2, ROYAL AVENUE, BELFAST, was built between 1864 and 1869 to designs by William Joseph Barre.
Barre, a Newry and Belfast-based architect, rose to prominence after winning the competition to design the Ulster Hall in 1859, and was one of the most prominent engineers of the mid-Victorian period, often coming into competition with his immediate contemporaries Charles Lanyon and William Lynn.
Barre’s other Belfast works include the Albert Memorial Clock.
The Irish Builder records that the Provincial Bank of Ireland remained uncompleted by the time of Barre’s death by illness in 1867.
The bank premises were consequently completed under the supervision of the architects Turner & Williamson.
When finally completed in 1869, Barre’s design was described and, indeed, praised as being a peculiar adaptation of Venetian-Gothic.
The Irish Builder remarked that the Provincial Bank was built by Henry Fulton, a local builder; whilst the interior and exterior stone carving was by a Mr Barnes.
In 1901-2, the bank was depicted as a rectangular-shaped building situated along the recently laid-out Royal Avenue.
When originally constructed, it did not possess its current rear return, which is a modern extension added ca 2005.
The present building replaced an earlier bank building that had originally stood on the same site, but was demolished about 1864.
The bank manager resided at the site, in a small house to the rear of the building.
The bank contained two sets of rooms: four rooms for the manager's house, and two rooms for the porter's house, both located at the rear of the building.
It was described by Brett as an ‘extraordinarily exuberant building’, and is significant as the only building to survive the Royal Avenue redevelopment of the 1880s.
|Hercules Street was narrower than Royal Avenue|
Prior to this date, Donegall Place and Hercules Street (the precursor to Royal Avenue) were divided by a line of buildings that formerly stood along the eastern side of the current street.
These buildings were demolished by Belfast municipal council in 1880-81 by the town surveyor, J C Bretland (who in the process re-housed over 4,000 people).
The demolition and clearance of Hercules Place and Hercules Street created the long open boulevard which now extends from Donegall Square to York Street.
However, it caused the destruction of almost all the buildings on the street pre-dating the 1880s.
2, Royal Avenue, continues to occupy the original line of Hercules Place (a narrow square that linked Donegall Place to Hercules Street), and, as a result, is set further back than the adjoining buildings.
Barre’s design for the Provincial Bank clearly displays the influence that the architectural critic John Ruskin had on the Belfast architects of the Victorian period.
Throughout his career, Ruskin remarked on the eclectic quality of northern Italian architecture; how it mixed materials to produce a polychromatic effect; and how it also mixed Gothic tradition with the classicism of Ancient Rome.
Hugh Dixon notes that Barre
was principal among those who put Ruskin’s theory into practise … [his Provincial Bank] an outstanding illustration of what could be achieved. The basic classicism of the building readily identified by the symmetry and the central triangular pediment.
Yet the decoration is medieval. The faces of hairy Lombard warriors look out from foliage beneath deep, rounded, Romanesque arches. Colonnades flank the openings, and even the balustrade along the roof line is adapted from an interlacing Saxon arcade.Larmour states that the completed building is notably less ornate that Barre’s original design, which employed greater use of sculpted figures; however, due to rising expenses, Barre was forced to amend his intended design prior to his death and so the pediment has remained bare of statues.
The exterior façade is also much more polychromatic than Barre envisaged as, due to the decay of the white Cookstown sandstone employed, since the 1880s the façade has required painting repeatedly.
The interior of the building was fully realised from Barre’s original design.
Larmour notes that the stucco figures in the groin angles of the circular dome each represent Mechanism, Engineering, Art, War, Law, Navigation, Architecture and Industry.
Throughout its history the Provincial Bank of Ireland has been a prominent landmark in Belfast city centre.
Prior to the completion of the City Hall in 1906 the bank, with its large open area in front, was utilised as a public venue and witnessed a number of important processions; for example, in 1901, large crowds gathered outside the Provincial Bank to welcome home Boer War veterans.
The Provincial Bank continued to occupy the building for over a century until the late 1980s, when the Allied Irish Bank took over possession of the site.
It remained a financial institution till the 1990s.
The premises are now occupied by Tesco stores, which sympathetically renovated the building and constructed the large extension to the rear, undertaken by Chapman Architects ca 2005.
Tesco undertook a major restoration of the building in 2008.
The fine, Cookstown sandstone has now been revealed for all to see, having been covered in paint for a very long time - perhaps even since its original construction.
It particularly interests me because I worked there for a brief period in the early 1990s.
Anderson & McAuley's department store was still trading then, too.
Tesco deserves credit for keeping this important Belfast landmark in such good repair.
First published in 2008.