The Crescent Arts Centre building began life as the home of Ladies’ Collegiate School founded and run by Margaret Byers, an advocate and pioneer for womens’ education. She commissioned the building at a cost of £7,000 in 1873 – the date is still clearly embossed on the keystone over the Lower Crescent entrance. It was one of the first purpose-built schools for girls in the country.
In her Jubilee Year of 1887, and in recognition of the outstanding achievements of Mrs Byers and her staff, Queen Victoria issued a royal command that the school be renamed to Victoria College. Under this title the College continued to prosper and grow, but as time went by the constraints of the gradually ageing building led to the eventual relocation in 1972 to its present-day home at Cranmore Park.
At this time the Lower Crescent building’s future was in some doubt, as plans for a ring road through the area threatened it with destruction. Thankfully this never came to pass and the building reopened its doors – after some years of disuse – in 1979 as the Crescent Youth & Resource Centre, co-ordinated by Roger Courtney.
Martin Donnelly took over as coordinator in late 1981. At that time the Crescent was also home to community arts organisation NOW (Neighbourhood Open Workshops). Many more arts organisations would call the Crescent “home” over the years, including DoubleBand Films; Fortnight Magazine; Belfast Community Circus; Open Arts; The Fenderesky Gallery and many more.
The Crescent quickly evolved into an arts centre with a programme of classes, workshops and events. Zero opened in August 1981 as a non-profit cooperative vegetarian restaurant and was an integral part of the Crescent throughout the 80s. Linda McKeown from Zero organised a very popular weekly disco in the Crescent which provided an fast cash income to pay the wages of four posts at the new arts centre – assistant co-ordinator, administrator and two part-time cleaners.
In 1986/7 the wholesale failure of the building’s electrics almost closed the Centre once more, and a concerted ‘Save The Crescent’ campaign led by then director Noreen O’Hare included a march to the City Hall to draw attention to the campaign. The Crescent was even debated and defended in the House of Lords :
At the close of the 1980s, the Crescent Arts Centre secured a mortgage to buy the building outright from the Department of the Environment. The building was still in a fairly bad state from its earlier unoccupied years, and funding for a large scale refurbishment was badly needed…