Local historian James Robinson Lynn looks at the ongoing erosion of the borough’s built heritage.
A SIMPLE blink of the eye by readers of this newspaper two weeks ago and you would have failed to notice a short unobtrusive article about the Planning Service’s decision to permit the demolition of Edenmore, one of our valued local historic landmarks, with the final endorsement of Newtownabbey Borough Council’s planning committee.
The news was a shocker, an omen for when the new super-council is devolved the mantle of planning matters in 2015, if perceptive scrutiny is not maintained by interested parties.
Edenmore is a place with an interesting past. It was built for James Torrens (1796-1884), a wealthy solicitor and land agent for the Donegall and Shaftesbury Irish estates. Fashioned in an Italianate architectural design, based on 16th century Italian Renaissance architecture, the Jordanstown seat is architecturally and historically important. It was a family home for almost 80 years, including ownership by James’ son, Thomas Hughes Torrens (1851-1928). He served as High Sheriff of County Antrim and Deputy Lieutenant for Belfast.
Following Thomas’ death in May 1928, Edenmore became the quarters of the Edenmore Veterinary Hospital under the patronage of the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which specialised in the welfare of cats and dogs. In 1950 the house and demesne were adapted as R.A.F. Edenmore, a base for No.67 NI Reserve Group and No.3502 (Ulster) Fighter Control Group. Afterwards, a new chapter beckoned when Edenmore opened as a hotel enterprise in 1963. Its principal function rooms were aptly named Eden, Torrens and Shaftesbury to evoke its cultural heritage. In its latter years it was utilised as a care home. And before long this familiar sight will be no more, brusquely confined to the vault of history, folklore and nostalgia.
Edenmore prominently features in the cluster of ‘big houses’ and smart gentlemen’s seats dotted the length of the interlinked districts of Whitehouse, Whiteabbey and Jordanstown, three of the seven villages that formed the bedrock of Newtownabbey. Over time the residences and their occupants became fascinating objects of curiosity and affection. Yet, regrettably, the bulk of these unique houses have gradually been razed to the ground, mostly for property development. These include Ballygolan, Frogmore, Longwood, Glenmount, Macedon, Hazelbank, Rushpark, Aranmore, Dunedin, Clonvara, Lenamore, Slieve-na-Failte, Abbeylands and Glenavna. The Glenavna, of course, was devastated in a mysterious fire in October 2005.
An urgent case in point is The Abbey, sometimes incorrectly given the name Abbey House. Like Edenmore, it too faces a similar fate. It remains in a forlorn condition within the sprawling Whiteabbey Hospital estate. It is best known as having been the residence of Sir Charles Lanyon (1813-89), Ulster’s greatest architect of the Victorian age who designed most of Belfast’s famous buildings. Actually, Lanyon was also the draughtsman of this house, also of Italianate design, which was commissioned by Richard Davison (1796-1869) and completed in 1855. It was constructed on the spot of Demyat, an old-world gentlemen’s cottage previously owned by Samuel Gibson Getty (1817-77). Interestingly, Lanyon, Davison and Getty all served as Westminster MPs for Belfast. The fact that three successive parliamentarians had inhabited the site is equally noteworthy.
But what could become of The Abbey? Financial cutbacks in the Northern Health and Social Care Trust’s resources may well impact on its fate as the hospital’s services continue to be downgraded, making its long-term prognosis uncertain. One straightforward solution could be if the NHSCT bequeathed the property to the National Trust, or to a newly created heritage trust, to establish an overdue heritage visitor centre devoted to celebrating the illustrious Sir Charles Lanyon. The mere concept of the official Lanyon museum being located in the borough is indeed thought-provoking. With backing from the Heritage Lottery Fund, a permanent all-encompassing presentation could marshal input from the likes of the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society and Queen’s University School of Architecture. This would give emphasis and guidance to the mission. Careful provision could be made to sensitively enclose the immediate site around the house from the existing hospital, and construct a new entrance from the nearby Station Road, together with adequate car parking space.
Whatever happens, this crestfallen building of architectural finery and indubitable significance must be quickly given a renewed freshness and vigour; otherwise it will meet the same sad demise as all the other eminent houses.