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Tuesday, 3 January 2012

The Past in the Present: The Legacy of the Cathedral Quarter

In this series, The Past in the Present, we explore how the historic urban character of a city can be part of a dynamic and continually evolving contemporary society, with an aim to spark debate on the topic of conservation and heritage in our cities and further afield.

Series curated by Ailish Killilea and Anna Skoura.


St. Annes Cathedral, Belfast. (Photo by Ailish Killilea)

In recent years the Cathedral Quarter has been identified as the key cultural district of Belfast, seen to play apivotal role as the focus for Belfast's burgeoning arts and crafts scene. Every year the Cathedral Quarter becomes a beehive of activity with a range of festivals locating here such as the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, Open House Festival, Festival of Fools, Belfast Film Festival, Belfast Photo Festival, Out to Lunch Festival and Culture Night.


Culture Night 2010. (photo from Culture Night Belfast)

There are reportedly over 50 creative and cultural organisations located in the Cathedral Quarter presently.Lower rents in the area has helped artists and arts organisations to locate here. But it seems that the character of the area has been a major factor in attracting such a huge catchment of artists. Peter Mutschler, of Paragon Studios, Donegall Street, describes the reason to locate in the Cathedral Quarter: 'I think the reason to move into the premises with studio space on different floors (there are still two businesses)was- and still is- that the spaces are good and it has this kind of stimulating surrounding. The run down building itself has lots of character and the area just has a great atmosphere.'
It is this distinctive character that attracts new public and private investment every year, with adrive to support the cultural quarter's engaging beauty and vitality. Such support for the area has led to plans for regeneration of the Cathedral Quarter in the hope of increasing its utilization.


Map of Belfast, 1690. (Map sourced from Mark Thompson)

The area we know today as the Cathedral Quarter began its establishment right from the birth of the Belfast City in 1613. From this map dating back to 1690 we can see the North Gate and it is this street that is known as North Street. The Belfast River which would have run from the River Lagan down to Millgate now flows under High Street.


Belfast Map, 1791. (Map by Samuel Lewis)

From this map of Belfast in 1791 we can see a street pattern emerging. The Cathedral Quarter is being established, with many of its routes surviving today (Donegall Street, North Street, Waring Street, Rosemary Street, High Street). It is this historic footprint that contributes so much to the city in telling its story as a continually growing and evolving major city.

The following map shows the extent of the Cathedral Quarter today and the listed buildings within its limits that have survived.


Present day Cathedral Quarter map, showing boundaries and listed buildings. (map by Ailish Killilea)

In the late 1990's plans were submitted to the Department of Social Development (DSD) by Ewart Properties to regenerate the Cathedral Quarter area. The following map shows the extent of this planning proposal known as the Royal Exchange and the listed buildings that may be affected by this development.

Map showing the footprint of the Royal Exchange Development. (Map by Ailish Killilea)

Buildings within the footprint of the Royal Exchange include; North Street Arcade, the Exchange & Assembly Rooms, Lower Garfield Street, the First Presbyterian Church and the Masonic Building.


North Street Arcade today. (Photo by UAHS)

The North Street Arcade is a four-storey red brick building with red sandstone detailing was built in 1936 by Cowser & Smyth. The arcade bends through 90◦, with a domed space at the bend, once housing shops, artist groups and exhibition space. It survived the Belfast Blitz during the Second World War and I.R.A. bombings in 1971, but unfortunately it crumbled under an arson attack in April of 2004. Presently the building is listed, but no repairs have been carried out.

The Exchange & Assembly Rooms today. (photo by Ailish Killilea)

The Exchange and Assembly Rooms acquired its name through its function as a building. It was originally built as a one-storey market with arcade in 1769, known as 'The Exchange'. In 1776 Lord Donegall commissioned Sir Robert Taylor to design a two-storey building for social gatherings and dances, when the building then became known as 'The Assembly Rooms'.Fashionable society immediately began referring to the area of Bridge Street, North Street, Waring Street, and Rosemary Lane as 'The Four Corners'. After the 1798 rebellion, the Assembly Rooms served as a trial room for Henry Joy McCracken of the United Irishmen (he was subsequently hung at High Street). In 1845 Sir Charles Lanyon won the commission to convert the Assembly Rooms to the present day structure for Northern Bank. Today the building is in disuse, with much loobying to use the venue as an exhibition hall or theatre.


Lower Garfield Street today. (photo from Lower Garfield)

Lower Garfield Street was known as the Curved Entry until 1910 until it was named after the US President James Garfield. The curved red brick building was built in 1896 by Graeme, Watt and Tullock. The curved red brick building was once occupied by a ballroom, many shops and the Garfield Bar, but today, all that remains is the Tivoli barber shop.

The First Presbyterian Church today. (photo Ailish Killilea)

This building is said to be the oldest surviving place of worship in Belfast city. It was built in 1781-83 by Roger Mullholland and the facade was extended in 1883 and the rear in 1906-07 by Young and Mackenzie. In Victorian time this building would have been seen as less admirable, but the Irish builder of 1867 expressed a different opinion 'for those who believe in Classic churches clothed in cement, this building cannot fail to satisfy their taste' (M. Patton, Central Belfast).


Masonic Hall. (photo by A. Killilea)

The Masonic Building on Rosemary Street was built in 1950-54 by Young & Mackenzie. The three-storey building is made from reconstructed stone with a flat full width pediment and a central bay set slightly forward with balustraded balcony on scrolled barckets over the entrance portico. Above the entrance door are the mason's compasses over fanlight. This was originally the site of The Third Presbyterian Church, finished in 1831 to the designs of John Miller. The Third Presbyterian Church was destroyed in the blitz of 1941. The Provincial Grand Lodge Hall at 15 Rosemary Street is the headquarters of the provincial Grand Lodge of Antrim. Due to the recent harsh economic climate it has been difficult to maintain the hall and lodges are now generally located in Arthur Square Hall. Consideration is been given to the future of the hall, according to the Provincial Grand Lodge of Antrim, alternatives than to sell the building are being sought in order to maintain the Masonic Hall.

Through the discussion of this heritage in the Cathedral Quarter that may possibly face demolition if plans for The Royal Exchange are to go ahead. It is clear that the character of the Cathedral Quarter comes from its colorful and historic past.
Alternative efforts, to that of the Royal Exchange, to regenerate the Cathedral Quarter can be seen in cultural campaigns and projects such as: City Supplements: an Alternative Urban Strategy, The Risk is Rewarding, Barber Shop Quintet, Save the Cathedral Quarter and Let's Get it Right.
Is this historic fabric an integral part of the Cathedral Quarter? If so, is there a way to incorporate such buildings into a design to regenerate the Cathedral Quarter?

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