Fire and Sandstone: William Henry Lynn

Throughout this topic we have discussed the rivalry between Barre and Lanyon, the industrial specialist that was William Gilliland and the influential Thomas Jackson. Now, as we bring this research to a close, we turn to an architect who may be familiar to you due to events that occurred in the summer of 2018: William Henry Lynn. Lynn is one of the most recent of the architects examined as part of this research, having survived into the 20th century, however, his importance to Victorian Belfast cannot be understated. He was charged with expanding St Anne’s Cathedral, and was also the designer of many buildings that now act as a backdrop to the North Belfast Heritage Cluster, such as Carlisle Memorial Church.

Lynn’s career can be summarized in two distinct parts: Lanyon’s understudy and partner, and his breakout from under his mentor’s shadow. His designs and skill as an architectural draughtsmen contributed enormously to the success of the partnership with Lanyon. After the partnership dissolved, Lynn continued on his own, and forged a legacy for himself that established him as one of the greatest artists and architects in his field.

Born at St John’s Point, Co. Down in December 1829, William Henry Lynn was the eldest of two brothers. After his education in Wexford was completed, he was apprenticed to Charles Lanyon and returned to Belfast. Under Lanyon he acted as “clerk of works” for two of the city’s most prominent public buildings, Queen’s College Belfast, (later Queen’s University Belfast (QUB)) and the Antrim County Courthouse on the Crumlin Road.

Lynn was promoted to junior partner by Lanyon in 1854, and together form a successful partnership that was tasked with designing some of the region’s most important buildings, such as Belfast Castle and the Londonderry Memorial (Scrabo Tower). This partnership did not last, and in 1872 Lynn branched out on his own and would design buildings such as Carlisle Memorial Church, and Campbell College, as well as adding to existing buildings such as St Anne’s Cathedral and QUB.

Whilst his prowess as an architect was well known, it was his ability as an artist that made him unique. In a obituary tribute, it was stated that Lynn “was one of the finest architectural draughtsmen of his day.” He used this gift to better inform his architectural designs, however, this gift set him apart from his contemporaries, with many in awe of his artistic abilities, with renowned English architect, Alfred Waterhouse reportedly stating:

“…There [is] nothing [I] would better like to do than to sit behind Lynn and look over his shoulder while he pinned an antiquarian sheet to his board and laid out a large plan.”

Lynn never married throughout his life and died on 12th September 1915, aged 85. at his home on the Antrim Road. He is buried in Belfast City Cemetery alongside his mother and his brother, under a monument which he designed. In his will, he left £5,000 to St Anne’s Cathedral to aid in its completion. A commerative window was then erected to Lynn in the cathedral in 1917. After his death, his niece, Ellen Cooper, presented a number of his drawings and scrapbooks to the Ulster Museum and the RIBA, with exhibitions of his work shown in the Ulster Museum in 1978.

Lynn contributed enormously to the architectural landscape of Belfast, and he was well respected by his peers for his architectural and artistic talents. He emerged from the shadow of his former mentor and business partner to reach levels of success that made him one of the richest architects in Ireland. He left his mark on a number of buildings in north Belfast, however, we may never know how many were constructed from his designs during his tenure with Lanyon. Regardless, Lynn left a quiet, yet revered legacy which is best summarised in an entry in the Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects:

The Corinthian Dome inside Central Library. Credit: Libraries NI.

                “Lynn’s buildings are the record of a life which as far as I know was, apart from his work, singularly uneventful. He was never married; he was a strong man and a true artist, firm of purpose, brooking no interference with his work, shunning publicity, and sincere and modest to a degree-such was the man of whom I have ventured to pen these few unworthy lines…”  

Lynn’s works specialised in marrying function with a sense of late Victorian gravitas that imbued the buildings with great sense of prestige. It is therefore little wonder that he was the architect of choice when it came to designing buildings of Education, Authority and Religion, as his architectural designs helped elevate the status of these sites as prestigious places of business, worship and learning.

