Wednesday, June 18, 2014

European Heritage Open Days 2013 | An East Belfast Experience | Part I

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European Heritage Open Days 2013 | An East Belfast Experience | Part I

Part II >

If you’re interested in what may be broadly termed ‘heritage issues’, you are probably familiar with European Heritage Open Days, where buildings of historic worth, which are not generally publicly accessible, are open for one weekend in September. This year the EOHD event in Northern Ireland were boasting of ‘410 properties and events … opening for free on Saturday 14th and Sunday 15th September’. Regular readers of this blog may just recall my attempts to get out and see some of these on my doorstep in 2012. In terms of the number of properties I got it see, it was an unmitigated disaster as I got to see just one building. However, it was a pretty special one: Parliament Buildings at Stormont, the seat of our Legislative Assembly.

This year I promised myself that I’d do better. This year I’d get my children enthused and excited and we’d see some cool stuff! Saturday 14th September came round and I was excited! Turns out I was pretty much alone in my exhilaration, anticipation, and eagerness as there was a distinct lack of enthusiasm from Chapples Minors. Undeterred, I set forth alone with my EOHD guide book open to the East Belfast pages. Purely on the basis of the fact that I’d not really known anything about Netherleigh House, I decided I’d head there first. Netherleigh is today the headquarters of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. It was originally built around 1875 as the family home of William Robertson. He was the Robertson of the well-known Belfast merchant group Robertson, Ledlie, and Ferguson, owners of the Belfast landmark Bank Building. While original plans do not appear to survive, the design of the mansion is, on stylistic grounds, attributed to the architectural firm Lanyon, Lynn, and Lanyon. In particular, the design is attributed to William Henry Lynn, based on similarities between the detailing at Netherleigh and other examples of his work, for example at Hill Head House, Ballymena, and Belfast Castle. Examples of these similarities include the swept chimney stack caps, the pierced balustrade above the entrance, and the decorative fluting on the oak shutter boards. The Robertson family appear to have lived at Netherleigh until around 1905/6, when it was bought by the Reid family. By 1921 the house was the property of Lt-Col. Samuel Hall-Thompson. Hall-Thompson held a number of political offices including Member of Parliament for Belfast Clifton from 1929 to 1953, and was Minister of Education from 1944 to 1950. Hall-Thompson sold Netherleigh to the adjacent Campbell College in 1929. From then until Campbell was evacuated to the relative safety of Portrush in 1941, Netherleigh functioned as a junior boarding house for the school. From the evacuation of the school until 1946 the house was occupied by HM Government as part of the war effort, and was used as a convalescent hospital for American officers. The guide tells a story of one officer who took his own life by hanging himself above the back stair, giving the house its resident ghost. In 1946 several temporary Nissen huts were erected in what is now the visitor car park. As is the way of such temporary structures, they remained in place until coming to the attention of an arsonist in 1974. The Ministry of Education took possession of the house in January 1947, and it remained in use as their headquarters until June 1962 when they moved to the Dundonald House on the Stormont Estate. There is a delightful story of Hall-Thompson, the former owner of Netherleigh, returning as Minister of Education, only to find that his new office was his old bedroom. After the Ministry of Education moved out in 1962, the property remained vacant until 1966 when it was used by The Old Campbellian Society as their Sports Club. They sold the premises to the current occupants in 1974, and construction on the present-day complex began in 1976. Unfortunately, the house did not receive Listed Buildings status until 1986, by which time parts of it had been demolished, including the ballroom, joined to the main house by an enclosed, covered walkway, along with the kitchens and servant’s quarters. Similarly, the original outhouses and an extremely large glasshouse were also demolished. Today the house is what one would expect from a working government building – clean, modern office furniture, hard-wearing carpets, and ‘fire door – keep closed’ signs screwed onto historic oak doors.

Original front entrance to Netherleigh House. 
Note the pierced balustrade over the portico and the swept 
chimney stack caps.
Note the fluting on the oak shutter board, 
a characteristic of the work of architect 
William Henry Lynn.
Anteroom directly inside the small entrance 
hallway. It still retains its oak panelling, shutter, 
arched recess and fireplace. 
To retain the symmetrical appearance 
of the room, the door on the left of the 
back room is false.

