterloo Place take pride of place amongst the city's shopping streets with caf terraces, street entertainment, public art and colourful bustling shops.

It was particularly pleasing that the majority of those who worked on the building, whose expertise was most useful, were local people - including David Biggar, who allowed us access to his historic photographs; Robert White, of Derry City Council's Building Control office who, as always, showed great enthusiasm, professionalism and sensitivity to the proposals; the funders: the THI and Heritage Lottery Fund; the Department of Social Development in Derry; Environment and Heritage Service and Planning Service; the staff of the GPO who allowed access to the rear of the building, members of my own office; and other members of the design team.

It proves to me that we have the necessary local expertise and talent to undertake, plan and execute large-scale complex building projects. It is desperately frustrating to see so many commissions going to outside consultants.

On a sad note, however, Brendan McNicholl, of JPM, the main contractor, tragically died a couple of months before completion and, unfortunately, is not able to enjoy the fruits of the endeavours and industry he personally put into the project. It is a testimony to his firm and his staff that they were able to recoup and finish the project seamlessly in the face of such tragedy.