Academical Institution designed by Sir John Soane, Thomas Jackson, and others. 1810, 1834, 1878, 1915, 1932, and 1957-59. Donegall Square, Belfast, Ulster, Northern Ireland. Text and photograph by Philip V. Allingham 2006. This image may be used without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose.
The architectural conception behind the handsome, porticoed Academical Institution, according to C. E. B. Brett, is Sir John Soane's, the supervisors of the actual construction being John McCutcheon and finally James Boyd. Although construction on the chief building in what was termed "College Square" was to have started in 1807, the high price of timber during the Napoleonic Wars postponed construction of the Academical Institution until 1810, Soane's final design of 1809 being a much reduced version of the grandiose neoclassical plans for quadrangles and colonnades that he had submitted over the years to the Managers of the enterprise.
The vista up Wellington Place [leading to the present City Hall in the other direction] is closed by the school's three-storey block of dusky brickwork relieved by four pairs of plan stucco pilasters. The round-headed windows on the ground floor are recessed; the only ornament is the deeply recessed and rather heavy pillared porch. . . . . The north wing was added, almost certainly to the original plans, in 1834, and is entirely congruous. The Common Hall was built in 1878 to the plans of Thomas Jackson & Son. [C. E. B. Brett, p. 12].
The remainder of the building reflects additions made in 1915, 1932, and 1957-9. The origins of the Academical Institution (or "Inst.," as the locals call it) lie in the late eighteenth century, when, owing to shipbuilding, rope-making, and linen production, the population of Belfast began to increase rapidly. As the town entered the nineteenth century, the Presbyterian Church of Ulster recognized that it required its own training facility to supply young would-be ministers with the appropriate post-secondary and theological education. Now a voluntary grammar school for boys, the "Inst." began with the laying of its foundation stone in July 1810 (hence, the numerals "MDCCCX" above its main portal), and opened to receive its first students almost four years later, in March 1814. The building is set well back from the busy thoroughfare of Fisherwick Place (which continues south as Great Victoria Street) in the midst of a green space bordered by more recent buildings, The Jury's Inn, the Europa Hotel of the 1960s, and the Grand Opera House (1895) to the south and the Belfast Technical College (built between 1899 and 1907) to the north.
However, Queen Victoria's creation of Queen's College in 1845 marked the close of post-secondary studies at the "Inst.," whose four professors and senior students transferred to the new institution some twenty minutes' walk to the south upon its opening in 1849. Where Fisherwick Place intersects with Wellington Place stands the dark-green, weathered bronze statue that locals persist in referring to as "The Black Man," even though the real "Black Man" statue that once occupied the 1855 plinth — Patrick McDowell bronze of the young Earl of Donnegal — now stands overlooking the ground floor of the rotunda in the City Hall. Removed from its original site in 1868, that life-size statue had been painted black to preserve it from the elements. It stood for some years in the Public Library before being transferred to the new City Hall in 1906. The man depicted by present "Black Man" statue, its back turned to the Academical Institution, is the noted Evangelical Presbyterian minister Dr. Henry Cooke (1788-1868). So opposed was he to the religious tolerance advocated by the Unitarian-leaning Academical Institution that his many followers saw additional significance in that fact that S. F. Lynn's 1875 statue has been positioned so that it looks down Wellington Place, scorning (as it were) the institution with whose principles of tolerance Cooke so rabidly disagreed.
Brett, C. E. B. Buildings of Belfast, 1700-1914. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1967.
Heatley, Fred, and Gillian Boyd (il.). Belfast: Paintings and Stories from the City. Donaghadee, N. Ireland: Cottage Publications, 1998.
Last modified 12 September 2006