Belfast Telegraph

Fascinating story of the architects who built Northern Ireland

Ahead of a talk today to mark the opening of a new exhibition at the Public Record Office of NI, Dr Paul Harron reveals how the outstanding legacy of Young & Mackenzie is still all around us

An architectural drawing of the Culloden
An architectural drawing of the Culloden
Culloden Hotel in Belfast
New Buildings for the Scottish Provident
The Scottish Provident building.
An architectural sketch of the Irish Presbyterian Church Buildings
The Irish Presbyterian Church Buildings
An architectural sketch of the Belfast Academy
Belfast Academy
Sir Charles Lanyon
Volunteers cleaning and indexing the drawings

The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) holds the vast archive of the remarkable architectural and civil engineering practice of Young & Mackenzie of Belfast which thrived as a business for over a century from 1850 onwards and was responsible for the design of many well-known structures across Northern Ireland (and occasionally beyond). Its building designs from the High Victorian and Edwardian eras are particularly notable - in Belfast, think of Robinson & Cleaver's; the Scottish Provident Buildings; Anderson & McAuley; the Presbyterian Assembly Buildings; Belfast Royal Academy, and across Ulster, any number of Presbyterian churches, warehouses, schools, houses and villas - one of the most well-known now being the Culloden Hotel at Cultra.

Following fieldwork and research into the archive over several years (for a PhD), Ulster Architectural Heritage published my illustrated book on the firm, Architects of Ulster: Young & Mackenzie, A transformational provincial practice, 1850-1960, just over a year ago. Meanwhile, PRONI had invited me to explore the uncatalogued drawings in the collection (D2194). This proved to be a fascinating process and a wonderful array of architectural drawings came to light.

To its great credit, PRONI is now in the early stages of a project involving volunteers who are helping to clean and index these drawings alongside PRONI staff who are conserving some of these often very fragile drawings. Once completed, the drawings will be added to the PRONI catalogue. However, as a way of highlighting part of the collection for a wider audience meantime -and in an innovative move, forming the first public display of its architectural drawings by PRONI - in collaboration with the PRONI staff, I've curated an exhibition of selected images from the uncatalogued drawings which will be on display in the atrium at PRONI from today until June 29. 

New Buildings for the Scottish Provident

The exhibition is being launched today with a talk - Northern Lights: A Century of Design by Young & Mackenzie Architects at 1pm. Admission is free but places are limited and must be booked through the PRONI website using Eventbrite ( The Architects of Ulster: Young & Mackenzie book (which also contains a full gazetteer) accompanies the show by way of a comprehensive catalogue. The exhibition also forms part of Ulster Architectural Heritage's 50th anniversary celebrations, marking five decades of that organisation championing and defending the importance of Ulster's historic built environment.

The firm of Young & Mackenzie was founded by Robert Young (1822-1917) who became The Rt Hon Robert Young in 1907 when he was conferred with the unique honour of becoming Ireland's first Architect Irish Privy Councillor. Young, who had trained as an architect and civil engineer under Sir Charles Lanyon in the 1840s and who also worked for a time on designing the railways for William Dargan (in Athlone), established his firm in Belfast which became extraordinarily prolific in designing commercial, institutional, residential and ecclesiastical buildings. 

The Scottish Provident building.

In the mid-1860s, after training him, Robert Young took John Mackenzie (1844-1917) into commercial partnership. The busy practice - which became a training ground for other well-known Ulster architects such as Henry Seaver (1860-1941), Samuel Stevenson (1859-1924), Matthew Robinson (1872-1929) and William Blackwood (1876-1951) - was later led by Robert Young's son, the distinguished Belfast historian Robert Magill Young (1851-1925), and finally by his son, Captain James Reid Young (1885-1967).

As well as practising their craft and business, it's worth noting that the Youngs were all enthusiastic about developing greater public discourse about architectural, cultural, historical and geographical matters and were, amongst other pursuits, highly involved in the activity of the Linen Hall Library (and the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society) and the founding and life of the Ulster Society of Architects (later the Royal Society of Ulster Architects).