One such site is a close neighbour to the North Belfast Heritage Cluster; The Central Library on Royal Avenue, which recently celebrated its 135 Anniversary. Lynn’s design won the architectural competition in 1883, beating 55 other designs, with the building opened to the public in 1888. The building was built atop a black granite base, and made of imported red sandstone from Drumfries. Corinthian in style, the former reference library is capped by a magnificent Corinthian style dome: A feature that is hidden from view from passers-by by the grand sandstone façade.

The renowned architectural buildings expert and founding Chairman of the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society, Sir Charles Brett discussed Central Library as part of his ‘Buildings of Belfast’:

“This is an impressive classical building, executed in red sandstone especially imported from Scotland…Recently cleaned and restored, it constitutes an interesting reversion by Lynn to the earlier style of Lanyon; unfortunately, it seems a little top-heavy and a little too self-conscious to be entirely successful.”

CEB Brett. “Buildings of Belfast”
The Bank Buildings after their lengthy rebuild.

The critique about the building being self-conscious is an interesting comment by Brett, as it is curious that such a significant architectural feature (the Corinthian style domed ceiling) is entirely hidden from view. Such a description does appear apt for Central Library. As the old adage goes, “you should never judge a book by its cover” so it is appropriate that the full grandeur is only revealed once you venture beyond the sandstone exterior.

DID YOU KNOW! The library had designed to facilitate future expansions. Due to financial constraints the intended extensions were not built, with more modern ones constructed in 1963 and 1980. These extensions did not adhere to Lynn’s original architectural style, however, if you were to walk down Library Street to Royal Avenue you can still see the archways built into the brickwork; waiting to provide entrance to a new wing of the library that never came.

Whilst a lesser-known name in modern day Belfast, one of his designs was recently the centre of attention in Belfast. On 28th August 2018, a fire broke out in the Bank Buildings at the junction of Royal Avenue and Castle Place. The Bank Buildings were initially built for Robertson, Ledlie, Ferguson & Co. and were designed by Lynn in the late 1890’s. The building was an iron framed structure, much of which was destroyed in the fire, along with the original interior features. One of the most iconic photographs from that day is of flames erupting from the clockface that adorned the eastern façade. The building was gutted as the roof and internal floors collapsed leaving the external walls freestanding. Drone footage of the gutted buildings were recorded by the BBC.

The devastation caused to one of Belfast’s most prominent heritage buildings, and a building that had emotional connections to so many was a catalysing moment, as it took co-operation and engagement from across the city and beyond to save what remained of the structure and restore it. It took a 4 year, £100 million investment project before the building was reopened. Such destruction acted as a catalyst for action, however, it also acted as an opportunity for reflection. The Bank Buildings were not Lynn’s most prominent work. As stately and ornate as the Bank Buildings are, they are not dissimilar to other buildings of its period. Arguably, its close neighbour, ‘The Castle Buildings’ are much more ornate in their design. What occurred in the aftermath of the August 2018 fire was an outpouring of personal stories which highlighted the building’s importance as an architectural anchor to the people of Belfast. In this instance, the memories of the people who worked, shopped, or simply passed by the building in its century of existence established it as building of importance to the city of Belfast, rather than its provenance or heritage.

Whilst this response was triggered by the fire, and the subsequent near loss of a local landmark, it demonstrates the importance of a personal connection to heritage assets. Without a level of emotional investment in the roll of a building in the past and present, there will be little drive or appetite for financial investment to protect these buildings in the future.

The Castle Buildings, Castle Place. These were designed in 1905-1907 by Blackwood and Jury. One of the last buildings in Belfast to display the Victorian ‘exuberance’.

About the archivist:

James Cromey is the Archive Coordinator for the North Belfast Heritage Cluster. He has a background in Victorian, Industrial and Medical History and has received degrees from the University of Glasgow and Queens University Belfast. All research has been conducted to a high academic standard and has been fully referenced. If you would like to know more about a story or piece of research, or if you wish to tell us about your own story, email us at:

Members Involved

YEAR: 1904

Location: Donegall Street