Thursday, 17 October 2013

The Civics of Alfred Brumwell Thomas

Citizens of Belfast seem to take City Hall for granted. It is a magnificent building, but I suppose when beauty becomes part of the every day the beholder becomes numb to it. Disparagingly labelled 'the wedding cake and the pauper's funeral' (I have heard this many times but am yet to find the actual original reference) the CIty Hall was designed to be a grand legislative centre worthy of a capital city of the empire at a time of considerable hardship across the Province and Ireland as a whole.

Sir Alfred Brumwell Thomas
The architectural competition for Belfast City Hall was won in 1897 by a twenty-eight year old called Alfred Brumwell Thomas, a relatively young architect for such a large project. The building was received so well that on it’s completion in 1906, Thomas was awarded a knighthood by King Edward VII. Sir Alfred Brumwell Thomas would go on to design and build numerous other public buildings across the UK, including Stockport and Woolwich town halls, both grand buildings which nevertheless appear mundane in comparison with the exquisite grandeur of Belfast’s City Hall.

The setting out of Royal Avenue lent a greater significance to Donegal Square, making it the starting point of an imposing avenue snaking it’s way northwards. Replacing the fine but rather plain White Linen Hall as it’s centre piece, the construction of the City Hall made the Square the civic heart of the City in the true spirit of classical democracy, providing both an exquisite container for it’s legislative bodies and a magnificent garden for it’s citizens.

The construction of the City Hall, however, was just the beginning of Thomas’s aspirations for Belfast as a ‘Capital City in the Empire.’ He had a series of large-scale design ideas which, given his leanings towards the beaux arts, appears to be based on Ancient Greek ‘Civics,’ but would perhaps today be referred to as ‘urbanism.’

His grandest civic proposal for the city, put before the Belfast Rotary club in 1925, was the suggestion that Wellington Place, Donegal Square North and Chichester Street should become a grand avenue similar to Donegal Place and Royal Avenue. Squares, similar to Donegal Square, would be opened at the ends of Wellington Place and Chichester Street creating “a series of three great squares...joined by imposing streets.” These squares would be surrounded by imposing buildings lending a grandiosity, importance and inspiring classical beauty to these new public spaces.
A diagram showing Brumwell Thomas' civic plan for Belfast
An example of  what Brumwell Thomas envisioned as one of these imposing structures lies in the little known, unrealised project for the Royal Ulster Hotel. This opulent classical building, to be sited between the Methodist Church and the Ocean Insurance building on Donegal Square East, was considered by Thomas to be “of the greatest possible importance and urgency to the city,” a statement which again shows how, even when working on an individual project, Thomas was considering the overall context of the city.
Brumwell Thomas' original drawings of the Royal Ulster Hotel
A series of letters (available to view in PRONI) detail how the project was, despite having the backing of Prime Minister Sir James Craig and many vital business interests in Belfast at the time, beset by financial difficulties and never left the drawing board. The triple square plan, similarly, never got off the ground, much like Thomas’ suggestion that the Northern Irish government building, as opposed to being at Stormont, should be located in the Markets area, near the Albert Bridge.

One can only imagine what Belfast would be like today if Thomas’ ambitions had been realised. Would the Royal Ulster Hotel still exist, an opulent challenge to the 5-star Merchant Hotel? Perhaps it would have went the same unfortunate way of Royal Avenue’s Grand Central Hotel. The Markets area would not have a strong, if troubled, working class community as it does today, and one suspects that the security around the government building would be similarly unfriendly as the high, thick walls around the law courts, or as brutal and aggressive as the barricades around police stations. Lastly, would the two new squares have had any effect on the new road patterns proposed in the late 60s, or would the planners have disregarded the squares, routing the inner ring road through these public spaces regardless?
Computer model of the Royal Ulster Hotel
A speculative map suggesting the layout of Brumwell Thomas’s Belfast. Red indicates extant important civic buildings, while the blue indicates buildings which Brumwell would perhaps have suggested be built to lend a civic grandeur to the new squares.

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