The architectural history of Bangor Court House

Background – the Italianate style

Bangor Court House was built as the Bangor branch of the Belfast Banking Company, in 1865, the year the railway came to Bangor, and opened its doors to the public on the 1st January 1866.  It is a two-storey, five bay building in the Italianate Classical style.

Italianate was an early form of Victorian architecture, often characterised as “neo-Renaissance.” It was initially popularised by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Osborne House, Isle of Wight, England, which was built between 1845 and 1851.

Cliveden, the Italianate, Neo-Renaissance mansion with “confident allusions to the wealth of Italian merchant princes” was another prime example of the style, designed by Charles Barry in 1851.

Following the completion of Osborne House and Cliveden in 1851, the style became a popular choice of design for the small mansions built by the new and wealthy industrialists of the era. These were mostly erected in cities, surrounded by large but not extensive gardens, often laid out in a terrace Tuscan style. The style reached its peak roughly between 1850 and 1870. After the 1870s, architectural fashion turned toward late Victorian styles such as Queen Anne. In Ireland, Killiney Bay, south of Dublin, often referred to as Ireland’s Bay of Naples, is renowned for its picturesque quality and Italianate mansions.

Cliveden, Taplow, Buckinghamshire, England. View of the house opposite from its lawn.

Key Characteristics of Italianate Architecture

  • Deep overhanging eaves with prominent decorative brackets and wide cornices
  • Low-pitched roofs, with the roof frequently hipped (a type of roof where all sides slope downwards to the walls, usually with a gentle slope and no gables or other vertical sides to the roof)
  • Projecting eaves supported by corbels (a structural piece of stone, wood or metal jutting from a wall to carry a weight)
  • Imposing cornice structures
  • Pedimented (a gable, usually of a triangular shape, placed above the horizontal structure of the lintel), windows and doors
  • Arch-headed, pedimented or tripartite Venetian windows with pronounced architraves and archivolts
  • Tall first floor windows
  • Belvedere towers
  • Loggias (a covered corridor)

Italianate architecture in Northern Ireland

William Joseph Barre (born in Newry 1830, died 1867) was a prolific Irish architect who built many well-known buildings in Belfast in a Gothic and Italianate Revival style, but was always overshadowed by his great rival, Charles Lanyon.

Barre had a colourful history when it came to architectural competitions. By the time he was thirty he had beaten numerous rivals to win the task of designing the Ulster Hall. His design for the Methodist Church on University Road (originally the Wesleyan Church, on what was then Botanic Road) took first place in a competition of 1864, the work being completed the following year.

The Ulster Hall at Bedford Street was built in 1859–1862 in an Italianate style after the designs by the architect William Joseph Barre.

University Road Methodist Church. Built in 1864-65 to the Italianate design of W J Barre, this church is currently disused – an excellent example of a Belvedere tower.

History came close to repeating itself in 1865 when the selection committee charged with choosing a design for the monument to Prince Albert picked Barre’s clock. The General Committee, of which Lanyon was a member, chose to overrule in favour of Lanyon’s design. This time, however, public outcry was sufficient to restore the original decision, leaving us with Belfast’s best known, if somewhat skewed (it is out by over a metre at the top), clock tower.

The Headline Building, Victoria Street, was designed by Thomas Jackson and built by John Lowry & Son in 1863. Commissioned by the Scottish Amicable Life Assurance Company, it was the first purpose-designed insurance office block in Belfast. Massive and ornate in the ‘modern Italian’ style it resembled a Renaissance palazzo (note crowded and busy façades), using Dungannon sandstone and white Glasgow brick. The entire building was designed to be fireproof with stone staircases.

Sir Charles Lanyon DL, JP (6 January 1813 – 31 May 1889) was an English architect, entrepreneur and politician. His work and that of his firm (Lanyon, Lynn & Lanyon) is most closely associated with Belfast including Crumlin Road Court House and The Custom House, Belfast

Considered by many to be Belfast’s finest architectural feature, Lanyon, Lynn & Lanyon designed the Custom House in 1854 at a cost of £30,000 and the building was completed in 1857. Built in the Palazzo/Italian Renaissance style, the building features carved statues of Britannia, Neptune and Mercury.

