Linking two of Belfast’s oldest streets, the Grade B1 listed North Street Arcade (built in 1936 to designs by Cowser & Smith Architects) has found itself in the firing line in recent years as it lies, with a number of other historic buildings, on the proposed site of a major shopping mall development.
The arcade has quirky Modernistic elevations to both North Street and Donegall Street. It is a bright double height space containing graceful brass shop fronts and a terrazzo pavement. The arcade makes a right-angled turn to link both streets and the bend along its course is marked with a shallow top-lit dome. It is the only example of a 1930s shopping arcade in Northern Ireland and is one of only a handful left in the whole of the UK.
The North Street Arcade is situated in the Cathedral Conservation Area which has for a few years been nurturing an arts and culture scene. The proposed scheme would be disastrous for the historic city centre as North Street and Donegall Street would be turned into little more than service entrances for the giant mall and its multi-storey car park. Local opposition to the proposals has thus been vocal with the ‘Let’s Get it Right’ campaign trying to positively influence the form and design of the mall scheme, and tailor it to the area’s special character. Belfast City Council has been raising awareness of the Cathedral Quarter and commissioned the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society (UAHS) to compile a visitor’s guide to the area’s historic buildings.
Unfortunately the arcade, which had flourished with arts, community and youth related occupants in recent years, was seriously damaged following an arson attack last year. The Society has joined with the UAHS in demanding it be rebuilt. The UAHS has sent copies of the architect’s original drawings to the developer, their architects and the Environment and Heritage Service (the Northern Ireland equivalent of English Heritage) to promote accurate restoration.
Whilst as a Society our statutory obligations apply only in England, it is essential that we continue our involvement in cases concerning twentieth century buildings across the rest of the UK; planning and governmental responsibility may vary between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland but only by maintaining this involvement can we remain truly representative of the whole of the UK. In the case of the North Street Arcade, we gladly lent our support to the local campaigners and will do so again if it will help their campaign.
Unfortunately, North Street Arcade is not alone in finding itself at risk, other twentieth century examples in Northern Ireland include:
In 1912 Belfast Corporation bought the Cavehill & Whitewell Tramway and with it came the Bellevue pleasure gardens on an elevated hillside overlooking Belfast Lough. The venture made considerable losses and in the early 1930s, to enhance the attractions, the Corporation opened Zoological Gardens and the ‘Floral Hall’, a concert and dance venue. The project proved a success and for the next thirty years the building was Belfast’s premier concert venue.
Circular in plan with a shallow domed roof, the building has a rectangular entrance block with graceful semi-circular porch. Its smooth rendered walls and two storeys of thin metal windows attract the label ‘Art Deco’ but, lacking the finesse of decorative detailing, it is much more modernistic in flavour. It is one of the few entertainment buildings surviving in the city from the period. Since the advent of the troubles, when concerts and events ceased, it has slipped slowly into decay, acting now as a fodder store for the zoo. Its owner, Belfast City Council, has undertaken a feasibility study to identify future uses and it may be offered a positive future as a civil wedding venue by the Belfast Buildings Preservation Trust.
In the 1990s the banks in Northern Ireland began the wholesale closure of their branches. Numerous historic banking offices have closed as a result and their future remains uncertain. This striking Art Deco example terminates the view down Royal Avenue and is clad in Portland stone. Its jazzy corner tower is topped with a copper dome and sports a clock and some excellent Deco detailing. It has stood vacant for a number of years and is currently for sale.
Former Bank of Ireland, 43-47 Main Street, Larne
Architect A.G.C. Millar, built 1933, Grade B1 (ref. HB06/12/017)
This two/three-storey Art Deco bank is also now vacant. It has a symmetrical façade with a three-storey central block flanked by two-storey lower wings. Walls are rendered, lined and painted and all windows are rectangular metal casements with Art Deco apron panels giving a vertical emphasis. The main entrance has varnished hardwood doors and an Art Deco style grille. An application for demolition and façade retention has been made, to which the UAHS has strongly objected.
Built as an advance factory for the Northern Ireland Ministry of Commerce, the former Lotus factory is an essay in elegant but practical brick modernism. Characterised by long sweeping lines, wide horizontally glazed windows and rustic red brickwork, it is in a prominent position on one of the main roads into Banbridge. Empty for a number of years, its immediate future remains somewhat uncertain.
Northern Ireland is, of course, unique in the national context, with town planning functions centralized within the Department of the Environment (DoE) and responsibility for built heritage lying with the Environment and Heritage Service (EHS). It is fair to say that with the troubles and the subsequent drive for regeneration, the conservation of historic buildings has never been a high priority to politicians, and as a result, the management of built heritage has often been weak and open to abuse.
That said, the weakness of the public sector has forced the voluntary sector to take a much more involved role than is normally the case: UAHS is exceptionally active and its sister organization, the HEARTH Housing Association, is a long established building preservation trust with a proven track record in saving historic buildings.
The UAHS’s most enduring work to date is its partnership with the EHS on Buildings at Risk. Northern Ireland’s Buildings at Risk Register was established in 1992 and since its inception, a full-time Heritage Projects Officer has identified and researched the buildings and prepared a bi-annual publication promoting the most deserving listed buildings at risk. This has been accompanied by a traditional building skills and funding directory. Recently, the register has gone on-line and can be viewed at www.uahs.co.uk or www.ehsni.gov.uk.
The Society will continue to keep a watchful eye on matters in Northern Ireland and is on hand to support the UAHS when called upon to assist. We are pleased to learn that the UAHS is updating and republishing its 1977 book ‘Modern Ulster Architecture’. Copies should be available from UAHS this coming November (price yet to be agreed). Members with a particular interest in Northern Ireland ’s built heritage may also find the following websites useful: