The inaugural Place Open House event took place in July 2015. Places of architectural and engineering interest opened their doors for free to allow the public an insight into the construction, restoration and life behind the spaces. In 2015 I explored three very varied areas of architectural and cultural interest, the Queens University Graduate School building, Lawrence Street Workshops and the Titanic Quarter on Wee Tram Tours.
In 2016 Open House Belfast was back in October with more interesting places to discover and all for free. I took a hard hat tour of the Tropical Ravine in Botanic Gardens, which is in the midst of a £3.8 million restoration project followed by a fascinating look around the modernist Transport House, once home to the Transport & General Workers Union.
This year was another mix of built heritage, historical industry and 21st Century design.
Starting with the Belfast Telegraph building we were taken around the vast empty shell by architect Dawson Stelfox. Built in 1886 the red sandstone and red brick building was designed by Henry Seaver, only 26 years of age at the time, who also designed three later extensions in 1907, 1911 and 1926. Inside we were taken into the dark depths of the printing press room where 80ft deep piling took the weight of the printing machines. With not much to see inside, the highlight was definitely the opportunity to take in the cityscape of Belfast from the roof.
A short walk away stands the Bank of Ireland Buildings and our next Open House stop. Dawson Stelfox was once again our expert guide explaining the vertical steel frame and limestone cladding of the facade before guiding us around the interior.
The bank, built between 1928 and 1930 was designed by Joseph Vincent Downes and is one of the best examples of the Art Deco modernist movement in Belfast. It was fascinating to get inside this building and admire the few Art Deco design features that remain in the cornicing, columns, flooring and tiles including those in the tiled vault in the basement. A beautiful building with so much potential.
Our penultimate tour was that of the Sail Loft on Donegal Quay. Dating back to between 1760 and 1790 the warehouse is where ship sails were made and stood adjacent to the river. It was owned by Tedfords Ship Chandlers, Sail & Tentmakers and stands to what was Tedfords shop, now a restaurant. Stepping inside the atmospheric space we were greeted with lime-washed brick walls, thick single piece timber beams above our heads and hoist doors opened out onto the view of the river. With evidence of measurements still on the walls you could imagine rolls of sailcloth laid out on the floor, the sail maker busying away, ships docked outside on the river.
Commissioned to be restored and reused as a restaurant, architect Aidan McGrath of McGonigleMcGrath took us through the practice’s plans for their client. With all the obstacles that arise in such buildings it was exciting to hear how the unique space could be sympathetically enhanced to allow it to become usable and accessible to the public. You can read more of the buildings history and proposed future here.
Bringing it back to the 21st Century our fourth and final free tour brought us to the Bullitt Hotel – a redeveloped mid-century office building now opened just over a year. The hotel’s ethos is one of stay and play. We were shown the stylish rooms ranging from dinky to roomy, adaptable event space and the latest addition Babel – it’s roof top bar. With contemporary COR-TEN steel on its exterior, chic interior decor, a huge outdoor piece of art and a unique reception desk the tour provided a better understanding of the hotel’s design concept. We heard of the transformation of an office block into a 4 star place to stay, the lessons learned and the resulting improvements in Phase 2 which is currently in progress.
It was a very full but fabulous day exploring Belfast’s architectural heritage, past, present and future.