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Beginning of new chapter for Belfast's Central Library

By Linda Stewart

It's been around since before Belfast was even a city — and it’s starting to show its age.

Belfast Central Library is undergoing a painstaking facelift to counter the rigours of more than 100 years of Northern Ireland weather, city centre pollution and even a certain amount of blast damage dating back to The Troubles.

The library was launched in October 1888 — just hours before Belfast itself was named a city — and was built from red sandstone to a design by architect WH Lynne.

But that distinctive red sandstone brought its own problems — as it was so soft and porous, it began to break down over the years and pieces of stone were beginning to fall into Royal Avenue. In February the scaffolding went up over the front of the library as a major restoration effort to return the Central Library to its former glory got under way.

Libraries NI asset manager Dessie Miskelly said the restoration work, which is being carried out by the Patton Group, is expected to come to a close this November.

“The work that is going on at the minute is to restore the exterior which was largely built from sandstone and has deteriorated over time and with the effects of the weather, the urban environment and some small blast damage in the more recent past,” he said.

“The Belfast Telegraph was subjected to a car bomb during the Troubles and, as it is directly adjacent to it, it sustained some damage. There is also some superficial shrapnel damage to the front due to a misguided German incendiary bomb, but the majority of damage is due to time and the environment and the fact that it was almost entirely built from a very soft sandstone, which is porous and began to break down over time.”

The cost of the restoration is likely to come in at between £850,000 and £900,000, as areas of concealed damage are uncovered.

The roof has been replaced, sandstone is being repaired and some of the more intricate carved scrolls that have suffered particularly badly have been replaced with carvings from stone from the quarry in Dumfries where the original sandstone was sourced.

“The library is a Grade B listed building so the work is very tightly controlled — we are working with Northern Ireland Environment Agency in terms of the historical building. It’s sympathetic restoration — we’re replacing, where we can, with original material, and where we can’t, with materials that are sympathetic to the building,” Mr Miskelly said.

The library was opened at a special ceremony on October 13, 1888, by Lord Lieutenant for Ireland, the Marquess of Londonderry who was on his way to a banquet at the Linen Hall Library where he granted Belfast city status.

The building was originally both a free public library and museum with a large open plaza at the rear for public performances, and was paid for by increasing the rates by 1p.

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