Wednesday, August 26, 2015

European Heritage Open Days 2014 | Belfast | Part III: Harland & Wolff HQ and Drawing Offices

< 3D Images | Part I | Part II | Part IV | Part V | Part VI >

After leaving Templemore Avenue Baths, I headed home for some sustenance – heritage appreciation is hungry work! After some mild enquiries, I was sufficiently reassured that no burning desire resided within the Chapples Minor to accompany me, so I sallied forth to see the beautiful Harland and Wolff Drawing Offices in the company of my father-in-law, Dave. I’d been to the Drawing Offices once before, when the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow came to Belfast. Then it was filled to capacity with people clutching their treasured possessions, hoping for a glimpse of Fiona Bruce and her giant head (honestly, it’s enormous and completely dwarfs her body … but I digress …). On this occasion it was much less crowded, but those of us there were more interested in the building itself, rather than the prospective values of the various knickknacks found when cleaning out grandmother’s house …

From the front, H&W’s Headquarters looks pretty bland and unimpressive. It’s a three-storey office block, done in sandstone and brick, was and constructed in stages from around 1900 to 1919 and formed the administrative heart of the Harland & Wolff enterprise. The building contains the former offices of William Pirrie, 1st Viscount Pirrie, Thomas Andrews, and Alexander Carlisle. However, the oldest, and most beautiful, part of the building is the pair of barrel-vaulted ground floor Drawing Offices at the back of the building, constructed around 1885. Viewed from outside, or from the Titanic Experience building, they do not impress, nor do they seem particularly remarkable - they frequently remind me of unloved and dilapidated Nissen Huts. However, once inside, the visitor cannot but be impressed with the airy, light-filled space. Their design was deliberately intended to catch as much natural light as possible, as well as being a showcase for the skills of the Harland and Wolff craftsmen. It was here that both the concept drawings and the detailed production plans were produced for RMS Titanic and Olympic. It is this association with tragedy that gives this place its cachet. Like the vast majority of visitors to this place, I struggle to name more than one or two of the large number of vessels that were produced here and went on to have long and largely incident-free careers. Without the tragedy and enduring interest of Titanic, little significance would be attached to this building beyond its wonderful architecture. These are truly wonderful spaces that deserves recognition on their own merits, but even after all this time, I find them tinged with a certain degree of poignancy. After all, these are the rooms where the flaws were introduced into Titanic’s design - pretty much everything baring the iceberg was designed in these spaces. Of course, H&W is about so much more than Titanic, and these offices were used until late 1989. Since then they’ve been in a process of disintegration and degeneration – the paint has started to peel, the damp stains are showing, portions of the plaster have clearly collapsed, and large portions of the building are not safe for visitors. However, all that may be set to change if plans to redevelop the site into an 84 bedroom Titanic hotel, costing some £27M, come to fruition [see here | here | here]. Although the Drawing Offices are currently listed on VisitBelfast.com as being open as part of the Titanic Belfast Discovery Tour, they don’t appear to be part of the main EHOD set of available properties for 2015. My advice is to see if you can get to see this crumbling jewel before it’s redeveloped! As always with these posts, I do hope you enjoy my words and photographs, but I do hope that they act as inspiration to come see my city!

Panoramic overview of one of the Drawing Rooms



Light through yonder windows ...
the Drawing Room with the fish-scaled Titanic Experience building behind

Detail of roof section





Peeling paint ...
... crumbling plaster ...


... details in need of love and restoration

This revolving door, made of Honduras mahogany, was only for the use of the company directors and their important visitors. The workers would have entered the building via a side door.
The front desk/booth
Detail of the entrance booth
This Office was once used by Thomas Andrews, in his role as Managing Director of the Naval Architects. This desk would have been used by one of H&W's accountants rather then a draftsman and was in daily use until the 1960s.
The desk drawer still contains ink stains from long use in the service of the company.
Everything above the ground floor is currently off-limits to visitors
The Drawing Office's staircase makes liberal use of decorative metalwork and is one of the earliest examples of this form in Belfast.
The information boards available on the day said that the flowers on this staircase were representations of flax flowers, a tribute to linen manufacture, Belfast's other great 19th century industry. Unless I'm gravely mistaken, or far too pedantic, these are not flax flowers as they have eight petals, as opposed to actual flax flowers which have only five.

Empty rooms ...
Modern Belfast ...
As it was back then ...
... as it might be in the future ... an artist's impression of what a renovated Drawing Office might look like.

Panoramic view of exterior

Notes:
For anyone interested in the other EHOD properties I’ve seen and written about my find the following of interest: