Following seven years of fundraising, lobbying, planning and extensive refurbishment, The Court House on Bangor seafront will finally open its doors to the public on Thursday, 20th October.
The first performances will be from up-and-coming Bangor band The Florentinas, who are championed by Gary Lightbody’s artist development company, Third Bar, alongside Lemonade Shoelace, another local band currently making waves who recently won a prestigious international music contest. Future acts scheduled to perform in the new venue include Dana Masters, Camille O’Sullivan, and Jesca Hoop, with many more to come.
Built-in 1866 as a branch of the then Belfast Banking Company, the building became a magistrates court in 1952. When the court was decommissioned in 2013, it was listed as a Grade B2 building on the Heritage At Risk register. Remaining the property of the Department of Justice, it began to fall into disrepair.
In 2015, a local volunteer lobby group Bangor Shared Space (BSS), raised the possibility of acquiring the building via the Community Asset Transfer process for use as a community or creative venue and invited Open House to join the campaign. The scale of such a transition soon became clear, and BSS ultimately decided to step aside and pass the baton to Open House, who had the capacity to pursue the acquisition and restoration of the building for use as an arts venue for social benefit.
Over the following years, Open House worked with several government departments to develop a business plan that showed the potential for the building to become an accessible, multi-purpose arts venue and reflected the social and economic benefits it would bring to the local community. In 2017 they embarked on an initial crowdfunding campaign, hoping to secure £30k to do some urgent works while the major funding application to The National Lottery Heritage Fund was being prepared.
“The response from local people and businesses to our crowdfunding campaign was phenomenal, confirming public appetite for a restoration project and validating our vision for the building,” said Open House Director, Kieran Gilmore. “Alongside a charity fund-raising ball organised by Barclays Bank, who also donated £15k match funding, that campaign raised over £70k, triggering an eventual £1.7m of funding from several sources.”
Key funders of the Court House project are The National Lottery Heritage Fund (£977,900) and the Department for Communities NI (£310,000). Contributions have also come from Garfield Weston Foundation, Arts Council NI, Ards and North Down Borough Council, Foyle Foundation, Swire Charitable Trust, Ulster Architectural Fund, Esme Mitchell Trust, and Ulster Garden Villages.
In December 2020, Open House took possession of the building via the first-ever Community Asset Transfer in Northern Ireland, with the keys officially presented to Open House founders Kieran Gilmore and Alison Gordon by the Minister for Justice, Naomi Long. Following a tender process, a design team and building contractors were appointed, and the construction phase began in September 2021, finishing in August 2022.
This major extensive work included the removal of walls and some internal remodelling as well as the restoration of original features such as sash windows and cornicing. A full sound, lighting and audio visual system was installed, as was a professional kitchen and bar. And the building was made fully accessible with the installation of a lift, accessible toilets and automatic door openings.
“The building work was a long stressful process,” explained Kieran, “but the team of specialist architects, and contractors did an exceptional job. There were some wonderful discoveries along the way, such as the original tiled floor that was uncovered in the banking hall come court room that will be our main performance area. And we were able to use two bars and a slate fireplace from the neighbouring Royal and Windsor Hotels, both of which are due for demolition and both of which have a place in the hearts of Bangor people.”
While predominantly a music venue, the new Court House will also host a regular classic film club, literary and spoken word events, comedy, theatre, and talks, as well as pop-up food and drink events. Rachael Campbell-Palmer who has recently joined the Open House team as Court House Director, fresh from running the Black Box in Belfast, said: “I know the fundamental impact an innovative and creative space like the Court House can have on a place, on individuals and communities. The possibilities that The Court House will bring are hugely exciting! This will be a welcoming home for a wide range of Arts programming providing entertainment, employment and vital opportunities for collaboration and creative development.”
Thanking everyone who has helped the organisation reach this momentous moment, Kieran said: “It has taken us seven long years and a great deal of trial and error to get to this stage. We’ve had support and help from so many individuals and organisations along the way – too numerous to mention. But we want to thank every single person who has played their part in making this project a reality, and in bringing the Court House to life. As the third largest city in Northern Ireland, Bangor needs and deserves a dedicated music and arts venue. We’re looking forward to developing an exciting year round programme of events, and working with other local businesses and creatives to draw new audiences into the city centre. We hope this is the start of a new era for Bangor, with arts-led regeneration right at the fore.”
The equivalent of 15 full-time jobs will be created once the venue is operating at full capacity, including bar staff, event managers and security.
Dr Paul Mullan, Director, Northern Ireland at The National Lottery Heritage Fund, said: “Investing in heritage means investing in the community it belongs to, which is why we are proud to support Open House Festival in repurposing the historic bank and former Court House thanks to National Lottery players. The high quality, conservation-led repairs have successfully preserved this important heritage meaning the building is no longer at risk and creating a much-needed cultural venue to be enjoyed by locals and visitors from further afield. The new Court House combined with the passion and commitment of the Open House team will play a significant role in boosting the local economy by creating employment and aiding the wider regeneration of Bangor.”
Welcoming the official opening of the building, Justice Minister Naomi Long said: “It is great to see the former courthouse being brought back into use through the Community Asset Transfer process. I am sure it will become an iconic arts venue that will make a significant contribution to the city of Bangor. Congratulations to everyone involved in the impressive redevelopment and I wish Open House Festival and all who use the facility every success for the future.”
Siobhán Molloy, Arts Development Officer, Arts Council of Northern Ireland, commented: “The launch of the Bangor Court House promises to be an uplifting and joyous experience for everyone. Serving as a permanent base for the Open House Festival team and events, this cultural hub will increase access to the arts, empower local communities, nurture home-grown talent, as well as showcase regional, national and international acts across a range of artistic genres. The official opening will be momentous, as the collective vision to create a fantastic new arts venue for the city becomes reality. The Arts Council of Northern Ireland placed significant investment into the restoration and redevelopment of the building, through a range of funding programmes and we would encourage everyone to avail of, and enjoy, this wonderful arts venue.”