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A former bank built as a tribute to the Empire State Building, the synagogue that became a physio clinic... welcome to Hidden Belfast

How well do you know your capital city? Ahead of this weekend's Open House Festival, Judith Cole visits some of its architectural treasures and hears their fascinating stories

This weekend a golden opportunity exists to see inside some of Belfast's most interesting and historic buildings. You can walk around the warehouse where ships' sails were made from the late-1700s, or see the synagogue where the city's Jewish community worshipped from 1904 onwards. And the breathtaking interiors of Carlisle Memorial Church, known as the "Methodist Cathedral", can be admired as you hear about its fascinating past.

The buildings are open to the public as part of the Open House Festival, organised by PLACE, an organisation that promotes architecture, design and planning. This is the third year the festival has run in Belfast and parallel events are held in almost 40 other cities around the world.

And, aside from the buildings, you will be able to go behind the scenes of engineering projects such as the train maintenance and training facility at Translink, hear how the Lagan Weir and footbridge were constructed, and see how the city's water supply was designed at the Silent Valley dam.

Brighdin Farren, creative producer at PLACE, said: "The aim of our festival is to highlight and celebrate well-designed architecture and engineering in the city and engage with the public to initiate discussion about the impact of good design in our lives.

"People can expect to come along and be given a bespoke guided tour by the architect or engineer who has worked on the project, so it's a great opportunity to talk directly to the people involved.

"We have organised the programme into three categories: buildings, engineering projects and special events. The festival was always mainly about architecture, but last year we teamed up with the Institute for Civil Engineers, which meant we could include the big engineering projects like the Windsor Park stadium and the Translink train maintenance facility."

Brighdin explains that the buildings featuring in the programme are chosen in a variety of ways.

"We at PLACE put a wishlist together, we do a callout to the public on social media to ask what they would like to see in the programme and we ask the Royal Society of Ulster Architects to put forward buildings they have been working on and would like to showcase.

"So, we have a whole array of buildings to see - those that are in the midst of being developed, which we are offering hard hat tours in, and buildings that have been completed, such as Cullingtree Meadows Dementia Care Facility, which is finished but isn't open yet to the public.

"And we have iconic towers and buildings that have been closed up for a long time, like Transport House and Carnegie Library, which are going to be redeveloped."

Brighdin is particularly excited about the opportunities this year to go behind the scenes and take a tour of the offices of architects and engineers.

"This is a great chance to see their sketchbooks, drawings and models and speak to them about their approach - how they analyse a site and decide on the design and function of a building," she said. "The design firm HLM is doing a virtual reality experience, using new technology to imagine what it would be like to design a building and feel like you're walking around it.

"Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, who have been our sponsor since year one, are opening their offices and you can talk directly to the architects.

"The engineering firm Arup, who are also returning for the third year as sponsor, are doing a very special behind-the-scenes tour of Windsor stadium, and you can speak directly to the engineers involved in designing it."

Workers have been busy in recent weeks to present the interiors of the stunning former Bank of Ireland, which towers over the corner where Royal Avenue meets North Street, in its best light.

The grand Art Deco building, with its beautifully intricate windows and doors, a homage to the Empire State Building in New York, has been vacant since 2005 and is believed to be part of a future £300m Northside commercial, residential and leisure redevelopment project.

A hop and a skip along Royal Avenue is Belfast Central Library, a Grade A-listed building and one of a few still used for its original purpose. However, the building has been expanded over 128 years and this weekend affords the rare chance to see some of the hidden treasures that are not normally on view to the public.

And next door is the Belfast Telegraph building, the beautiful red sandstone structure which, until last year, housed this newspaper.

The Belfast Telegraph was founded in 1870 by William and George Baird and the building was designed by Henry Seaver and constructed by H & J Martin, the same company that built Central Library and Belfast City Hall.

A short walk in a northerly direction is the former Synagogue on Annesley Street, off the Antrim Road near Carlisle Circus. It was designed by Young and Mackenzie and opened in 1904 for the 708 Jewish people who lived in Belfast at the time.

However, it closed in 1965 when the Jewish community moved to a modern synagogue on the Somerton Road. It later served as the physiotherapy department of the nearby Mater Hospital. Inside, you can see the gallery and prayer room and outside are the ruined glazed brick walls of the Mikvah, a ritual bath.

Just a stone's throw away is Carlisle Memorial Church, which was opened in 1876 to the Victorian Gothic designs of Belfast architect W H Lynn.

Known as the "Methodist Cathedral", it was bequeathed to the city by James Carlisle in memory of his deceased children. The church closed in 1982 due to a declining congregation and quickly deteriorated.

However, Belfast Buildings Trust took over ownership in 2011 with the aim of using the church as a central point of the community. The high ceilings, narrow windows and frescos combine to make a stunning interior.

Another building undergoing major transformation is the former Blood Tranfusion building in Durham Street, which will become 23 new homes in a project by Clanmil Housing Group.

This building was used by the Northern Ireland Tuberculosis Authority from 1918 until the 1960s, before becoming the home of the Northern Ireland Blood Transfusion Service until 1995.

You can see some architecture with an Italian influence at the Harbour Commissioners' Office, which oversees the operation, maintenance and development of Belfast Harbour, in Corporation Square.

This building was opened in 1854, designed by the Commissioners' engineer George Smith and constructed at a cost of £8,000. The building was extended in 1895 at a cost of £14,349 in the style of an Italian palazzo.

Nearby, and also with a maritime history, is The Sail Loft on Donegall Quay, which housed Tedford's Ship Chandlers, Sail & Tentmakers and was established by James Tedford in the 1850s. The warehouse next door, where ships' sails were made, is believed to have been started in the late-1700s.

The colourful Transport House on High Street stands out because of its unusual exterior, with tiled murals showing off various industries and workers.

The building, designed by J J Brennan for the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers' Union, was opened in 1959 and is notable for being one of the youngest buildings in the city to be listed (in 1994).

The site of a Victorian Bath House, and then an art gallery which closed in 2011, you can see how the Ormeau Baths building is now being used as a workspace for technology firms.

One of the most modern buildings to see is the Bullitt Hotel, which opened just last year on Church Lane. Housed in the 1960s office building which was known as Lagan House, the 43-bedroom hotel is named after the Steve McQueen film.

The Open House Festival runs today, tomorrow and Sunday. For more information and to book tickets, visit openhousebelfast.org

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