Belfast Telegraph

Belfast Primark building was a grand old lady who'd seen and survived horror and history, a landmark in our daily lives

Lindy McDowell on why seeing the historic Bank Buildings in flames left so many of us feeling profoundly saddened. Main picture Kevin Scott

To some of us she is, and always will be Bank Buildings. To a younger generation she's simply Primark. But to all of us she has represented more than just a store, a business, a workplace or an historic building.

She was Belfast.

Not just a bricks and mortar city centre structure. But a grand old lady who'd seen and survived horror and history, who'd witnessed centuries of change and challenge and had gracefully, seamlessly adapted and endured.

She was a landmark in the city centre - and in our daily lives. How often have we said "Right. See you outside Bank Buildings/Primark. Okay?"

Maybe, when checking the time, we and all those other city centre workers hightailing it back to the office after lunch didn't always pause overly long to admire the intricate detail of that imposing clock topping her facade.

But it was as familiar to us as the face of a friend.

A friend, in this instance, telling us to get a move on.

We didn't think or know or even, to be frank, care too much about her history. The sad thing is that in the aftermath of Tuesday's devastating fire we now know and appreciate so much more about her.

The original building on the site was commissioned by Waddell Cunningham - regarded as the richest man in Belfast - in 1785. It was designed by the English architect Sir Robert Taylor. Taylor had begun his career as a sculptor. Although he failed to earn a living at that, he obviously retained considerable faith in his own artistic genes. He named his son Michael Angelo Taylor.

The first building housed a bank - The Bank of the Four Johns, named after its founders Messrs Brown, Ewing, Hamilton and Holmes who shared the same first name. The bank collapsed and in a shift from Mammon to godliness, the Church of Ireland Bishop of Down and Connor, Dr William Dickson, next moved in to make it his home.

By 1805 though, it had become a shop. And it was to remain a centre of commerce from there on in.

That shopfront pavement at the confluence of Donegall Place and Royal Avenue which so many of us have used as a convenient meeting point also gruesomely served back in the early 1800s as a place of public execution. A macabre convergence of retail and retribution. The last to die there were three weavers who'd attacked the home of their boss following an argument over pay.

But such horror would have been long forgotten by the shoppers who flocked through its doors later that century after it had become a more impressive drapery business. And certainly by the turn of the century when the architect WH Lynn had redesigned the bottom floors of the building, installing the big plate glass windows that seem commonplace today but in 1900 must have seemed so very plush and futuristic. A reflection of a Belfast booming for all the right reasons.

So much history those old walls have witnessed down the years...

The 1798 rebellion only a few years after it had first been built, the grim years in the mid-1800s when famine stalked the land and encroached on the city too, the growing industrialisation of Victorian Belfast when commerce was king, the Great War with first the military parades passing by its front doors, those idealistic young soldiers marching to the Front - and then later the news filtering through to the city streets of the unspeakable carnage of the Somme.

Much of the news of that era would have been conveyed to the local populace by the Belfast Telegraph, its many editions sold on those same streets outside the Bank Buildings' doors by the paper boys whose shrill and unforgettable marketing cries echo forever in the history of this city. The sinking of the Titanic, Partition, the King's visit, the Second World War...

Through it all the Bank Buildings continued to trade. Even when Hitler attacked and his bombardment laid waste great swathes of the city, clipping chunks out of the walls of nearby premises.

There was a brief respite in the Fifties and Sixties. By then, Bank Buildings was a quite swish store vying for custom with Belfast's other iconic businesses of the day. It was the age of the local family-run department store. Brands and Norman's. Robb's. Robinson and Cleaver.

And then came the Troubles..

Belfast city centre was for a time quite literally surrounded by a ring of steel. To get in you had to queue to be frisked and have your bag searched. The process was repeated at the door of every shop. (And to think today all we have to gripe about are bus lanes impeding our progress into the city's commercial heart.)

The bombers and the fire bombers still got through, of course, to destroy lives and livelihoods, wiping out jobs, demolishing a shared heritage. No system is infallible against terrorists.

The Bank Buildings was itself firebombed in the mid-70s. But it still survived the worst of the IRA onslaught of those years that ripped apart the built face of Belfast and bequeathed us a city whose architecture in many parts could best be described as Seventies Utilitarian.

Bank Buildings was a grand old survivor. And the old girl got a new, and maybe unexpected, lease of life when Primark moved in.

The new owners, fair play to them, respected and retained the building's heritage and beauty. Amid her grandeur shoppers could now browse Primark's trademark range of 21st century fast-fashion, low-cost stock.

The business itself, enormously popular with local customers and a big draw for city centre trade will - even temporarily - be a massive loss to Belfast. Let's hope they get something sorted soon and that workers' jobs can be safeguarded.

The only blessing from the fire - and it can't be said enough - was that nobody was killed or injured. Shop staff and the magnificent emergency services, especially the firefighters who brought the blaze under control, deserve all credit there.

But in the end they couldn't save her.

When the inferno was at its height those scenes of hellfire curling up through that beloved building, hideous columns of smoke belching from her broken roof, were truly shocking.

But how much more emotive the sight of the aftermath?

Stark and skeletal, stripped bare and with the wind now snaking through the blackened void within, this is our old friend reduced to an undignified and unstable shell.

She was Belfast. She is Belfast.

And maybe - though it is hard to imagine how - like the tough, indomitable soul of this stubborn city of ours, the old girl can somehow be saved, mended, restored.

Looking at what's left though, you almost feel her shiver.

You almost sense that what runs down her walls today is not just the residue of the Lagan water those firefighters used to douse the flames, but her tears.

Then again, that's surely being a bit too fanciful - conveying to that once resplendent construction of Dumfries sandstone and glass and grandeur a human persona.

When the truth is that it's we who loved her, we who maybe never fully appreciated her, it's we, who now feel a lump in the throat when we look at that image of her ravaged remains.

The tears aren't hers. They're ours.

Belfast Telegraph

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