Last edited 02 Mar 2021

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Titanic Quarter

Titanic quarter.jpg
The hotel with Titanic Belfast in the background.

Titanic Quarter, just a 20-minute walk from Belfast City Centre, is one of Europe’s largest waterfront transformations. Over the past ten years the 180-acre site has witnessed radical changes, evolving from one of the largest shipyards in the world to a hub of financial services, tourist attractions, education facilities and residential accommodation. While Harland & Wolff’s yellow cranes still dominate the skyline, a welcome reminder that this heavy industry is still very much in business, many of the buildings once associated with the shipyards on Queen’s Island, such as the engineering works, brass works and the Arroll Gantry, have gradually disappeared. Fortunately, some of the shipyard heritage has survived, including a number of slipways, dry docks and pumphouses. Titanic Belfast, the flagship building and visitor attraction, located at the foot of the original Titanic and Olympic Slipways, tells the story of the shipyard, the building and the fate of RMS Titanic through nine interactive galleries. Attracting over four million visitors since it opened in 2012 and with year-on-year growth, it continues to demonstrate that Titanic’s birthplace is in huge demand.

When it comes to authenticity, the jewel in the crown is the former Harland & Wolff Headquarter Building and Drawing Offices. Built in phases from 1886 through to the 1920s, the building’s development maps the massive growth of Harland & Wolff, which at its peak employed over 30,000 men and women on Queen’s Island. The two magnificent drawing offices, with their high-arched ceilings and decorative mouldings, were designed to be a statement of quality, a showcase of Harland & Wolff’s craftsmanship. While most yards had temporary drawing offices that moved with the work, these were permanent, designed to capture as much natural northern light as possible, and built far enough apart to avoid casting a shadow when the sun was low. As the shipyard grew and the company expanded, more orders meant more staff and an administration block was added in 1908, with further extensions appearing in 1911 and 1922. The building continued to be adapted until Harland & Wolff left in 1989 when ownership was transferred to Titanic Quarter Limited, the new regeneration company for the area.

Competing priorities, the cost of restoration and economic recession hindered plans for the future of the building and by 2012 it had been added to the Buildings at Risk Register. A partnership emerged between Titanic Foundation, the charity established to preserve Belfast’s maritime heritage, and the property developers in a bid to save the building from further decay. Several options were considered, but the preferred solution was to regenerate and repurpose the derelict buildings into a hotel, adding to the visitor infrastructure and allowing public access to the drawing offices and other heritage spaces within. Following the launch of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s (HLF’s) Heritage Enterprise grants in 2013, the project became the first to secure the maximum £5 million grant to support its restoration. Once the heart of the commercial shipyard, the building would now become the heart of a vibrant heritage and leisure destination.

In September 2017 the former Harland & Wolff Headquarter Building and Drawing Offices, derelict for nearly 30 years, reopened its doors as Titanic Hotel Belfast. The fully restored Grade B+ listed building has been converted into a 119-bedroom luxury hotel, retaining as much as possible of its heritage. Visitors can stay in rooms that were once technical offices, dine where draftsmen developed plans for ocean liners and visit the heritage rooms where some of the biggest deals in shipbuilding were struck. Inspiration has been taken from the building’s original décor – documented in the Welch Collection of images (RJ Welch was Harland & Wolff’s photographer between 1894 and 1920) – including the Anaglypta and Lincrusta wallpaper, statement lighting and heavy brocade materials.

As well as retaining the ‘Corridor of Power’ on the ground floor, which consists of the telephone exchange, Lord Pirrie’s office, the boardroom, chairman’s office and Thomas Andrew’s office, over 76 heritage features have been retained including radiators, doors, office dividers and tiles. Many features can be traced back to their original use on the ships. For example, the Villeroy & Boch bathroom floor tiles discovered in the toilet block were exactly the same as those used for RMS Titanic’s swimming pool and can even be seen today on the ocean bed. Carefully salvaged from the toilet block and restored, the tiles now adorn the Island Bar in Drawing Office 2.

The restoration programme has been a great success. However, the real triumph has been the project’s engagement with former shipyard workers. Titanic Foundation recognised early on in the development process that there was an opportunity to reconnect the building with local people and the wider area. The shipyard was the lifeblood of many neighbouring communities: it was where people worked, socialised and, in many cases, all that they knew. As Titanic Quarter grew, this connection was slowly disappearing, leading to the perception that local people had been forgotten. A series of reunion events was organised, promoted through H&W pensioners bulletins, local social clubs and the press.

