Charles Lanyon's Belfast

The architect and civil engineer who built many of Belfast's architectural highlights

When the architect Charles Lanyon was campaigning to hold his seat as a Conservative MP for Belfast in 1869 he fatally declared that ‘I may say that the large increase in the constituency of Belfast is owing to my exertions’.

He was immediately lampooned as the begetter of numerous illegitimate children! Far more legitimate is the built heritage he has left us. Perhaps we take it for granted, because on this pleasant Saturday morning I am the only taker for this tour of his city centre buildings, given by the PLACE Architecture Centre.

It starts disappointingly at the blue plaque in Wellington Place, marking Lanyon's former town house that has since become a terrible modern office building. Stopping here gives an opportunity to reflect on how Lanyon made his way from modest beginnings.

Born in Eastbourne, Sussex, he was apprenticed to a Portsmouth civil engineer, and followed him to Dublin, also marrying his daughter. He soon enough became County Surveyor for Kildare, but transferred to more prosperous Antrim in 1836. There he made his mark managing the construction of the Antrim Coast Road. Architecture was initially a mere sideline.

A few yards from Wellington Place we find the Linen Hall Library in Donegall Square North. Originally built as a linen warehouse for Moore and Weinberg in 1864, it is a compromise between Georgian proportions and new Victorian detail. The effect is essentially modest with the exception of the recently renovated front doorway with its swags of linen and red hand of Ulster – a pity that original colours have now been discarded for a uniform grey!

The Linen Hall building is merely credited to the firm of Lanyon, Lynn and Lanyon. As with a number of other buildings, it is not clear whether it was the work of Charles, his son John, or the very talented WH Lynn.

The next building is in Donegall Square North, a magnificent warehouse built for Richardson Sons & Owden in 1867-69 and now a Marks and Spencer. Although built only a very few years after the Linen Hall it offers a marked contrast. Here we have a massive merchant’s palazzo in the Venetian manner perhaps transmitted via John Ruskin. This is generally credited to Lynn.

Lanyon’s role in the Church of Ireland Young Men’s Society Building of 1867 in May Street, and now BTW Shiells, is more certain given his close church connections. Here polychromatic brick work is used to good effect in another variation on Italianite inspiration.

We then walk through to Cornmarket, which is dominated by the masonic building on the corner with Anne Street and one of Lanyon’s last buildings, undertaken in 1869-70. He was Grand Master of the County Antrim masons, and his enthusiasm shows in another spectacular essay in Venetian gothic. Originally in polychromatic brick, it was subsequently rendered, but the current light finish actually helps to highlight other detail, including masonic symbolism.

On to Bridge Street and at its head lies one of Lanyon’s early triumphs, and an enduring success: the conversion in 1845 of the Assembly Rooms, dating from 1769, into an Italianate palace for the Northern Bank. Possibly influenced by Charles Barry’s 1831 Travellers Club in Pall Mall, this has claims to be the first Irish adoption of the Renaissance Revival.

Next there is a 'what if?' By 1865 Lanyon was at the height of his power and influence. He was elected as a Conservative MP in that year, having already served as Mayor. He should have been a shoe-in in the competition to build the Albert Clock, but he came second to WJ Barre, a new talent in eclectic high Victorian mode.

Lanyon then sat on the committee that reversed the decision in his own favour, but the subsequent scandal ensured that Barre finally got the commission.

Lanyon could still take comfort from earlier successes. On our way to the Customs House we spot what is now the First Trust headquarters in Victoria Street, originally built for the Northern Bank in 1851-52. Although only single storey there is a massive solidity about it with its rustic treatment, heavily recessed doors and windows, doric and ionic columns, and overhanging cornice.

There is no doubt, however, that on this tour the highlight is the Customs House, which Lanyon completed in 1857. We approach it today from Customs House Square, now reclaimed from the traffic, and the dignity of the composition in the Palladian style with its flight of steps rising to a first floor level plateau is evident.

What is a revelation is that the original entrance was on the river side of the building. There one has to compete with that traffic, but stand back as far as you can, and the impact of the portico with its splendid sculpture by Thomas Fitzpatrick is evident.

Finally we visit the Queens Bridge. Lanyon’s construction in 1844 is rather obscured by the cantilevered widening of 1885, but it reminds us that he came to Belfast primarily as a civil engineer. Didn’t the boy do well!

To follow in his tracks further tours take place at 11am on September 10-11, starting from PLACE Architecture Centre’s Fountain Street headquarters. For more information, visit the PLACE website.