By: Joseph Vincent Downes
Built: 1929 - 1930
Standing on the corner of Royal Parade and North Street in the centre of Belfast (less than half a mile north of Donegall Square and the City Hall) the former Bank of Ireland Building is one of the finest Modernist buildings in Ireland.
The building was constructed during 1929 and 1930 to designs by Joseph Vincent Downes. Born in 1891, Downes studied architecture at University College Dublin before graduating in 1920. During his studies Downes worked an apprenticeship at the architectural practice of Lucius O'Callaghan (1877 - 1954) and James Henry Webb (1873 - 1955). After graduation Downes initially worked in London for Sir Herbert Baker (1862 - 1946) before moving to work for the practice of Robert Atkinson (1883 - 1952). Notably, Atkinson worked on the Gresham Hotel in Dublin, which was rebuilt between 1925 and 1927 following damage sustained during the Irish Civil War.
In 1928 Downes joined the practice of McDonnell and Dixon (Laurence Aloysius McDonnell, d 1925; William Albert Dixon, 1892 - 1970), for whom he designed the Bank of Ireland Building. He set up his own practice in 1935, subsequently expanding the partnership. In 1943 Downes became Professor of Architecture at University College Dublin, before returning to practice in 1950. He died at the age of 76 on 23 November 1967.
Built of Portland Limestone, the Bank of Ireland Building occupies a corner plot and is five storeys tall, with a shallow ground floor storey beneath a piano nobile (main) first floor. The building comprises three bays along North Street and four bays on Royal Avenue, meeting at a chamfered corner. This rises as a tower above the main body of the building, with vertical stonework fluting to the face of the tower, and a square clock. The tower is topped with a copper-clad domed roof.
The two inner bays on North Street and three inner bays on Royal Avenue are three storeys high, and are separated by pilasters. The bays carry tall, dark-green, metal-framed windows. Between each floor window blanks are disguised with ornate green and gold painted metalwork, so that the fenestration rises uninterrupted. Lettering spelling out 'Bank of Ireland' is carried on transoms above the piano nobile floor windows. The windows on the piano nobile floor are taller than those above. The final storey above these bays is set behind the street frontage with similar, metal-framed windows.
The outer bays on both sides of the building are faced in Portland Limestone and feature tall, slender metal-framed windows. At street level on Royal Avenue are double doors with ornate metalwork fenestration, with a transom separating a rectangular fanlight above, with identical ornamental metalwork. Lettering spelling out 'Bank of Ireland' is positioned above the door.
The main entrance is set into the base of the tower. Steps rise from street level to the piano nobile. A set of double doors (as on Royal Avenue) are set between stone pilasters, surmounted by a pediment with a tall keystone. Lettering spelling out 'Bank of Ireland' is carried on the pediment. Above is a square, carved stone panel of the face of the mythical Greek goddess Medusa.
During the troubles in Northern Ireland the main shopping area around Royal Avenue was closed off and pedestrianised with security gates and roadblocks. Many shops and buildings were attacked with explosive devices and firebombs.
Later in the building's history, modern Bank of Ireland signage was added on tower, beneath the clock. This was subsequently removed when the bank was closed in 2005. Since then the building has fallen into disrepair. However, remarkably, many of the original features including the original metal work signage and windows survive.
The building was awarded Grade B+ listed status on 1 October 1990. In Northern Ireland buildings are listed Grade A, Grade B+, Grade B1 and B2. Grade A is the highest, and is equivalent to Grade I listing in England and Wales. Grade B+ is equivalent to Grade II* listed status, while Grade B1 and B2 correspond with Grade II listed status.