The Bank Buildings were designed by Sir Robert Taylor and erected by Waddell Cunningham in 1785. The original bank opened in 1787 with the unusual name of ‘The Bank of the Four Johns’, since all four founders were called John. After the bank collapsed, the building was used as the residence of the bishop of Down and Connor, the Rev Dr William Dickson. In 1805, it was converted into a shop and in 1816, the last public execution was carried on its doorstep.
In 1853, William Robertson and Henry Hawkins from Waterford, JC Ledlie from Cork, and Robert Ferguson of Belfast, founded a wholesale drapery firm, which soon became a commercial department store in the city.
WH Lynn designed the new bank buildings in 1900. He intended it as a bridge to the twentieth century, with a compromise between the classical style of the upper part of the building and the great expanse of plate glass below.
Until 1961, only the ground and first floors were used as a retail store, with the remainder of the building taken up by the company’s wholesale warehouse. In that year, however, the Bank Buildings underwent total renovation. The new arcade shop front was lighted at night, and a modernised main entrance was added at Castle Junction. The old pillars and showcases on the ground floor were removed. The Belfast Telegraph announced the ’bold policy of renovation, repair and the moving and improving of entire departments, has brought it into line with the latest Bond street ideas.’
In 1969, the shares of Robertson, Ledlie, Ferguson and Company were sold to the House of Fraser group. It was hoped that the Bank Buildings would now benefit from the knowledge and resources of a large national firm, expanding for the first time outside Great Britain. However, Robertson, Ledlie, Ferguson and Company continued to run the shop as a subsidiary company, and only four years later, Boots acquired the Bank Buildings when it took over House of Fraser.
On April 9, 1975, three bombs exploded in the Bank Buildings. A huge fire broke out shortly afterwards and damaged parts of the building.
In 1979, the Bank Buildings were taken over by the Dublin based group Primark. Within 18 months, the store was totally refurbished and the exterior restored to its 1903 glory.
Buildings of Belfast, 1700-1914 (1985) by CEB Brett