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The show deliberately provides a diverse range of building types, scales and locations. There are drawings of commercial projects from the City Factory in Derry to the Baroque Revival Scottish Provident Building in Belfast's Donegall Square West, framing the City Hall - including one drawing showing a fanciful French Second Empire dome which ultimately wasn't built (possibly in deference to its important neighbour). 

An architectural sketch of the Irish Presbyterian Church Buildings

Mid-19th century industrialisation and economic development in Ulster had offered vast commercial opportunity to Young & Mackenzie from the 1860s, and the firm jumped at its chances, gaining commissions for new factories, warehouses, shops and business premises (as well as undertaking a wide range of alterations and additions to existing buildings).

A number of Young & Mackenzie-designed buildings are of exceptional scale and significance, demonstrating the power of architecture to fulfil complex practical needs; function as physical advertisements for companies; contribute to urban civic design and streetscapes and act as indicators of commercial and industrial growth and prowess generally.

As for churches, Young & Mackenzie played a remarkably prominent part in the creation of new Presbyterian churches in Ulster, effectively becoming the leading architects for the denomination during the later 19th century. The scale of the firm's contribution to the look of the churches of the largest Protestant denomination in Northern Ireland makes it of note but its ecclesiastical work is also significant because of the high level of technical skill demonstrated and because it evidences the influence of ecclesiastical designs from elsewhere being adopted in Ulster, most notably in the form of Gothic Revivalism, albeit often of an adapted form. The firm's contribution to the popularisation of the various manifestations of this style in Presbyterian buildings was immense, achieving a stylistic revolution.

For the exhibition, drawings of Magherafelt First Presbyterian, Spa Presbyterian and First Armagh Presbyterian - with a soaring spire - are among the Gothic Revival selections.

As a counterpoint, a series of drawings of the bold Romanesque Revival Townsend Street Presbyterian in Belfast is also included. Townsend Street church, so named because at the time the street was built it was at the town's end, was one of many churches built to cater for the population expansion of industrialised Victorian-era Belfast. The building still survives and is in use as a church; it is visible to motorists driving along the Westlink.

The archive holds a large number of drawings of the church, showing how the firm went through various permutations - one including a lofty 190-ft corner spire which was not built. Another elevation presents a symmetrical composition with balancing towers either side of the main gable which boasts a cathedral-esque central doorway, the tympanum of which contains a carved open Bible: in keeping with Presbyterian theology, there are no carved saints.

A section drawing shows how the interior is a large amphitheatre - with an arcade of round-headed arches sweeping round three sides. The church could seat 830 people downstairs and 400 in the galleries - the minister at the time, the Rev William Johnston could draw large crowds to hear him preach. The Belfast Newsletter at its opening in January 1879 described the building as 'a splendid sacred edifice'. Immaculately cared for, with its original interior intact, the church is well worth visiting, and contains some interesting An Tur Gloine stained glass.

Young & Mackenzie was commissioned to design domestic projects as varied as large residences for wealthy businessmen; substantial detached and semi-detached middle-class suburban houses; manses for Presbyterian clergy; urban housing for speculative developers and groups of working-class housing and whole new streets for industrialists needing to house employees. A small selection from the archive provides a taster of the firm's vast output, from the Gothic Revival 'Culloden' to a lovely Arts & Crafts villa in Adelaide Park.

Finally, the exhibition includes examples of the firm's institutional work. Among its many commissions for schools, there are drawings of Watt's Endowed, Lurgan - now Lurgan College; Belfast Ladies' Collegiate School - later Victoria College and now the Crescent Arts Centre; and the grand design for Belfast Royal Academy. The latter, built of Scrabo sandstone and in a Late Gothic Revival style with Scots Baronial touches in the corner stair turrets, is dignified, stately and solid with an emphatically collegiate air about it.

The show closes with a post-First World War design from the period when Young & Mackenzie was under the leadership of Captain James Reid Young -the third generation of Youngs to lead the firm. It's an image of the red sandstone Presbyterian War Memorial Hostel in Howard Street, replete with period motor car and tram. Clean lines, Art Deco touches and a large-scale corner setting create an urban block, giving the building an American 'downtown' air - probably reflective of the time when JR Young had worked with the famous New York Architects McKim, Mead & White.

With Young & Mackenzie buildings all around us, those with an interest in architecture and the built environment as well as social and cultural history may well find this exhibition illuminating.

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