At one time just about everything of any importance that happened in the town – accidents and natural disasters excepted – happened in [the Town Hall]’, wrote a reporter in the Coleraine Chronicle in 1998 when Portrush Town Hall was under threat of demolition.
‘It was where local councillors were elected (or rejected)… where musical evenings were presented, plays performed, lectures given, exhibitions staged and even, in days long ago, grand balls enjoyed and fine dinners consumed.’ It was also where justice was dispensed on the first Wednesday of each month; where talent contests were held, and where ratepayers could meet to protest at the wrongdoings of their elected representatives.
Portrush Town Hall was designed by Lanyon, Lynn & Lanyon, and built by Thomas Stewart Dickson of Larne. Plans exist in the Public Record Office for a more straightforward hall by Samuel Close but fortunately it was not proceeded with and today the striking building with its curved end and turret roof dominates the seafront of Portrush. The Earl of Antrim (who at that time owned much of the town) provided the land for the building to the Portrush Town Hall and Assembly Rooms Company, and that organisation entered into a 99 year lease with him in November 1871, paying an annual rent of £15. Although they must have had some capital in the form of gifts and subscriptions, they had to raise more money and held a fund-raising bazaar as soon as the building was finished. In March 1873 they still owed Mr Dickson £500 of his £1800 contract, and were obliged to enter into a mortgage agreement with him by which he took possession of the building provided that ‘the said premises should be used for public purposes only’. It was later taken over by Portrush Urban District Council.
The building was formally inaugurated on 12 August 1872 when a concert was given before ‘a very large and really brilliant assemblage’. As the local town hall it was the administrative centre for the town, and in the last war ration books and gas masks were distributed from it. In 1928 the hall was extended to provide the present theatrical stage, with offices below it. Later still in the 1960s the old circular Reading Room, by then the town’s Library, became the Council Chamber, but when Portrush lost its autonomy and was absorbed within Coleraine Borough Council the hall lost a major part of its historic function. The theatre continued to be used until the building was closed in 1997.
Hearth became involved with the building along with the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society, which was supporting local people opposed to the threatened demolition of the building. When listed building consent for demolition was refused, Hearth was approached by Coleraine Borough Council to see if a partnership could be formed to restore the building as it appeared that a building preservation trust might be the most viable form of action. Hearth duly prepared funding applications, commissioned surveys and developed proposals for the restoration in association with Consarc Conservation who had worked on similar community theatres.
There were initial concerns that the decay of brickwork was letting water into the building fabric, but holding repairs established choked gutters as the main cause, and the building had largely dried out when the main contract was let. A 1950s extension was demolished and replaced with a more compatibly designed one housing additional toilet accommodation, while the staircase was remodelled and the basement extended into bedrock to house a new lift to facilitate disabled access. The building was re-roofed with repairs to stone cills and crowsteps, and a substantial proportion of the decayed bricks was replaced with matching salvaged ones. Improved fire alarm provision permitted the removal of a decaying external fire escape at the front door. Internally, the steel and concrete former cinema projection booth which was blocking the end windows to the assembly room was removed, and the gallery on one side extended. The old reading room has been restored and named the Girvan Room in honour of Donald Girvan who died in 2000 – he had been prominent in the campaign to save the building and was a founding member of the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society as well as a much-loved school teacher. Re-ordering the floors below the stage has created improved green rooms, and new lighting and sound equipment should allow the theatre companies using the town hall in future to be ambitious in their productions.
There may be newer theatres in other towns, but Portrush Town Hall with its ornate character is an ideal venue for the farces put on by amateur drama companies for the annual Portrush Summer Theatre season.
Hearth Historic Buildings Trust
McCloskey & O’Kane, Limavady
Albert Fry Associates Ltd
Heritage Lottery Fund, Coleraine Borough Council, Environment & Heritage Service