Belfast's stunning Riddel's site to be reborn as heart of art world
The former Riddel's Warehouse in Belfast has been purchased by the Hearth Revolving Fund, which is now aiming to raise £2m-£3m to transform it into Northern Ireland's top gallery. Clare Weir reports
An "at risk" historic building in Belfast city centre is to be transformed into an art gallery after being sold to a company which specialises in breathing life back into old properties.
Riddel's Warehouse in Ann Street was designed by Thomas Jackson & Son about 1865 for John Riddel & Co ironmongers.
For many years it was one of the largest ironmongery warehouses in Ireland, selling cast iron manufactured by its sister firm the Musgrave Iron Foundry until the firm moved away from Ann Street in the 1960s. The building was later acquired by the Police Authority for Northern Ireland but was mainly retained because its listed status prevented its demolition.
The building served as a store room and as a security 'buffer zone' for Musgrave Street police station in the height of the Troubles.
It was first marketed for sale in November 2013 and while the £500,000 sale concluded in March, the plans for the building have only now been released.
Hearth Revolving Fund has bought the building in order to restore the splendid Victorian facade, as well as restore and make the unique cast iron galleries and glazed atrium available to the public.
The organisation now has to raise up to £3m to get the project under way.
The Royal Ulster Academy (RUA) will be Hearth's partner in developing Riddel's Warehouse, which will now provide a new home for the Academy, act as a showcase for the work of Northern Ireland artists past and present and host Northern Ireland's largest annual art exhibition.
The purchase of the building has been made possible with the financial support of another charity, Ulster Garden Villages Ltd.
Andrew Fraser, surveyor at estate agency Lambert Smith Hampton, which handled the transaction, said that it had been an exciting sale to work on.
"We had 45 individuals or companies which expressed an interest in this building, with further interests in a mix of residential, office and leisure facilities," he said.
"When it got down to the bidding stage, there was a publican, a residential property company, a housing association and Hearth. It was a really interesting mix.
"I suppose a lot of people would have been priced out of the market because it is a listed building with a lot of restrictions as to what you can and can't do, but it is a real joy to see an older building like this sell in a relatively short space of time and with such ambitious redevelopment plans.
"Some of these sites lay vacant for years and fall into ruin – this one is in such a great city centre location and the potential is enormous.
"We are involved in a few other listed buildings and this will be a great example and can act as a catalyst for others. This project will also offer jobs in the construction phase to a range of specialist architects, builders and craftspeople."
Hearth Revolving Fund is a building preservation trust which was established in 1972, aiming to acquire and restore listed buildings at risk of loss through dereliction.
Recent projects have included College Green House and Molly's Yard in Belfast and the Stables in Sion Mills.
Marcus Patton, director of Hearth Revolving Fund, said that parts of the building are remarkably well preserved.
He envisions a transformation similar to that of Malmaison hotel, formerly McCausland's Hotel in Victoria Street, which occupies what were originally two seed warehouses belonging to rival firms, McCausland and Lytle, or the Merchant Hotel in Waring Street, which has reinvigorated the former headquarters of Ulster Bank.
"The building has been looked after very well and it was one we were always told would never come on the market," he said.
"When it did come up for sale, we had to think very fast – could we raise the fund, how could we use it, could we work around all the listed building restrictions?
"The fact that Ulster Garden Villages were on board was very helpful. The building really lends itself to something like a gallery or a theatre, when you go inside you see that it might have been just like the Globe theatre would have been.
"There is the warehouse at the back and the atrium, so it really did seem like an ideal arts space.
"I knew the Academy was looking for a permanent home, I knew that it hosted the biggest art exhibition in the province and I knew they were looking for a place, and it just seemed like the perfect fit."
Mr Patton said that the interior of the building would need to be treated sensitively.
"There are cast iron galleries which we can't touch, so things like office space may have to be done in an unconventional way," he said.
"In some ways, it as if Riddels moved out last week. There are pigeon holes full of nuts and bolts, machine parts which ran the cranes, and we want to keep all of that, we want it to have a loose fit, but we do have a lot of money to raise, it will be as big a project as we have ever done.
"We will need to raise in the region of £2m-£3m depending on what exactly we do, but the good thing is that there does not seem to be any major structural work that needs done."
He added that the location of the building as an arts space and tourist attractions could not be better.
"The Academy will just be one user, there will be groups of artists who will use the building for studio space and of course we want this to be a big tourist attraction.
"It's in the city centre, it's on the edge of the Cathedral Quarter and it is on the route going out to the Odyssey and the Titanic Quarter – it's just ideal for visitors."
Colin Davidson, president of the Royal Ulster Academy, said that he is delighted that the Academy will have a new permanent home in such a fine building.
"It also means that we will be in a position to give the general public the chance to view our Diploma Collection, which is an important collection of work by our members over many years and represents a compact history of art in Northern Ireland," he said.
The Ulster Architectural Heritage Society has also welcomed the plans for the building and Leah O'Neill from the organisation said that she hoped other prospective purchasers would take their lead from the Riddel's Warehouse story.
"It is great to see a building which has lain empty for so long finally have a happy ending," she said.
"This partnership will show that restoring a listed building can be done and it can be done well, creating good results for all the end users."
History behind ‘at risk’ building
John Riddel founded Riddel’s Hardware Merchants and Ironmongers, of Donegall Place, Belfast.
His daughters Eliza and Isabella built Riddel Hall in 1915, which once served as a boarding house for young women studying at Queen’s University and now serves as its business school.
John Riddel’s sister Mary Musgrave was the mother of Henry Musgrave, the businessman and philanthropist, after whom Musgrave Park is named and who went on to inherit the company.
Riddel’s Warehouse is a four-storey, eight-bay warehouse with a central atrium. The building includes a Newry granite ground floor construction and white Glasgow brick above. Much of the original design is still preserved.
The Ulster Architectural Heritage Society said: “This fabulous High Victorian warehouse in Ann Street remains one of only three buildings at risk from Belfast to have featured in the first Buildings at Risk catalogue that have not been restored to date.
“Built c.1867 by Anthony Jackson, of Thomas Jackson & Son, it has been mothballed for a considerable number of years, blighted in no small measure by the security situation caused by its adjacency to the Musgrave Street police station.
“Its impressive front facade is matched by a fantastic galleried interior, which would make an exciting space upon eventual restoration.”