Context 140 - July 2015

12 C O N T E X T 1 4 0 : J U LY 2 0 1 5 BRONAGH LYNCH Renewing the Guildhall The first major restoration of the Derry~Londonderry Guildhall in nearly 40 years has made the building an important arrival and orientation hub for visitors to the city. The history of the Guildhall dates back to 1882 when Londonderry Corporation decided to build a new town hall on reclaimed land adjacent to the River Foyle and the offices of the Harbour Commissioners. The land was given to the corporation by the Honourable the Irish Society [sic], which also provided a grant towards its construction. This historic connection with the Guilds of London explains the naming of the building as the Guildhall. The corporation held a design competition in 1886 with a brief to include a council chamber, main hall and gallery, committee rooms, a mayor’s parlour, town clerk’s office, a police court, cells and magistrates room. The budget was £12,000, excluding the cost of furniture. The competition-winning architect, John Guy Ferguson, was one of Derry’s leading architects at the time, having designed the nearby Apprentice Boys Memorial Hall, the Cathedral School in London Street, and the sadly demolished Tillie and Henderson Factory that once stood prominently next to the listed Craigavon Bridge. Sir John Whittaker Ellis Bart, governor of the HonorableThe Irish Society, laid the foundation stone of the Guildhall on 23 August 1887, and a ‘time capsule’ was placed within the foundations.The building itself was constructed using two types of stone: a local Dungiven stone and a Scottish sandstone.The 144-feet-tall clock tower contained a large four-faced clock, made in Edinburgh by James Ritchie and Co, whose nine-and- a-half-feet-diameter dials were the largest in Ireland at that time.The main council chamber was located at first floor overlooking the River Foyle. On Easter Sunday in 1908 a fire broke out in the roof of the Guildhall.The fire brigade was called, but the height of the building was a problem, and with a strong wind blowing there was little that could be done to save the main building.The only parts of the Guildhall that could be saved were the clock tower and the rear block facing the river, where the council chamber had been placed. In 1909, the Honourable the Irish Society erected a plaque in the entrance hall under the tower acknowl- edging that they would rebuild the Guildhall. The Londonderry Corporation sought designs from various architects for the rebuilding and a local architect, WE Pinkerton, was initially chosen. However, the city surveyor and architect, Matthew A Robinson, rejected the designs of Pinkerton submitted to the corporation. He was eventually given the task of redesigning the building. Robinson, who was only 36 years of age, had previously designed Austin’s Department Store in the Diamond area of the city, in addition to the Rosemount shirt factory – both of which are now listed. Robinson’s design for the rebuilt Guildhall was much more ornate than Ferguson’s original. He created a new front elevation with multiple bay windows containing carved red sandstone surrounds to direct more light into the main hall.The clock tower, which survived the fire, was retained, and the new sections of the building were successfully married in to the existing using the same Dungiven sandstone quarried for the original. The whole of the central portion of the old Guildhall was swept away and a brand new suite of rooms and offices was created.The council chamber was relocated The multi-purpose main hall (Photo: H and J Martin)

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