If you look closely, you’ll see that this is the same room as before, 
but how it was in the 1920s. I love the idea (but not the practice) 
of the two skin rugs – the Bengal Tiger and the Polar Bear as 
symbols of the reach of empire. It’s, perhaps, a bit cluttered for my 
taste, but it’s certainly more vibrant than what it is today.
Reception room with original fireplace 
surviving. The roundel at the top includes the
 initials WJR, for William Robertson,
 the original owner.
The same room as it was in the 1920s – sadly, all those 
beautiful book cases and display cabinets are gone now.
The main staircase
The main stairwell is built in oak and surrounded on all sides by well-made oak panelling. Originally, this was polished and must have gleamed like anything. Unfortunately, some boorish jobsworth decided that it was a fire hazard and that removing it would give the occupants an extra 30 seconds to escape in the event of a fire, so it had to go! I don’t want to come across as valuing a building more than human life, but if we’re going to go down this route, is there really any point in keeping original features in a listed building? May as well tear them all down and build soulless, but very safety conscious, cages for us all instead. The top of the stairs is today blank, but it once held a classically-inspired sculpture in fibreglass by the remarkably talented Jo Hatty. Unfortunately, it appears not to have been to everyone’s taste and has been taken down.

The landing at the top of the stairwell is decorated 
with a series of round-headed arches with cherub 
roundels in between – another common Lynn motif.
The stairwell is lit by this beautiful gabled rectangular lantern 
light, decorated with foliage and swagging.
A conference room as it is today …
... and as it was back in the 1920s
Overall, I’m afraid that visiting Netherleigh was both beautiful and sad. It is wonderful that this house is still in use, still functioning, and still being cared for. However, it is difficult to cheer too heartily, when you see the photographs of the place in all its Victorian and Edwardian glory. I know we can’t (and shouldn't) preserve all worthy old piles in aspic forever, but the shift from the splendid height-of-Empire clutter to today’s clean lines and business approach seems particularly harsh and jarring. All that said, it was a lovely experience to get inside the building, workplace for so many civil servants, but not available to most outside that group.

It was almost 5pm by the time I left Netherleigh and I despaired for my chances of seeing another building still open at that hour. Even though I thought it beyond hope, I scanned the pages of the EHOD brochure and – much to my delight and surprise – found that there was one place still open! The lovely, wonderful Strand Cinema – now The Strand Arts Centre [Website | Facebook | Twitter] would be open and giving tours until late in the evening. The Strand is my local cinema – I’ve seen no end of movies there, but it has always been as a paying customer, never getting to glimpse behind the scenes. This was an opportunity I wasn't going to squander.

The Strand is the sole survivor of Belfast’s pre-War cinemas. It was built in 1935 and was originally operated by the Union Cinemas Group. Before its construction, this was the site of Strandtown House, the home of Gustav Heyn, founder of both the Headline Shipping Company and Belfast Steamship Company. The Strand cinema was designed by John McBride Neill, a local architect who became the foremost cinema architect in Northern Ireland. Among his creations were the Curzon Cinema on the Ormeau Road, and the Majestic Cinema, on the Lisburn Road. Neill’s short biography on the Dictionary of Irish Architects website is worth reading, if for no other reason than creating the opportunity to encounter this line: ‘A bachelor, he retired when he was sixty, freeing himself to indulge in Continental travel, music, sailing and making model aeroplanes’ – sounds like a great way to spend your days! Very Art Deco in style and inspiration, the Strand incorporated elements inspired by the nearby Harland and Wolff shipyards, including curved walls and portholes in the foyer. There are also portholes in one of the ground floor screens that were intended to be backlit and give the impression that the audience was aboard an ocean liner – itself a very ‘deco’ theme.

When it opened, on the 7th of December 1935, its first feature film was Bright Eyes, starring the late Shirley Temple. If you know only one thing about Shirley Temple, it’s probably that she sang the song ‘On the Good Ship Lollipop’ – this is the movie it appeared it. Bright Eyes also won Temple an Oscar – the first ever given to a child, for her portrayal of Shirley Blake. Finally, if you do watch the movie, you may feel that you recognise ‘Rags’ the dog – this is Terry who played numerous canine roles in her career, but none more famous than Toto in The Wizard of Oz.

In October 1937 Union Cinemas Group were taken over by Associated British Cinemas (ABC), who ran the Strand until 1983 when it closed. From the following year until 1986 the theatre functioned as a live performance venue for musical events and cabaret. After a brief hiatus, it reopened in 1988 as a four screen cinema. In part, this was achieved through dividing the main auditorium horizontally into two with the main screen serving what had been the balcony and a smaller screen serving the stalls. The Strand underwent major renovations in 1999 to restore and maintain it’

The Strand Arts Centre from across the road, with one of the 
Harland and Wolff cranes just visible in the background.
Totally Hollywood carpets – specially commissioned for the 
Strand in the 1980s.

