Saturday, 6 June 2015
The best former seed warehouses in Western Europe
In 1868, two rival Belfast seed merchants moved into their state-of-the-art premises in Victoria Street. William Hastings, their architect, had done them proud with a pair of ornate four-storey semi-detached warehouses from which John Lytle and Samuel McCausland could each keep a close eye on their competitor and present an impression of prosperity and global importance to their customers.
Thanks to some enlightened investment (described by the UAHS), these buildings, which were at one point threatened with demolition, have recently been restored and are now back in business as the gorgeous Malmaison hotel.
Taken together, the warehouses are an impressive and elegant structure. But what I love best about them is the amazing profusion of stone carvings they carry. These were executed by Thomas Fitzpatrick, who also created the huge figures on the roof of the Ulster Bank in Waring Street (now the Merchant Hotel) and the carvings on the Customs House.
The Victoria Street carvings were based on drawings by James Kendall. They shine a curious light on the mindset of commercial Belfast of that time. There are some great, simple seedling sculptures on the upper levels, a nice little reference to the owners' trade. I'm very keen on the peering turtles, snakes and birds around No. 34, and on the cool Chinese guy down the side of the building in Marlborough Street. Then on No. 36 there's an excellent set of figures representing the five continents, each with fruit and vegetables to match, demonstrating the imperial reach of Victorian Belfast's importance. To be technical, these figures are half-caryatid pilasters, but I did have to look that up. Everything is carved in the boldest, most vigorous manner. Time has only enhanced their effect, adding bloom, texture and new subtleties of colour.