A New Home for the Ulster Orchestra
Lee Henry meets the architects behind the Ulster Hall's £7.43m refurbishment
On Wednesday, November 21, Belfast City Council held a guided preview tour of the Ulster Hall, currently undergoing a £7.43m refurbishment. The hall is set to re-open to the public in late 2008, with a new function as the permanent home of the Ulster Orchestra.
The aim of the tour was to explain the rationale behind the Hall's proposed decor, which reverts to original architect WJ Barre's initial plans. Tourists were also informed of the techniques implemented during the restoration process and given an idea of how the Hall will look when the scaffolding has been dismantled and the carpets laid.
Architect Dawson Stelfox is directing the refurbishment for Consarc Architects. Along with Robert Heslip, Heritage Officer with Belfast City Council, he conducted the short tour.
'It really is a fabulous building to work on,' says Stelfox. 'We've previously worked for the City Council on the Albert Clock and St George's Market restorations, but this is indeed a truly fantastic project.
'Both acoustically and decoratively, the Ulster Hall is a very important building. It has proven to be very flexible over the years. Of course there have been orchestral and choral events held here, but the Hall was also very well known for its pop concerts, craft fairs, boxing matches and political rallies.
'All of that adds to and gives importance to the building and its cultural life in the city. We're looking forward to a new era for Ulster Hall as the new home of the Ulster Orchestra in 2009.'
Heslip is equally excited about the role that the Ulster Hall will play in bringing the Ulster Orchestra and classical music to a wider audience.
'The Ulster Orchestra has an absolutely magnificant education and outreach programme, and that's going to be joined on to what we're doing with the hall. What's integral to this project is the idea of opening up the hall, letting people come through the doors, understanding the heritage and the way the hall is used now.'
The Ulster Hall was first opened in 1862. Belfast City Council (then Belfast Corporation) purchased it in 1902 for the sum total of £13,500. One of Belfast’s oldest buildings, the hall has played host to a variety of artistes and famous names including Charles Dickens, Henry Irving, Randolph Churchill, Billy Connelly, The Rolling Stones, Christy Moore and Led Zeppelin.
Consarc are the appointed architects for the restoration and refurbishment of the hall, working with Graham building contractors. Work carried out includes a complete re-fit and redecoration of the main hall, with new removable seating, artists' dressing rooms and a education suite. Other improvements include new stage lighting systems, upgraded heating systems, fire escape routes and toilet facilities.
The original metal balustrade on the balconies will be restored and a series of interpretative displays will promote the civic and cultural history of the building. JW Carey’s historic paintings of Belfast, commissioned in 1902, are also being carefully restored.
The Ulster Orchestra will move to the Ulster Hall when it re-opens, with office space on two new floors and a new box office in the foyer. It is hoped that rehearsals will be open to the public. In the meantime, the Ulster Orchestra will continue to perform in the Waterfront Hall and other venues throughout NI.