THE MERCHANT HOTEL, Belfast, formerly the Ulster Bank's head office, dates from 1858-60.
It comprises a two-storey Italianate sandstone façade, paired windows, and a three-bay pediment with elaborate sculptures and urns.
The building was designed by James Hamilton with carving by the Fitzpatrick Brothers, and the main contractors were Messrs D & J Fulton.
The Ulster Banking Company commenced business at Belfast on the 1st July, 1836, in premises at Waring Street opposite Warehouse Lane. By the time the bank opened, arrangements had been made for the opening of a number of branches in towns across Ulster.
The bank flourished and in 1850 the directors considered expanding the premises to provide more accommodation. However, it was not until 1857 that the plot on the corner of Waring Street and Skipper Street was purchased.Two of the directors travelled to Scotland and returned with conceptions of their requirements in regard to the new banking house.
A competition was held, with a prize of £100 (equating to ca £10,000 today).
Sixty-five designs were received, the winner being James Hamilton of Glasgow.
By 1858, a builder was purchasing log piles that were driven into the ground as supports.
A contract was signed with D & J Fulton, and the building was eventually completed at a cost of £30,000 (ca £3.3 million in today's money).
The stone was originally to be quarried in France, but Hamilton feared that the French stone would erode too quickly and Scottish Giffnock stone was used, despite its being considerably more expensive.
The bank opened for business in 1860. It was hailed by the local press as a "commercial palace".
Three figures on the Waring Street façade depict Britannia, Justice, and Commerce.
THE CEILING of The Great Room is sumptuous; doubtless one of the finest of its kind in Northern Ireland.
My admiration and zeal for it should not be underestimated.
Visitors to Belfast ought to experience its splendour for themselves.
The dome illuminating the erstwhile banking hall affords representations of Science, Poetry, Sculpture and Music on its frieze.
Ethereal putti gaze down from the spandrels, gambolling, holding gilded staffs.
Indeed there is abundant gilding, well illuminated, throughout.
Above the frieze are heathen deities and allegorical figures of engineering, commerce, poetry, architecture, navigation, astronomy, plenty, peace, agriculture and banking, surmounted by portraits of eminent persons associated with each, respectively Stevenson, Brown of Liverpool, Shakespeare, Wren, Cook, Newton, Peel, the Queen, the Prince Consort and Grote (now gone).The dome was decorated by Sibthorpe of Dublin.
Stucco work was carried out by a Belfast man, George Crowe.
Desks and counters were of mahogany, with metal screens carrying a red hand of ulster in a shield surrounded by a laurel wreath.
On the upper floor were living quarters for the chief cashier, James Wallace, which contained means by which the five safes could be secured while he was in bed.
By turning a lever in his bedroom, a heavy iron bolt could be dropped down into each of the iron doors of the safes in the basement together with a steel plate across each keyhole. A platform which could be raised and lowered by turning handles moved bullion in between the safes and the banking department.The lamp standards and railings were by Messrs Laidlaw of Glasgow.
In 1886, the dome was reconstructed to improve the lighting and ventilation of the main banking hall.
Further alterations took place between 1919-21, when the area between the main bank and the Ulster Buildings was covered over to provide additional accommodation.
A foreign department was established in 1926, and the main counter was extended in 1931 with space for clerical staff at the rear.
The high mahogany partitions at the counter were lopped in 1956, and offices on the ground floor of the Ulster Buildings were reconstructed to provide accommodation for Income Tax, Trustee, and Stock and Share departments.
Messrs Houston & Beaumont architects were engaged to re-model the upper floor which had formerly been the chief cashier's accommodation.
This was converted into offices for directors and executive staff.
Two new wings were also added.
The original mahogany counter and fittings and the floor of the public office were subsequently removed for more contemporary fittings.
The strongrooms were renovated and the latest anti-burglar devices installed.
A large chandelier was also installed at this time and the dome was repainted.
Externally the original iron gates were removed.
Plinths on either side of the front steps were resurfaced with granite slabs.
New lamps bearing the name and crest of the bank were erected on the existing standards, and car parks were provided at either side of the building.
The bank formally re-opened in October, 1960.
By 1991, Ulster Bank had moved its headquarters to Donegall Square, though continued to retain the present building as its Waring Street branch.
Restoration work took place between 1991 and 1994.
The roof, gutters and dome over the banking hall were renovated and windows replaced, and the stonework was cleaned and repaired. The cast iron balustrades and lamp standards were cleaned and repainted and the interior of the banking hall was repainted and restored.The Ulster Bank vacated the building ca 2003 and it was afterwards sold to new owners.
It was subsequently cleaned externally and remodelled internally by Consarc Design Group, and reopened as the The Merchant Hotel in 2006.
The former banking hall is now The Great Room restaurant, and the ground floor of the adjacent Ulster Buildings has been converted into The Cloth Ear bar.
The curved brick of the bank vaults is exposed in the basement Ollie's Nightclub.
One of the former vaults houses the billiards room.
The residents' lounge and members' bar retain the timber cladding from the bank manager's office.
In 2010, the project was completed with a £16.5 million modern extension to the rear, terminating at High Street.
First published in January, 2015.