Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Floral Hall, Belfast Zoo | A dilapidated gem

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As regular readers of this blog will be aware, I have young children: The Chapples Minor. On the basis that parenting has a multitude of expectations and responsibilities, I occasionally, and somewhat reluctantly, make the excursion into the north of the city to the Belfast Zoological Gardens. I’m afraid I’m not particularly keen on Zoos (sorry … I’m probably broken internally, but that’s just how it is!), but I do enjoy going there to see a rather amazing, if terribly dilapidated, jewel of Art Deco architecture: the Floral Hall.

The history of the site goes back to 1911, when Belfast Corporation took over the running of the local tramway. To help encourage visitors to use the line, they built ‘Bellevue Gardens’ which included a pleasure garden, playground, and miniature railway. As part of the development of the area, the Corporation opened a Zoo here in 1934. And two years later they opened the Floral Hall, an Art Deco style ballroom with seating for 1000 revellers. It was designed by David W. Boyd and the construction and furnishing was undertaken by the firm J. & R. Taggart (later Taggart Ulster Builders). Some might describe the internal colour scheme as ‘daring’ as it included a tangerine entrance hall with blue and gold dominating in other areas. The Listed Buildings Database describes it as: ‘a circular shallow domed hall with several angular blocks to north and south and a semicircular portico’.

Floral Hall & lake, looking out over green fields (Source)
In its time, it was a centre for music and dancing and attracted revellers from across Belfast and even further afield. The hall had a café, but no licence to serve alcohol. The Historical photo gallery section of the Belfast Zoo website notes that ‘almost 98,000 cups of tea and coffee were served over a period of seven months!’ … simpler times! During World War II music and entertainment continued at the Floral Hall, albeit with blackout curtains fitted to the windows. Even in the post-war years the site remained popular, and one oft-quoted statistic notes that the venue attracting some 130,000 people in 1947 alone. Over the years, the form of entertainment on offer changed along with the times, from showbands (possibly a nearly-exclusively Irish invention) to roller skating in 1965. By the early 1970s the Hall held discos, but its popularity was clearly waning. For me – thought I’m way too young to have been there in person – the highlight of the Floral Hall’s days as an entertainment venue came on April 7th 1967 when Pink Floyd played here as part of the tour to promote their first album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. However, by the early 1970s the sectarian murder campaign euphemistically referred to as ‘The Troubles’ ensured the acceleration of this decline, and the Floral Hall closed in April 1972. Although used as a counting centre for the Northern Ireland Border Poll in 1973, and occasional dances, the building has most usually functioned as a store for animal feed.

Even as far back as 1973 – in the immediate aftermath of its closure – plans were floated to restore the building as a wedding venue and restaurant, though nothing became of them. Despite its dilapidated state, the Floral Hall was granted Listed Buildings Status in the 1990s. In recent years there have been a number of news items (see ‘Resources’ below) that have discussed the possibility of restoration and rejuvenation for this building, but nothing has yet come to pass. The Belfast Buildings Trust charity website note that they are in negotiations with Belfast City Council to restore the building as a ‘wedding and conference facility alongside an education facility for the zoo that would help with regeneration in north Belfast’. As part of this initiative the Trust have launched an oral history project ‘to gather and document the memories associated with Floral Hall and to capture the public’s affection for the building’.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy these photographs of the current, sad state of the exterior and along with a selection of views of the building in its heyday. The latter may just give a clue to what a restored and refurbished Floral Hall could be like – an Art Deco gem on the side of Cave Hill.

Floral Hall & Tea Rooms (Source: Northern Whig and Belfast Post,
Tuesday May 5th 1936, via 
social skills)

Floral Hall with flags and bunting (Source)

If you liked these images, I hope they also provide a little inspiration to come and visit Northern Ireland for yourself!

There is now a Save and Restore the Floral Hall at Belfast Zoo Facebook Page. If, like me, you believe that this beautiful Art Deco building should be restored to its former glory, please consider giving them a ‘like’ and keep up to date with any progress. There is also a Floral Hall Belfast page and a Friends of Floral Hall Belfast page ... go 'like' them all! ... I have!

The Floral Hall can be clearly seen on both Bing and Google maps. The aerial image currently available on Google (below) appears to have been taken directly after a hard frost. The sun has already melted all traces away on Cave Hill, but it still persists in the shadow of the mountain. I say 'appears to show' ... I'm informed by my friend Willy Adam (he of the NIDAS: New Irish Digital Archaeological Survey blog) that this is merely an illusion created by Google's blending of two images from different sources. I, however, find more poetry and beauty in my erroneous understanding of the image ... 

Pink Floyd played Belfast on three occasions in 1967 (The Floral Hall, The Whitla Hall, & The Starlight Ballroom), once in 1968 (The Whitla Hall), and once in 1969 (The Ulster Hall). To the best of my knowledge, Floyd only ever played two other concerts on this island - in 1967 they played both the Arcadia Ballroom in Cork and The Flamingo in Ballymena.

The social skills architectural blog contains a description of the interior when it opened in 1936, from the Northern Whig and Belfast Post newspaper.

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