Belfast Architecture

City Hall and the surrounding buildings in Donegal Square have lots to appreciate

Good on P.L.A.C.E – the architecture and built environment centre and gallery – for laying on architectural tours throughout the summer. My daughter and I catch up with an enthusiastic Frances Haire to explore Donegall Square. She deserves better, though: sparkling morning though it is, we are the only takers.

An early criticism of this tour on the architecture of Donegal Square – one of several different tours to come over the next couple of months – is that more might have been said about the broader story of the Square, and how it originated on the southern edge of the town. It was only with the completion of the City Hall in 1906 that its new status as the city centre was confirmed.

We also did the tour without the City Hall, but in an hour we found quite enough to fascinate on our round of the perimeter. This is true even for someone like myself who worked here for a quarter of century. How often did I vaguely admire buildings without looking up from street level?

Scottish Provident Building


A case in point is the vast Scottish Provident building in Donegall Square East, where we start, the impact of which is best appreciated from a distance. A fine example of late Victorian baroque, it was built to designs by Young and Mackenzie between 1897 and 1902. Note here the dolphins and sphinxes in copper at roof level and the tableaux of Belfast industries at first floor level.

By contrast the Northern Bank at the southern end of Donegall Square East was strikingly modern when built by Building Design Partnership in 1970 – 72, and with its clean lines has perhaps stood the test of time, though it’s intended emphasis on cool solidity and security was seriously undermined by the £26.5 million robbery in 2005, the largest in UK history. We can also rue the loss of Georgian houses and a ‘venetian’ style linen warehouse to make way for it.

Donegall Square South has two buildings that really command attention. The Scottish Temperance building of 1904 by Henry Seaver at the junction with Bedford Street is a Scottish baronial stronghold in dark red sandstone with turrets corbelled out at each corner and smaller turrets flanking a central crow-stepped gable.

Yorkshire House on the corner with Linenhall Street and now the Ten Square Hotel is the oldest extant commercial building in the entire square, built originally in 1862 – 63 as a linen warehouse for the Jaffe brothers. See the floral pedimented windows to the upper floors and the eccentric range of famous heads between the ground floor windows.

Elsewhere in Donegall Square South, late Georgian houses and Victorian warehouses have given way to modern banking and insurance blandness, though the General Accident Building at no.5 by Robinson and McIlwaine (1984 – 1986) with its giant red columns, at least deserves note for a certain modernist effrontery.

Donegall Square East features the last surviving town houses in the square at nos. 18 – 20 (c.1830). The centre of this side of the square is still dominated by the classical portico of the former Donegall Square Methodist Church, designed by Isaac Farrell (1846 – 47). It is now facade only as the Ulster Bank’s new headquarters looms behind it.

Linen Hall Library entrance


Beyond this Imperial House by Kendrick Edwards (1935) is the only major building in the Square dating from the inter-war years, and combines classical touches with art deco influences.

More typical is Ocean House on the corner with Chichester Street, a very vigorous essay in Scottish-Baronial-Tudor style by Young and Mackenzie (1899 – 1902). It is richly decorated and not just with mermaids holding shields, the symbol of the Ocean Assurance Company, but with animals, birds, ferocious monsters (of the deep?) and kings and queens.

The eastern end of Donegall Square North features two important buildings. A red sandstone Venetian palace is instantly recognisable. This was originally built as a linen warehouse in 1867 – 69 to designs by WH Lynn. Amongst the first to proclaim its virtues was Oscar Wilde, who described it as ‘beautiful’. Today it houses Marks and Spencer.

Further west and the six stories of the Robinson and Cleaver building dominate the corner with Castle Place. Built to designs by Young and Mackenzie in 1886 – 8, its free treatment of classical style is typically Victorian. Notice in particular the ornate decoration on the Castle Place facade including some 50 heads of people from Greenland to India, and including Queen Victoria and the German Kaiser – all were customers.

On the other side of Castle Place, non-descript modern buildings are a let-down until we reach the three-storey sandstone building designed by WH Lynn for the Belfast Bank in 1895 – 1900, and now occupied by the Halifax.

Beyond this lies the historic Linen Hall Library (founded 1788). The building was originally designed as a linen warehouse by Lanyon Lynn & Lanyon in 1864, and converted for use by the Library by Young & Mackenzie in 1891. The ornate doorway is of particular note and a variety of internal features date from the 1891 conversion.

PLACE gallery continues its architectural tours of inner-city Belfast throughout the summer and beyond, with a 'Art Deco Belfast' in August and 'Charles Lanyon’s Belfast' in September.