[Extracts from the Queen's University list by A J Rowan and C E B Brett, published by the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society in 1968 (revised by Hugh Dixon and David Evans 1975).]
Foundation stone 30th December, 1845. Opened 1849. Charles Lanyon, architect. The heart of the University, the focus of the Queen's area, the old college is the high point of Early Victorian designing achievement in the north of Ireland, and arguably Ulster's finest architectural set piece. Standing back behind tree lined lawns it enjoys a privileged position (not unparalleled in the Queen's area, but rare elsewhere in Belfast). Unlike its sister colleges at Galway and Cork, it was built in brick rather than stone and did not attempt initially to surround a complete quadrangle. Instead, Lanyon chose to have an excitingly sculptural front with wings which could eventually be extended. The revived Tudor style was chosen because of its association with the late mediaeval college buildings of England. The source of much of the detail of Queen's, including the whole composition for the central tower, was Magdalen College at Oxford, and the success of the translation probably derives as much from the overall architectural conception of Lanyon, as from the detailed mediaeval draughtsmanship of his assistant Lynn.
The quadrangle, as more-or-less completed by 1914, has suffered, and continues to suffer, from demolitions and unsympathetic or unimaginative reconstructions. On the whole, the recent buildings do not seem intended to harmonize, either with the older college or with each other. This is a pity.
Lanyon's great west facade of mellow brick, discreetly patterned, with its brown stone trim on the buttresses and parapets, remains almost unchanged. Only in the removal of' diamond window panes is progress discernible. This tendency should be stopped and the windows restored. If properly painted, the diamond panes would let in much more light. It must be gratefully recorded, however, that the University has in recent years restored the ornamental crestings on the ridge-tiles.
Financial stringency resulted in much of the detail remaining unexecuted, and though the furnishing of the interior seems particularly spartan, there are some surprises. Behind the tower is a tall central hall with a large five-light window (commissioned from J.E.Nuttgens of High Wycombe in 1939; erected after the war). The gallery and first floor are reached by an atmospheric stone staircase with crenellated baluster piers. Half way up on the hidden side of an arch is an extraordinary twenty-five foot high painting of St. Patrick. Only about four feet wide, it is something of an iconographic triumph. Elsewhere the building is chiefly remarkable for its depressed arches and depressing decoration.
On the east elevation, the cloisters undulating with the building, provide a pleasant walk with varying views of the buildings beyond. On the south wing (originally set aside to accommodate the Principal and Vice-Principal) a chimney breast is decorated with blue brick to make the pattern 'VR 1848'.
The principal additions to the block are:
1865: Single storey added above North cloister. W.H.Lynn, architect.
1904-5: Double storey added to South cloister. Probably by Dr Robert Cochrane, architect to the Board of Works.
Refs: Moody and Beckett pp. 103-115; Brett p. 26; Dixon p.
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The majority of the South Wing was added 1911-12 as part of the expansion of Queen's as a full University. The architect, winning the competition at the age of eighty two, was W.H.Lynn, who, of course, knew the old college intimately, and produced a similar but much cheaper scheme with a central tower and arch to house the Physics Department.
In 1933 additions were made to both North and South Wing in a rather jazzy brick, which somehow sinks into the whole. W.A.Forsyth, architect.
East half 1864-5; west half 1911-13. On both occasions the architect was W.H.Lynn. Not withstanding the extra ordinarily late date of the second half of the building, the Library is one of Lynn's (and Belfast's) finest surviving Ruskinian polychrome designs. Performing the difficult task of blending with the Old College and yet making a statement of its own, the Library demonstrates Lynn's skill both as a planner and as one with a careful regard for the environment. The full vocabulary of Ruskinian design is employed. Brick and polychrome stone work, gables and gargoyles, banded tiles, ornamental tracery and interesting skyline are combined. Yet the building works with, not against, its neighbour. It teaches a lesson which was sadly not learned by the minds behind its other neighbour, the new Library Stack (1967, John McGeagh, architect). Here the siting is reasonable, but the materials unsympathetic, and the scale disastrous.
Inside the Old Library the space has been minced in a thoroughly muddled remodelling of the ground floor. Up above, however, remains one of Ireland's richest High Victorian interiors. Polychrome arches spring from piers decorated with marble shafts, and capitals abundant with stone-carved vegetable matter. The long pointed roof, as Moody and Beckett have noticed, gives an ecclesiastical effect, 'but', they continue, 'in the eyes of many Queensmen it forms a satisfying whole, and the reading room ... with its high roof and great west window, beneath which in winter, a huge fire blazed in the open grate, seemed the very ideal of a library reading room.' No-one would seriously campaign to have the fire restored, but a new and more dignified use for this very grand building should certainly be found.
Memorial plaque to W.H.Lynn in porch; Brett p.51; Builder 1910
p. 444; DB VII p.157; Moody and Beckett p.438.
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