Spires and sills of ‘architects who built Ulster’

Presbyterian Assembly Buildings - or 'Church House' - in Belfast
Presbyterian Assembly Buildings - or 'Church House' - in Belfast

Dr Paul Harron delves into Ulster’s architectural heritage in his new book, Architects of Ulster: Young & Mackenzie – A Transformational Provincial Practice, 1850-1960:

Back in 1879, this newspaper, the Belfast News Letter, praised “Messrs Young & Mackenzie, of Donegall Square, the well-known architects of more than one hundred dignified fanes scattered over the length and breadth of our fair country”.

For ‘fane’ read church building, particularly Presbyterian churches.

It is true to say that the architectural and civil engineering firm of Young & Mackenzie played a remarkably prominent part in the creation of new Presbyterian churches across Ulster.

In fact, Young &Mackenzie, whose designs also included the famous Presbyterian Assembly Buildings – or ‘Church House’ – in Belfast, with its distinctive copper crown spire, effectively became the leading architects for the denomination in the later nineteenth century and well into the twentieth.

The sheer scale of Young & Mackenzie’s contribution to the look of the churches of the largest Protestant denomination in Northern Ireland makes it of note but the ecclesiastical work of the firm is also significant because of the high level of technical skill demonstrated and because the work evidences the influence of ecclesiastical designs from elsewhere being adopted in Ulster, most notably Gothic Revivalism – albeit often of an adapted form of Gothic, demonstrating a pragmatic approach taken by the practice towards its clients.

The firm’s contribution to the popularisation of the various manifestations of this style in Presbyterian buildings was immense; while it was not alone, for better or worse according to taste, the firm played a major part in achieving a quiet stylistic revolution from plain ‘preaching barns’ to grander, soaring edifices.

Think: Fitzroy; Windsor; Malone; Woodvale; McQuiston; First Magherafelt; Cunningham Memorial, Cullybackey; First Armagh and ‘Trinity’ Ballymoney, to name just a few of its designs.

The Ulster Architectural Heritage Society has just published my new book on the firm’s work, entitled Architects of Ulster: Young & Mackenzie – A Transformational Provincial Practice, 1850-1960. It documents not just the firm’s ecclesiastical output, particularly for Presbyterians, but also features its varied commercial, institutional and domestic designs – buildings that are all around us in Ulster and which deserve greater appreciation and recognition.

The exceptionally prolific practice lasted for over three generations of the Young family who were significant historical figures in themselves, especially the founder Robert Young – who became the first Architect Irish Privy Councillor – and his son Robert Magill Young, a respected chronicler of Belfast, and both were highly instrumental in developing the cultural life of the Belfast.

However, the firm’s work stretches right across Ulster, from Londonderry to Magherafelt to Lurgan to Armagh to Coleraine. In addition to ‘Church House’ and the churches, just some of the other standout designs include: the former Robinson & Cleaver’s and Anderson & McAuley’s department stores, the Scottish Provident Buildings, Ocean Buildings, Belfast Royal Academy and the (now) Crescent Arts Centre all in Belfast; Lurgan College; the former City Factory in Londonderry and the famous Culloden Hotel in Cultra (originally built for a stockbroker).

Architects of Ulster: Young & Mackenzie contains over 600 colour illustrations – many published for the first time and a large number drawn from the firm’s vast archive at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland – and as well as thematic chapters it includes a comprehensive gazetteer of the firm’s work.

In the book I’m seeking to engage the reader with the history of these essential, characterful structures and the history of this prolific and energetic practice which imagined and guided them into existence.

Along with the UAHS, I also hope to encourage people to value and appreciate the built heritage and take building conservation and restoration seriously. Without buildings such as very many of these, communities lose their character and distinctive sense of place.

• Architects of Ulster: Young & Mackenzie – A Transformational Provincial Practice, 1850-1960 is available in selected bookshops and from the UAHS: visit www.uahs.org.uk. ISBN 978-0- 900457-80- 7 Price £28