Decaying angels loom from lintels. There is an eerie silence about Carlisle Memorial Methodist Church, whose aged pillars and vaults have been colonised by vegetation.
One stretch of wall is covered in hart’s tongue ferns, while green algae is gradually spreading up the pillars into the dark recesses.
Over the last 20 years the decay has taken a firm grip on the Belfast church, with rotten timber piled at the entrance to the nave and the floor reduced in parts to skeletal remnants.
Just two stained glass windows remain intact — one the glorious rose window in the nave and the other a small one in the lobby revealing how the building was commissioned by James Carlisle in memory of his son who died in infancy. This week the New York-based World Monuments Fund announced that the church would be included on its 2010 World Monuments Watch.
The church is only the third Northern Ireland building to be included on this international list of sites and monuments at greatest risk, with Mussenden Temple, now cared for by the National Trust, and Richhill House in Co Armagh, which is the focus of conservation efforts. Fionnuala Jay-O’Boyle, founder of the Belfast Buildings Preservation Trust, said it had become “unlovely and unloved”, and warned neglect can do as much harm as a developer.
It was nearly lost 20 years ago when the Methodist Church applied for planning permission to demolished it. Instead, it was sold for a nominal £1 to the Ulster Provident Housing Association.
Chairman Erskine Holmes said: “This church was often referred to as the cathedral of Irish Methodism. Normally Methodist buildings are very austere, but this is more like an Episcopalian building with an aisle, chancel and transept.”
The building is derelict and early efforts concentrated on repairing the roof using an alternative to lead that wouldn’t be as attractive to criminals.
Plans to use the church were shortlived — it was looked at as a site for a circus school, a rock climbing school, a creationism centre and a Muslim centre, but all were shelved.
“The Rolls Royce scheme would cost £12m and you could have a lesser scheme for £6m, but simply to mothball the church immediately and protect it from wind and water would cost £1m,” Mr Holmes added.
“We wouldn’t do anything to prevent acquisition by a reputable organisation that can find the funding to take it on.”
How former place of worship nearly became a circus training school
Carlisle Memorial Methodist Church was commissioned by merchant James Carlisle as a memorial to his only son who died in infancy.
Unlike most Methodist Churches it was designed in the Gothic Revival style by noted architect William Henry Lynn, who also designed the Central Library, the Bank Buildings and Campbell College as well as the extension to the Italianate Harbour Office. He continued the work of construction at St Anne’s Cathedral after Thomas Drew’s death, designing the apsidal baptistery.
The huge organ pipes originally came from Drury Lane Theatre in London, where they were used to recreate the sound of thunder, but since the closure of the church these have moved on — part to Cooke Presbyterian Church in Belfast and part to the Catholic cathedral in Salt Lake City, Utah.
The church was once home to one of the largest Methodist congregations in Belfast and its exterior underwent renovation in 1966, but by 1982 it had ceased to be used as a place of worship due to declining congregation and its position at a major flashpoint in the Troubles.
Plans to convert the church to public housing fell through. Four apartments were built in part of the interior but are no longer used. A series of offices built in what was once the church parlour are still in use by a number of organisations.
A number of ideas were envisioned for the increasingly derelict buildings, none of which have come to fruition, including plans for a circus training school, a rock climbing school, a site for the Belfast Museum of Citizenship, a centre for creationism and a Muslim community centre.
Recent interest from developers fell off as the recession began to bite and the owners estimate it will cost £1m simply to protect it from further degradation.