A Place for Ards and Culture

Ahead of its official grand opening on May 24, Neil McClure recounts the restoration of a doomed church building into Portaferry's newest arts venue

'The roof was leaking, the wiring was absurdly dangerous, the organ was on its last legs. It was in a state of rapidly accelerating decay.'

Neil McClure is talking about the Presbyterian Church in Portaferry, and the state that it had fallen into when he and a number of concerned onlookers formed an action committee in 2008, to stop the building deteriorating further.

McClure’s connection to the church is personal. His mother’s family were founding members of the congregation, and McClure himself recalls being driven past the site as a three-year-old, in the back seat of his grandfather’s car. It was, he says, 'a very wet day' in Portaferry, and he remembers asking 'what that building was.'

In its heyday the church, conceived in 1841 as a Greek Doric temple by Belfast architect John Millar, attracted widespread appreciation for its design quality. 'In the first rank of Neoclassical designs in the whole of the British Isles,' enthused one commentator. 'The clarity and elegance of its detailing are quite remarkable,' wrote another. 

By the new millennium, however, the church’s congregation had dwindled, upkeep and maintenance faltered, and Millar’s jewel on the Ards Peninsula seemed set to spiral into terminal decrepitude.

That is where McClure and team, the self-styled 'Friends of Portaferry Presbyterian Church' (FPPC), stepped in. Initially their aims were modest - 'small repairs', as McClure puts it - but the true scale of the building’s plight soon became apparent when a detailed conservation report was commissioned.

It made grim reading, revealing that nothing short of a full-blown restoration, inside and out, was going to rescue the premises from oblivion. The problem was obvious. Who would pay for it?

A successful application to the Heritage Lottery Fund netted over 60% of the £1.5 million needed to fund the renovation project, and anchored it. Two dozen other national charities, individuals and public bodies contributed, as did the church’s congregation.

Eventually the money needed was gathered, thanks to the endless rounds of form-filling, information gathering, letter-writing and proselytising undertaken by McClure, his fellow FPPC board members, and sundry supporters.

Portico Inside 1

How did McClure himself, already fully active in his day job as a professor at Queen’s University, Belfast, find the volunteer hours necessary? 'I don’t sleep much and we all have to have hobbies,' he says. 'And I quite like a challenge.'

In August 2014, a full six years after the FPPC was formed, the physical task of actually restoring the church started, on site at Steel Dickson Avenue, Portaferry. New heating, lighting and audio-visual systems were installed. Georgian sash windows were reinstated with toughened crown glass, and extensive roofing repairs were undertaken. An extension, including a meeting room and kitchen, was added, along with an internal lift and facilities for disabled access.

And those were just the easy bits. More difficult was the redecoration of the building’s exterior, coated in the 1970s by Microcrete, a mixture of cement, rubber and pigment intended to prevent damp penetration.

In time, McClure says, it actually did the opposite. 'It trapped damp in, as it was impermeable both ways. Where exposed to strong sunlight the rubber component perished, and the membrane was falling off in patches. Where it remained, it trapped pockets of water which were damaging the stone work.'

Traditional solutions, it turned out, proved ineffective. 'Microcrete is impervious to chemical paint strippers,' McClure explains. 'It was finally removed by three stonemasons with hand-held disc grinders and took six months, but with remarkable results.'

Underpinning the work of restoration was a strong desire to use historical techniques of construction, and materials in keeping with how the church would have looked originally. Salvaged Bangor Blue slates were re-used on the roof, for instance, and original Art Deco windows re-deployed in the extension. Old Scrabo stone replaced obsolete concrete steps and provided new ones, while existing cast iron railings were reconditioned by skilled artisans, and badly rotted windows were supplanted by exact copies.

Similar levels of patient craftsmanship were applied to another keystone of the renovation project - the restoration of the church’s organ, originally installed by Belfast firm Evans & Barr nearly a century ago.

This involved the complete removal of the instrument’s pipework, for re-tooling at the workshops of the organ builders Wells Kennedy Partnership in Lisburn. A new wooden casing, based on the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates near the Acropolis of Athens, was fashioned by the Renatus firm of Devon.

The result is a magnificent make-over, putting the organ at the visual epicentre of the new building. It will also be a central point of contact for visitors, who can sit at the console, follow a digital guide to the instrument, and even view its inner workings in the pipe-filled organ loft.

Portico Inside 2

This philosophy of user-friendliness permeates the range of uses to which Portico – as the new building has been christened, reflecting its Grecian design origins – will be put, in its new life as a multi-purpose venue hosting cultural, educational and community happenings.

The congregation of Portaferry Presbyterian Church still uses the building for religious services, but has ceded ownership to the 'Friends' organisation. An ongoing series of films, concerts, weddings, conferences, recordings and other activities is planned, to keep the building busy and establish the varied portfolio of revenue streams necessary to make Portico financially viable in the future.

Though it is operating and hosting events already, Portico officially opens on Tuesday, May 24, with a festival to follow on the weekend of May 27 - 30. 'The idea is to celebrate the completion of the restoration work,' McClure comments, 'and to launch the building as an arts and heritage centre for the area.' 

The David Rees-Williams Jazz Trio, organist Martin Baker, soprano Ailish Tynan, actor Simon Callow, pianist Finghin Collins, and the Ulster Orchestra are among the artists performing, and both BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Radio 3 are recording three concerts apiece for broadcast.

All of which marks a huge transformation in the fortunes of a building which, less than a decade ago, looked destined to decline into a desperate, perhaps terminal condition.

Neil McClure justifiably professes himself 'very pleased' with the new-look Portico, which now stands as 'an exemplar not only of best practice in restoration, but also of how a small charity can take over a dilapidated Grade A listed building' and 'produce a stunning arts and heritage venue for the whole community to enjoy.'

And what of local reaction in and around Portaferry itself? McClure acknowledges that there was 'scepticism' to begin with, when he and his fellow FPPC board members initially unravelled their grand designs for the ailing premises.

That has changed, though, now that the splendidly repurposed building is finally a finished product, and no longer a piece of paper on a planner’s table.

'Amazement' is now a more likely reaction, says McClure. 'Followed by absolute pride in having such a wonderful building in Portaferry.'

The Portico of Ards opens officially on May 24, with 'Festiv-Ards' taking place from May 27 - 30. To see what's on, find out about hiring the venue and more, visit www.porticoards.com.