Report by Sandra Millsopp
Dr Paul Larmour was the speaker at the October meeting of Bangor Historical Society held on 13th. His subject was Belfast City Hall and its architecture. Belfast Town Hall was in Victoria Street and is now used as the Petty Sessions Court. Belfast had grown enormously during the nineteenth century and in 1888 it was given city status. It was felt that a new building was needed and one which reflected the size, wealth and status of the city. Alfred Brumwell Thomas of London won the competition to design the new bilding and work began in 1896. The completed building was opened by the Earl of Aberdeen in April 1906.
Dr. Larmour explained that the original design underwent some modifications, especially when prominent citizens like Lord Pirrie took a keen interest in the project. He explained the influences on the style of the design which is classical. He showed pictures to illustrate these influences such as St. Peter’s in Rome. Another major influence was St. Paul’s Cathedral in London with its pediment, domes and columns. In both buildings a royal statute was placed before the building: Queen Anne in London and Queen Victoria in Belfast. An old photograph showed the laying of the foundation stone on what had been the site of the White Linen Hall. Among the people in the picture were the architect and one of the builders from the firm of H. & J. Martin. Changes continued to be made to the plans. The equine statues were dispensed with and a porte-cochere was added at the entrance. All this added to the cost of the building
Dr. Larmour then took us on a “tour” of each of the four facades of the building. The dome dominates the entrance front which faces Donegall Place. It is reminiscent of the ones at St. Paul’s and at Greenwich and echoes the work of Sir Christopher Wren. The windows are large in order to show the most important rooms in the building. The triangular pediment above the columns contains the greatest piece of architectural sculpture in Ireland with figures representing such things as victory, industry and design. Two small boys represent youth and vitality. Throughout the facades there are small carved details such as cherub heads with wings. In this respect Thomas was following in the tradition of Wren.
The east façade also has large windows to indicate major rooms such as the Great Hall. The little semi-circular porch once formed the main entrance for evening events in the Great Hall and is inspired by that at St.Mary-le-strand, a church designed by Wren’s pupil, Gibbs. Thomas liked to quote his architectural heroes such as Wren and Gibbs. The rere façade has three storeys and instead of grand reception rooms there are civic offices. The only big feature is a carved pediment with columns. There is also a driveway for carriages which leads into the courtyard of the building. The west side also contains offices. The garden it overlooks has been altered over the years. The war memorial garden has been laid out there. Among the statues is that of the Marquis of Dufferin and Ava.
The internal courtyard originally contained a circular flowerbed which gave colour to the area. It was recently replaced by a fountain. Dr. Larmour used pictures to point out the details on the internal facades such as the pediments over doorways, the oval windows and the mouldings, Rainwater heads in lead had angels’ heads and the date 1904.
Dr Larmour then discussed the interior of the building. After entering the building the visitor comes into the main entrance hall and the main staircase which leads to the chief rooms on the first floor: the council chamber, the Banqueting Hall and the Great Hall. He pointed out the statue in the vestibule which showed the young Earl of Donegall on his death bed with his mother. This carving was originally in the chapel of Belfast Castle, but was moved to the safety of the City Hall after vandalism in the 1970s. Much use was made of marble in the interior of the building including Carrera and Brescia marbles. The most striking feature of the main entrance hall is the circular opening in the ceiling which leads the eye up to the dome above. It is a double dome with a small interior one and a large exterior one. There is a large space between them. This type of dome had more impact. It also enabled the size of the exterior dome to be scaled to the size of the city and the smaller one to suit the size of the interior. An old photograph showed the main staircase with the statue of the Marquis of Dufferin and Ava in its original position. It now stands on the first floor. On the principal first floor landing(incorrectly called the rotunda) there are columns of dark cippolina marble which came from a Greek island quarry which had originally been opened by the Romans. All this grandeur shows that no expense was spared and the architect got the style which he wanted. Also visible from this landing is the painting by John Luke added for the 1951 festival of Britain. It shows an early seventeenth century scene in Belfast. A large chandelier illuminates the area. Above the landing is the “whispering gallery”, but the public is not allowed access to this.
We were then shown a photograph of the reception room taken in 1906 and then as it is today. The room contains a memorial inscription commemorating the opening of the city Hall in 1906. The council chamber has woodcarving carried out in Belfast in sympathy with the style of the building. Thomas even designed the chairs etc to fit in with the architecture. A photograph of 1906 showed the great hall as it was originally built. It was destroyed during the Belfast Blitz in 1941. It was reinstated by the mid-1950s, although not all the plasterwork was replaced. More recently some of this has been restored. The room has large stained glass windows which include portraits of monarchs such as Queen Victoria.
The east staircase was meant to be the main entrance to the City Hall for evening receptions. A window there has the arms of the four provinces of Ireland. We were shown further pictures of the interior and then of the surroundings. One early photograph showed the statue of Queen Victoria in place before the building was actually finished. Thomas provided the domed top for the statue of the Marquis of Dufferin and Ava which stands in the grounds. The Boer War memorial has a statue of a soldier. The Titanic memorial originally stood in the street beyond the gardens, but it was moved inside when it got in the way of traffic. The only bronze statue shows the former Lord Mayor, Sir Daniel Dixon.
Dr. Larmour concluded his talk by saying that the building of the City Hall had a large impact on Belfast as it shifted the emphasis of the city southwards. It also transformed the reputation of Alfred Brumwell Thomas who had been an unknown London architect.
Daphne Hamill proposed a vote of thanks to the speaker for a most interesting talk.