The Merchant Hotel in Waring Street Belfast has long been admired for its distinctive architectural style, both in its former life as the headquarters of the Ulster Bank and now, its new incarnation as a five star luxury hotel.
The original Grade A listed building was greatly enhanced in the summer of 2010 by the addition of a £16.5 million extension featuring a wealth of new facilities.
This history section discusses the history of the Grade A listed original building.
This formidable Giffnock sandstone structure was purpose built as the headquarters of the Ulster bank. The site was originally acquired in 1836. However, the decision to build was not taken until 1857. Bank Directors Robert Grimshaw and James Heron visited Glasgow and Edinburgh to glean as much information as possible on the best banking buildings. It was their earnest wish that the building should appear elegant, substantial and prosperous.
The location was deemed eminently suitable being, as it was, in the heart of Belfast’s mercantile and commercial centre. In fact Waring Street derives its name from a successful local merchant William Waring.
William Waring came from Toombridge, in the 17th century, to set up a tannery in Belfast. He was granted a lease in the street that was to take on his name. He had a daughter called Jayne whom Jonathan Swift courted for two years (he called her “Varina”) but she turned down his proposal of marriage. Swift had been minister at a parish in Kilroot at the time before eventually moving to Dublin to become Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. During his time at Kilroot, Swift was said to have been inspired to write Gulliver’s Travels after marvelling at the distinctive “profile” of Napoleon’s Nose, the prominent cliff of the Cavehill. Also around the same time part of the York Road, located on the outskirts of the city centre, was called Lilliput Farm, which may have been where Swift got the name for his famous land of little people.
For the creation of the Ulster Bank headquarters, the directors felt the work should be undertaken by local talents. Over 60 designs were submitted to the bank’s committee and £100 was offered for the best design. In the end the design of a talented Glaswegian by the name of James Hamilton was selected. The building work was undertaken by Messer’s D and J Fulton, while the spectacularly ornate plasterwork in the main banking hall was carried out by local man George Crowe.
The exterior of the building is Italianate in style, a popular feature of High Victorian Architecture. Sculptures depicting Commerce, Justice and Britannia, look down benignly from the apex of the magnificent facade. Under the grand central dome of the main banking hall, fruit and foliage designs surround the walls in a magnificent frieze. Four Corinthian columns, featuring plump cherubs depicting science, painting, scripture and music, frame the room.
Generosity of proportions and an ornate but not ostentatious style throughout the building has ensured that it is one of the most renowned and best loved buildings in Belfast. When the designs were first shown at the 1858 London Architectural Exhibition, the literary magazine Athenaeum described them as “very commendable, earnest, massive, rich and suitable”. Writing more than a century later, founding member of the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society C.E.B. Brett said the building offered “every inducement to linger and ponder on wealth and its advantages”.
The Merchant Hotel is located in the beautiful Cathedral Quarter, which is rich in culture and history. For example, did you know in the 18th century Belfast was known as the “Boston of the North” because of the actions of radical Presbyterians, who as members of the United Irishmen attempted to unite Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. In fact located diagonally opposite The Merchant Hotel is Sugarhouse Entry, where the United Irishmen met in Peggy Barclay’s Benjamin Franklin Tavern. Next to Sugarhouse Entry is the Commercial Building, nowadays known as The Northern Whig. It was opened in 1820 and replaced four thatched cottages, one of which was a woollen drapers shop owned by the famous United Irishman Samuel Neilson. Nearby at the junction of Waring Street, Donegall Street, North Street and Bridge Street you’ll find the oldest part of the city. Dubbed the Four Corners, it was from here that all milestones from Belfast were measured. The Concierge would be delighted to arrange a walking tour of the area for you, taking in all points of historical interest.
Thanks to local historian Raymond O’Regan for some of the historical information made reference to in this section