Over 130 former employees attended the reunion events, including relatives of those who had worked in the shipyard at some stage in their lives. They shared their stories of life in the yard, and their experiences as messenger boys and draftsmen or, for the female workers, as secretaries, typists and tracers. Inspired by these personal accounts, a series of bas reliefs was commissioned for Drawing Office 1, the hotel’s main heritage and event space. On one side of the room, the job titles of the former employees are recorded, while on the other is a history in images, capturing some of the key vessels these former employees worked on such as the SS Canberra, the P&O ocean liner that went on to serve in the Falklands War, and Sea Quest, the world’s largest oil drilling rig. Visitors and guests can also hear personal accounts at discreetly placed ‘listening posts’.

Once word got out, Titanic Foundation was inundated with visits and calls from former shipyard workers and their relatives, many donating items of interest including text books, indentures, note books and shipyard tools. Over 60 artefacts have now been put on display in the hotel, providing a direct connection with the people who worked in the headquarters building. One contact, Joan Scattergood, was the daughter of a cabinetmaker on RMS Titanic. Like many other workers, Joan’s father used his skills to build the family furniture with similar materials and to the same specification as the furniture he made in the yard. Joan, now 92 years old, donated her wardrobe, bookcase, sideboard and hall stand for display in the Presentation Room. Lost over decades of internal restructuring, this room originally overlooked a drawing office and was used as a sample room to allow Harland & Wolff clients to choose their final fixtures and fittings. Only a painstaking review of photographs and personal accounts from the many former employees consulted during the restoration determined exactly where in the building it was originally located.

Hundreds of photos and paintings are on permanent display in the hotel, showcasing what life was like in the yard. Of particular interest are the original paintings in Drawing Office 2, now the hotel’s main bar. Local artist Colin H Davidson was commissioned to produce eight paintings based on his own experience of the shipyard. He served his four year apprenticeship with Harland & Wolff in 1977–81 and spent a further nine years working in different departments. His paintings portray the shipyard from dawn to dusk and feature the key vessels on which he, his father and his uncle worked.

Many of the former employees became advisors to the design team, providing invaluable insights into how different parts of the building were used. Stories associated with the section leader’s office on the second floor inspired the interior designer to repurpose the temporary office into a private dining area in the main restaurant. Descriptions of the formal hierarchy within the building influenced an artwork depicting a conversation between a director and messenger boy along the Corridor of Power (garnered from those who once worked in the building, this evocative phrase is now back in common usage in the hotel).

The partnership between Titanic Foundation and the commercial operator requires the hotel to provide ongoing public access to the drawing offices, heritage spaces, artefacts and artwork on display throughout the building. While this is a luxury hotel, former workers, their relatives and neighbouring communities are encouraged to explore the building through daily tours, ad hoc visits or during one of the ‘take back’ days which allow Titanic Foundation to open and programme the heritage spaces for at least 12 days per year. The stories of apprenticeships captured the imagination of the hotel operator. Many of the former employees started work at the age of 15 and worked their way up through Harland & Wolff’s various departments.

The hotel now runs its own apprenticeship programme to encourage young people from the local area to enter the hospitality industry. While Titanic Quarter may never offer the same scale of mass employment locally that the shipyard did, there are opportunities and the hotel has recognised that these must be better profiled.

The success of this regeneration project will more than likely be judged by the awards, financial investment, occupancy levels and profits which it generates. However, the litmus test for a building with such history, is the endorsement of the people closest to it. Before the hotel opened to the public, former Harland & Wolff employees were invited to a preview event where they were entertained by the Queen’s Island Victoria Male Voice Choir.

The response to the restoration was unanimously positive and the end result received their seal of approval, summed up by a former company secretary, Rodney McCullough: “Being the last person to leave the building in 1989, I closed the doors with great sadness. To see the building brought back to how it was, it is absolute magic, it is superb.”

Titanic Quarter is on an exciting journey into the future. It will be important not to lose the connections with the men and women who worked here and gave the area its identity. The approach undertaken to restore the Harland & Wolff Headquarter Building is a step in the right direction in creating a shared space for the people of Belfast.

This article originally appeared as ‘The heart of the yard. Sharing through regeneration at Titanic Quarter, Belfast.’ in IHBC's 2018 Yearbook (Page 31), published by Cathedral Communications. It was written by Kerrie Sweeney, chief executive officer of Titanic Foundation.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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