Other works by Lanyon, Lynn & Lanyon in Belfast include the Linenhall Library, Belfast Castle, the Palm House at the Belfast Botanic Gardens, Stranmillis House, The Assembly Rooms in Waring Street, the Masonic Hall in Arthur Square and both the Queen’s Bridge and Ormeau Bridge.

Belfast Bank, Newtownards, 1854

Lanyon also built the Newtownards branch of the Belfast Banking Company (together with his partner Lynn) in the Italianate style. Note below the windows employ the Venetian Gothic style, with its allusions to Byzantine and Oriental themes via the serpentine curved ogee arches. This effect was not to be used in the windows in the Bangor Court House.

Bangor Railway Station

The station buildings were erected in 1864–1865 to designs by Lanyon Lynn & Lanyon, probably by Lanyon’s son John (Charles was not into polychrome as far as we know and by that time he was more interested in politics). It was built for The Belfast and County Down Railway, who had developed lots of dormitory towns outside Belfast including Holywood, Helen’s Bay and Whitehead.

Following World War 2, refurbishments made to the building by the Ulster Transport Authority damaged the original Lanyon-designed building, stripping it of much of its original brickwork and beauty. The company then rebuilt the building, before it was reconstructed again to a new design in 2000.

The original building (opposite) had a campanile style tower, decorative brickwork and round headed windows. The arrival of the railway on 18th May 1865 heralded the dawn of a new age for Bangor as both a tourist destination and a fashionable place of residence. Respectability was however the watchword for this aspirant town. A sign in the railway-station read: To make the most of Beautiful Bangor, Boldly Beware of Betting and Booze.

The Belfast Bank, Bangor (later Bangor Court House)

Built in c. 1866 to accommodate the expanding population resulting from the arrival of the railway in 1865, the original building was The Belfast Bank (see below photo).  It replaced an industrial store owned by the Ulster Mining Company. The Ulster Architectural Heritage Society (UAHS) is the leading independent voice for built heritage in Ulster and comments as follows:

 “Located to the East of Quay Street in the centre of Bangor, where Patton (1999, 169) comments that it was “very sophisticated for the Bangor of its day”. The ornate building comprises of round-headed windows to the ground floor, rectangular at first floor with balustrade bases and bracketed pedimented tops. The entrance hosts a Tuscan doorcase with paired pilasters, quoin-stones, bracketed cornice, a three-panelled double leaf timber door is still in-situ with plain transom light. The roof is a hipped natural slate roof with painted render chimney stacks.” Picture above of Belfast Bank, Bangor (source Archiseek).

Bangor prior to the arrival of the railway was a harbour and fishing town with a population of around 2,000 or less. This new building indicated that the merchants and businessmen who owned the Belfast Banking Company shared the vision of the Belfast and Co Down Railway that Bangor could become a successful dormitory town to the newly rising middle and upper-classes, eager to get out of smoky, grimy, industrial Belfast.

William Osborough, the last Manager of the Bangor branch of the Belfast Bank, c1952

Who was the architect?

Noel Simpson, The Belfast Bank 1827-1970, Blackstaff does not indicate who designed the new Bangor branch.

Clearly Barre, Lanyon and Jackson (above) had all demonstrated that the Italianate style was fashionable – could they have been the architects of the Belfast Bank, Bangor? W H Lynn, who worked for Charles Lanyon (and was a partner before branching out on his own), later built the North Street branch of the Belfast Bank in 1874. However, this was 8 years after 1866. The Newtownards Belfast Bank was 12 years before Bangor was built.

The most likely designer is James McNea.  An Architect and surveyor, of Belfast, he was active in the 1850s and 1860s. Most crucially, he designed the Belfast Bank in Ballymoney, finished in 1864. James McNea was probably also a developer, as he was involved in the leasing of property in central Belfast – both as lessor and lessee – during the 1860s. This will have made him an ideal client and service provider for building the new Bangor branch in 1866. Its also likely that to save money the Belfast Bank will have kept style, format and architect similar when building a number of branches over a similar period.