Screen 2 with its 14ft deep stage from the days it was used as a 
concert venue. The porthole theme can just be glimpsed in the 
circular windows of the emergency exits, to the right of the stage.
Projector system for Screen 3.
The master projectionist at work, queuing 
up the next feature presentation.
35mm film stock of trailers that has to be 
manually spliced onto the front of every 
new movie – but soon to be a thing of the past.
The last hurrah!: containers of film waiting to be returned to 
distributors after their runs have completed, again once the cinema 
goes digital this will be a thing of the past.
My good friend the projectionist keeping notes between showings.
Note the Tipp-Ex marks on the wall left by projectionists who 
occasionally used it to mark where the advertising rolls met the main 
body of the film, or where individual smaller reels of film were spliced
 together to make the single large show reel. This was done to ensure 
ease of finding the join between the two, as they had to be separated 
back into their smaller components at the end of the run.
A cinematic archive – twenty years of movie posters.
A movie rewinding in the much more 
spacious Screen 1 projection booth.
When the tour was over and the rest of our small tour group had dispersed, I was lucky enough to be invited up into the projection booth for Screen 1. This was the original projection booth from the building’s days as a single-screen venue and gives a much better idea of how the original cinema would have looked and felt. While the various projection machines are not the original 1930s examples, they are quite ancient in their own right. This presents a significant problem as the company who manufactured them went out of business in the 1960s, and sourcing spare parts is becoming increasingly difficult. Added to this are the manifold pressures of doing business in the modern world. For example, distributers are retreating from the difficulty and cost of producing physical prints of movies and the public are increasingly wooed by the large multi-screen theatres with the latest in 3D technology, and all the hallmarks of the modern cinema experience. It may lack the character of a place like the Strand, but you can’t argue with the economics of the situation. For this reason the Strand cinema has transformed itself into a not-for-profit cinema and arts centre. Part of their programme includes bringing back live music acts, specialist cinema events, along with talent nights, and a variety of stage and screen classes. From a heritage aspect, it’s fantastic to see the building being kept alive and the business continuing to thrive. As part of this drive to keep abreast of modernity and maintain marketplace relevance, the cinemas are themselves going digital and that, unfortunately, means the loss of the current projection system. I’m told that one will be retained for display and that another may be kept operational for occasional use on special occasions. The new system will merely involve the plugging in of a computer hard drive. I’m sure an older generation lamented the arrival of the ‘talkies’ and colour and felt that mechanised projectors diluted the warmth and charm of proper, old-school, cinema – when they did away with the hand cranked variety. Still, it is difficult not to feel a sadness at the end of this particular era. As I am writing this piece (November 2013) they’re all gone - the Strand is digital now! The photographs I publish here must be among the last – if not the very last – records of the cinema as it was. Splicing 35mm film with a hand cutter and sticky tape is over. Breaking it back down from a full-movie show reel into individual reels for transport is done. Goodbye. I feel truly honoured that I managed to make this ‘last chance to see’ event and provide some record of its passing. For all my sadness at seeing it go, I’m delighted that this beautiful Art Deco building is still in existence and still doing well as a cinema – may you continue to show great movies and may you continue to be a vibrant part of living in East Belfast!

Well, that was how I spent my Saturday. In the next part, I discuss the other heritage sites we got to see and how I bribed and cajoled my children into accompanying me.

I am indebted to all the people who worked so hard to make European Heritage Open Days 2013 such a success in Northern Ireland, especially the tour guides who took such time and effort explaining their buildings to the public. I am also indebted to those who provided photocopied guides to the various buildings. I have shamelessly reproduced much of their knowledge and research here, though I make no claims to ownership of the material – without it this post would have been a much poorer piece! Thank you all.

If I could be permitted to make a direct appeal to the owners of the Strand, I’d beg them to lose the psychic – I feel my stress levels rise every time I drive by and see the signs up, heralding the prospect of another charlatan scamming the public. Seriously – they’re not real! No matter how much it is dressed up as ‘just a bit of fun’ and ‘what harm can it do?’ they are often playing with the emotions of vulnerable people, looking for hope and solace. At the kindest level, these are delusional people who believe that they can speak to spirits; but at their worst they are thieves and confidence tricksters who steal money and hope. What would I suggest you use to fill the space? Well – not them for a start. If pushed, I’d prefer to see the psychics replaced with physics – something along the line of the wonderful Royal Society Christmas Lectures (check out any of these videos). It could be brilliant! Crowds would flock from all corners to see that! Any Northern Irish town with more than a pub and a pump to its name can probably boast of the appearance of some peripatetic fake psychic. But a good speaker about science? Where would you find one of those for your entertainment? It’d be nigh on unique. I’d be the first in the queue with my kids for every new show and I’m willing to bet that plenty of other people would too! All done! End of slightly ‘ranty’ plea! Sorry … I just don’t like psychics!

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