The oldest building in Belfast is Clifton House, built in the early 1770s as the Poorhouse. It was ‘healthfully situated’ in open country at the head of the newly laid-out Donegall Street, then well outside the crowded small streets around the town centre.
Then in the 1790s the ground at the top of Donegall Street was leased for development as what was to become 201-215 Donegall Street, whose early residents included merchants, doctors and ‘gentlemen’. No 199, now a Parochial House, was originally the palace of the Catholic Bishop of Down & Connor, and the present St Patrick’s Church next to it was built in 1874. Beyond it is St Patrick’s School of 1828, the earliest surviving Gothic Revival building in Belfast, which has recently been restored by the Belfast Buildings Preservation Trust.
Despite the obvious importance of this group of late Georgian buildings, they were acquired for road-widening. Nos.207-215 were demolished in 1990, and nos.201-205 had deteriorated considerably. In 1985 Hearth expressed interest in restoring the houses, and nos.201-205 were listed as soon as they were officially declared surplus to Roads Service requirements. Before Hearth was able to acquire them, however, the back wall of no.201 collapsed due to timber decay in old lintels, pulling down the staircase and putting the survival of the terrace at risk. Hearth immediately put up a new temporary back wall, and replaced joists in the back rooms to stabilise the building.
In the course of the restoration, a new back wall was erected using modern brick but repeating the old fenestration; the gable to no.207 had been made good by Roads Service using brick salvaged in the course of the demolition of nos.207-215; and brick salvaged from that has been used to make good defective bricks and unsympathetic alterations on the front elevations. There was some evidence that the houses had originally had front areas behind railings so these were opened up, and new railings and stone kerbs provided; and when the doors were unblocked a small area of festooned plaster was found on the reveal of the doorcases, which has been restored along with spiderweb fanlights. Although only three storeys at the front, there is a basement which is at ground level at the rear (the terrace is on the line of the prehistoric raised beach, hence the change in levels), and the houses are actually four stories high.