Belfast Bank, Ballymoney (built 1864) Source: Archiseek

Why choose the Italianate style for the Belfast Bank and other examples in Bangor?

The Victorians revived every style known to 19th century man, and sometimes mixed them up. While Charles Barry and others made Italianate fashionable, it was really a revival of Italian Renaissance architecture and it was used for buildings that wanted to demonstrate good taste and solidity – hence banks and market houses, and then for the houses of prosperous merchants. (You will find plenty of Italianate features on houses around Bangor for that reason). Educational buildings more often used Tudor details like Oxbridge colleges, and churches increasingly used Gothic. Comparing the Belfast Bank on Quay Street with Bangor’s Market House/ Danske Bank at the top of Main Street, this is also in the classical style. This architectural sympathy makes it understandable that the Belfast Bank eventually moved to this building. The banks in Bangor used other styles as time went on. The 1920 Ulster Bank has a more Arts and Crafts feel, whilst the 1930s Bank of Ireland, in the same cluster on Main Street, is more Art Deco.

Other Italianate examples in Bangor can be seen at:

Seacourt, which is fairly conventional Victorian Italianate

the Masonic Hall on Hamilton Road which is a rather more baroque version

Lots of Bangor buildings use features like the moulded architraves round windows and dentils under the eaves (the small cubes that appear to support the eaves and gutters), particularly on the Princetown Road. (Some good examples on Clifton Road have alas been demolished). Italianate buildings are generally symmetrical which is less common in Bangor.

The building in its architectural context in Bangor’s heyday

Below sits The Court House (then the Belfast Bank) with the other buildings on Quay Street from a 1916 picture during Bangor’s heyday, surrounded by other famous buildings of Bangor: the awning fronted Quay House built for E&W Pim’s Grocery Emporium, then the Victoria Restaurant, beside the Belfast Bank. On the other side of the Bank is the Grand Hotel (directly to the left of the Court House in the picture), a towered building erected in 1895 for Mrs Annie O’Hara. It later became Barry’s Amusements, before it burnt down and was replaced with the Marine Court Hotel.

To the left of the Grand Hotel is the Picture Palace (later to become the Windsor Hotel and more recently the Marine Court Hotel), and beyond that the Royal Hotel, initially bought by the son of Annie O’Hara, William, and redeveloped into the Royal hotel, and operated by the family until the Donegans took it over in around 1992.

Beyond that, on the other side of Crosby Street, stood the Marine Hotel, now the Rabbit Rooms bar and restaurant.

 At this point Queen’s Parade (originally named Sandy Row), was still almost completely residential except for the Strand Hotel at the corner of Southwell Road.

The Belfast Bank sits slightly hidden, or at least back, from the line of the other Quay Street buildings, sophisticated but unobtrusive, quietly going about its work of providing secure banking for the people of Bangor.

This photo of a thriving, civilised town that had progressed hugely by 1916 to become the third most populous town in Ulster (population around 13,000), sits in contrast to the barbarism, slaughter, mud and misery of WW1, which so many had left to take part in, after training at Clandeboye. 


Troubles architecture and heritage

The bank became a Court of Petty Sessions in 1954. During ‘the Troubles’, the building was heavily fortified, and retains many security features, including bullet-proof glass, imposing steel gates to the rear and a chain link wire fence.

The turbulence of Northern Ireland’s conflict is played out in the architectural development of Bangor Court House from the seventies on, as seen in the image below with its somewhat “brutalist” overtones. Architecture tells its story of a place not completely at peace with itself during this time.

This remains an important part of the history of the building and its many features remain today especially to the rear of the building and will be incorporated into the renovation of the building.

The revived Court House will help set Bangor firmly on a path of regeneration, hope and renewed community confidence.

Cliveden, Taplow, Buckinghamshire, England. View of the house opposite from its lawn.

We hope to publish further articles on the building such as “Life as a Court House”, “Life as a Bank” and “Life before the Bank.” If you have any information, memories, pictures or other contributions on these subjects please send to
(any recollections will be treated in confidence if you wish)


Researched and written by Robert Lyle (with grateful thanks to Marcus Patton, Ulster Architectural Heritage Society for added commentary and help)