The future of Newtownabbey’s oldest building has been secured after ownership of the historic property was transferred to the council.
The White House - a fortified farmhouse dating back to 1569 - was officially handed over to the local authority by The White House Preservation Trust last week.
The historic building, located at Whitehouse Park, opened to the public as a heritage and educational centre in May 2012 following the completion of a £1million restoration project. Its ‘A Tale of Three Kings’ exhibition recounts the Williamite and Jacobite Wars from a European perspective.
The crumbling remains of the Plantation bawn, which played host to William of Orange ahead of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, were saved from demolition by members of a local gospel hall and later the Trust. But for their intervention, the building could have been demolished to make way for new housing.
“The building is important not just for Newtownabbey or north Belfast, but for Ireland as a whole,” explained Alister Bell, secretary of the Trust. “It is one of the only buildings left from the Williamite period. It is our oldest building in Newtownabbey and it is older than any building in Belfast by 150 years. So if the gospel hall and the Trust hadn’t have stepped in that would have been lost for generations to come.”
The heritage centre, run by Trust volunteers, had been open to the public on a limited basis. But the decision to hand it over to the council will mean that it will benefit from additional resources in terms of staffing, maintenance and promotion, ensuring the unique tourist attraction will be open to more visitors and user groups more often.
Expressing his delight at having been able to formalise the handover at the last ever meeting of Newtownabbey Borough Council (before the merger with Antrim Council), Trust chairman, Cllr Billy Webb, said: “In effect we were adding £1.25million to the balance sheet of the council. But we were delighted to be able to do that because having achieved our ambition of restoring it (the White House), we wanted to make sure the public had access to it and that seemed the best way of doing it.”
Cllr Webb said he is very proud of what the Trust achieved over the years in terms of saving and restoring the property and praised the efforts of board members and project manager Raymond McIlrath.
“To see this building at its raw stage all those years ago and then visit it as the archaeological dig took place and the construction took place and to finally see it opened, every member of the Trust is very proud of what we’ve done and we know we have achieved something fantastic for generations to come,” he continued.
“The priority of the Trust was to get the building restored. Having achieved that our objective was then to have it used for the public. We thought that the best way of making the building available for the public was by the council taking it over. They have the resources to be able to man it and it will mean that the building will be open more often for the public to come and see.”
While Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council will now have to draw up a plan for utilising its new acquisition, Cllr Webb believes the White House is an exciting addition to the local authority’s portfolio of visitor attractions and hopes it will tie in well with others such as Sentry Hill.