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The PORTICO Centre


The Friends of Portaferry Presbyterian Church in Northern Ireland is a registered charity and not for profit limited company. It owns and has carried out a £1.5 million restoration of Portaferry Presbyterian Church – now known as PORTICO, an Arts and Heritage Centre for Portaferry and the Upper Ards.

This, the third church on the site, was built in 1841 by the Presbyterian congregation of Portaferry on land gifted to them by the local landlords, the Savage family. The building was designed by John Millar, a young Irish architect and is thought to be his best building. The church had changed little, apart from the installation of an organ in 1917, until it underwent restoration in 2015. This has not only resulted in its structural salvation but has also fitted the building with 21st century facilities and equipment.

Speaking to Premier Construction Magazine, Neil McClure, Secretary of Portaferry Presbyterian Church Charity said: “The church has a small congregation and the maintenance of the building had slipped so our charity was formed and we were tasked to report on what needed to be done to the building and it became obvious that it needed about £1.5million spent on it.

“The congregation could never raise that amount of money on its own so we looked around for funders. In the UK the Heritage Lottery Fund is the only funder with that sort of money on offer.  However, Presbyterian congregations are not allowed to access funds that are obtained through gambling, so by a complex procedure including invoking various clauses in the 17th century deeds, we acquired ownership of the building. This was thanks to the generosity of the original landlord’s family, who signed over their Reversionary interest. This is where a landlord grants a piece of land to someone but if they don’t want it in the future, it reverts to the family again. With the interest transferred to the charity, the congregation then gave the building back to us with a donation, which meant we could access HLF funding to restore it.”

Work on the building has included everything from the roof through to the foundations. The walls were stripped of their cement render and that was replaced with line mortar. The building had originally been painted with a substance containing paint, cement and rubber from the 70s. This had to be hand ground from the extensive sandstone detailing.  Art deco windows from the 1920s were replaced with Georgian glazed sash widows and the salvaged glass was reused in the new extension.  The major structural work was excavating the exterior of the back of the building to tank and membrane the foundations, which inside the building, form the rear corridor walls.

With the beautiful sandstone detailing revealed the property was redecorated in line with its original colour scheme. A small extension was also built which contains a meeting room, toilets, kitchen and bedroom. The entrance was also upgraded and internal and external lifts were installed to allow disabled access to all of the building.


Finally, the organ at the church has been completely re-built. The organ was installed in 1917 but was described as “pretty tired.”  Apart from a complete rebuild and the sensitive addition of some extra stops, the organ was given a new case and a new console, which has left the organ sounding and looking “fantastic.”

The main contractors on the project were TAL and the architects were Maxwell Pierce. The Portaferry Presbyterian Church charity was set up in 2008 with building work starting in 2014.

Neil said: “The project has been a real obsession.  We have transformed a building that was so close to dereliction. It was still being used but structurally it was not sound at all. We have transformed it into a stunning building that is structurally sound and set fair for at least the next century.”

Following the restoration, the project has been nominated for a RICS awards in Northern Ireland in the Building Conservation category.

Commenting on the nomination, Neil said: “I think it is wonderful for the building and all those involved.  It gives the project great publicity and encourages people to go and see it. From now on the building has to pay for itself: it is a business.  This stamp of approval from others, although we are confident what we have done is right, is a real confidence booster and gives us a rather nice warm inner glow.”



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