Belfast City Hall an Architectural History

A triumph of content over criticism for reviewer John Gray

Who better to explore the City Hall than Paul Larmour, author of the invaluable Belfast: an Illustrated Architectural Guide (1987). Larmour made clear his admiration for the City Hall then, and nothing changes now: ‘As Rome has St Peter’s, and London has St Paul’s, so Belfast has the City Hall… a truly noble building’. Belfast did secure ‘a municipal palace built on a really grand scale’, certainly the most monumental in the British Isles of the period and with the largest dome in Ireland.

Its centenary was marked by Gillian McIntosh’s Belfast City Hall One Hundred Years (Blackstaff Press, 2006), and now Larmour’s book is well timed for the throwing open of the building following extensive renovation.

What does Larmour add to McIntosh? Her volume deals only briefly with architecture, but is stronger on the controversies of the time, and on the City Hall’s iconic role through the following century. Larmour’s book is strictly architectural. That is what ‘it says on the tin’, but just as it can be said that ‘all art is politics’ and that is certainly the case with the genesis of the City Hall. Discussion of its architecture in isolation is like discussing a great ship without considering icebergs.

The scale of the enterprise and its basic floor plan was pre-ordained at an early stage, as the City Surveyor’s plan for contenders for appointment as architect makes clear. All short-listed entries were accordingly equally grandiose in scale. It would have been nice to have had some discussion of the merits or demerits of the rival contenders

The choice of Alfred Brumwell Thomas, then aged only 28, appeared radical, as did the ‘inescapably Italian cum French appearance’ of his design. Belfast Councillors were not otherwise noted admirers of St Peter’s or the exotica of foreign parts. Brumwell, however, was an able practitioner of the Baroque Revival, one which absorbed these influences, but often via Sir Christopher Wren. Thus the City Hall is also directly influenced by St Paul’s and Greenwich Hospital. The effect even then was seen by some critics ‘as rather old fashioned and traditionalist’. What the style did achieve was ‘imperial pomp’.

The building was originally costed at £150,000, already a ‘foolhardy’ underestimate according to Larmour, and was eventually to cost £360,000 or an extraordinary £32,000,000 at 2008 prices. Building was scheduled to take three and a half years but took eight. In any other circumstances these overruns would have been viewed as disastrous, but not in Belfast.

What is evident is that Councillors progressively added lavish extras. These included raising the height of the building, adorning the main entrance hall and main staircase with exotic Italian marble, providing for more elaborate plasterwork and stained glass, and using stone rather than brick for the rear

Thomas himself said that the marble was ‘the making of the building’. He himself made constant amendments with the Wren influence becoming more dominant, and Larmour notes his ‘extraordinary aptitude for developing his design’ during building. Larmour, with considerable justification, agrees that the changes were improvements, but excessive cost became almost a virtue in itself, thus the Northern Whig said of the entrance hall, ‘It exists for beauty only… carried out with a sovereign disregard for cost’.

It was a sufficient achievement to secure Thomas a knighthood, though he was never to undertake such a major project again. Belfast’s triumphalism combined with its underlying insecurity had created an exceptional opportunity.

Larmour reviews the building from all perspectives. The iconic view from Castle Place is surely the most spectacular, but he reminds us to look again at the east and west facades. The entrance hall, main staircase and principal landing are indeed ‘wonderfully orchestrated spaces’, though Larmour has less to say about the main rooms.

His guide also covers statues, sculptures, and stained glass. One can certainly agree that Patrick MacDowell’s memorial for the Earl of Belfast is a Victorian masterpiece, though a recent arrival, and the frieze on the front facade well deserves Larmour’s scrutiny with its portrayal of Hibernia, but much else is surely mediocre. Our councillors who endlessly memorialised themselves were hardly princes of the enlightenment! Even Thomas suggested in the 1920’s that some of their statues should be moved elsewhere.

If this account suffers from a tendency to treat everything equally, it also suffers from omissions. There is no mention of the belated monument to James Magennis, VC, or other recent arrivals which leaven that old imperial pomp, and notably a bust of Mary Ann McCracken, and stained glass windows commemorating the famine and the 1907 Dock Strike.

We need not go as far as the anonymous socialist critic of the time who condemned ‘Great bumptious Belfast… with its palatial town hall, its tinsel virtues, and its army of little white slaves…’ but more than one hundred years later there is a problem with an account of the City Hall devoid of any criticism.

Belfast City Hall: an Architectural History is available in hardback and paperback from the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society.

John Gray