The soul of Belfast

In the historic headquarters of the Harland & Wolff shipyard, shipbuilders once designed ocean giants such as the ‘Olympic’, the ‘Britannic’ and the ‘Titanic’. Now, the Titanic Hotel Belfast has opened here – the pride of the whole city.

text: Stefanie Bisping  //  photography: Mariusz Smiejek

The counter is like an island in the middle of the Titanic Bar. It’s clad with 720 of the same tiles that once graced the pool and the first-class bathrooms of the Titanic, the famed ocean liner. Workers found the samples, which are more than a hundred years old, when they began to convert the former main site of the prominent Harland & Wolff shipyard into a hotel, after many years of disuse.

“The Titanic Belfast is no museum, but it is much more than a hotel,” explains Adrian McNally, General Manager of the hotel, which opened in September. Not just because all the memorabilia will make the hearts of “Titanic” fans race faster here. It’s because a piece of Belfast’s maritime history is hidden in each nook and cranny of the hotel, characterising the identity of the city far more than the notorious unrest of the sixties, seventies and eighties. No company embodied this spirit more than the Harland & Wolff shipyard, founded in the 19th century.

In addition to the unfortunate Titanic, the world’s former largest ship builder produced more than 1700 other ships, from ferries to luxury liners. They were proud to be the most important employer in the city and truly lent it its identity. This legacy is the absolute foundation of the hotel. “High regard for the past runs deep in these walls,” says hotel boss McNally. And he's right. The bright light that filters through the atelier windows of the white cupola roof into today’s bar, was once used by the shipyard’s draughtsman in ‘Drawing Office Two’ to design ships. In the neighbouring fine dining restaurant, The Wolff Grill, the menus are stored in antique filing cabinets, and the centre of the room is dominated by a real Draughtsman’s Office: this office, which belonged to a former draughtsman, today serves as a booth, complete with elegantly decorated table.

McNally came on board three months before the Titanic opened and is completely in his element. “It's always lovely to open a hotel,” he explains, “and even more so one that is very close to people’s hearts”. After around twenty years in the USA, Kenya and China, the Northern Irish hotelier, born in Armagh, is working at home for the first time in years. He was a host for the 2013 G8 summit in the Lough Erne Resort in Enniskillen, before leading the five-star hotel Culloden in Belfast as GM to the title of best hotel in Northern Ireland. “It already had everything a very good hotel needs,” according to McNally. “I just had to get the team motivated to win the award.”

In the Titanic Belfast, the 47-year-old sees himself both as a manager and motivator. “Our mission and vision is to offer the best service in the most unusual luxury hotel in Belfast.” The historic building is not just a stroke of luck, it also implies special responsibility. “There is no more iconic site in Belfast. The shipyard and the Titanic are intrinsically linked to Belfast’s spirit. We will be judged by what we do with this new opening and how we move forward.”

Close contact with guests is therefore of vital importance. “Hotels and luxury service are not static. We need to constantly review and improve our work to achieve our goals.” His team therefore discusses each individual guest comment, positive or negative alike, and draws conclusions from each.

The Irish owners, the Doherty family, are also closely connected to the project. The portfolio of their Harcourt real estate and hotel company based in Dublin comprises six hotels in the British Isles and two in the Caribbean. But the Titanic Quarter itself is the company’s most ambitious project yet. An area 75 hectares in size on the former shipyard, where Harcourt has completed the major undertaking of reviving an urban harbour area in Europe. The heart of it all is the record-breaking Titanic Belfast Museum, which soars 38.5 metres into the sky only a few steps from the hotel – just like the ship that was once launched right beside it.

From post-industrial wasteland to dynamic district

The neighbourhood of this visitor magnet alone, which is also one of the largest event areas in Belfast, likely makes utilisation worries a purely theoretical consideration for Adrian McNally. The film studio that does special effects for the “Game of Thrones” series is also located in the Titanic Quarter, along with the offices of more than one hundred firms.

Hard to imagine then, that ten years ago, the district was probably one of the bleakest in Belfast. In its heyday, the shipyard employed 35,000 staff, and with the decline of the shipping industry, the wasteland spread wide. The shipyard continues to take repair orders to this day, but the last ship was launched from the yard in 2003 and the headquarters has stood empty since 1989.

So the rebirth of the shipyard has electrified the whole city, whose population has closely watched every single step of the 28-million-pound renovation. “To excel as a hotel, we had to restore the historical parts of the building to their former glory,” explains McNally. John Paul Doherty was responsible for this aspect, son of Harcourt founder Pat Doherty. As the creative head of the company, he is responsible for the design of the hotel. “The Victorian drawing rooms, one of which houses the bar and the other our ballroom, are the only preserved examples of this architectural style in the world,” says Doherty, and the respect in his voice is unmistakable.

Fusing past and present

This meant staying as close to the original as possible, with every single detail. The memorabilia ranges from wrought-iron railings on the staircases and the mahogany revolving door of the lobby right through to the ship manuals and notebooks that belonged to Titanic designer Thomas Andrews. Much of it was still there, and Doherty was able to bring together other pieces with the help of historians and collectors. What hadn’t survived was faithfully recreated – such as the floors, which were tiled in Victorian style.

The public spaces are decorated with photographs of the shipyard and its ships, portraits of prominent passengers, but also modern pieces of art. The art déco style of the rooms is a nod to the era of the ocean-going giants. The cabinets are imitations of those that were in first class on the Titanic, maritime objects such as ship lanterns provide design accents. The seven historical offices of the head employees in the “Power Corridor” on the ground floor are now meeting rooms named after former shipyard managers. “Thomas Andrews’ Office”, the sanctum of the Titanic’s chief designer, who went down with the ship. The wardrobe, fireplace and window frames have been preserved, as Andrews left them behind in April 1912.

“Getting the balance between historical heritage and new technology was the biggest challenge,” says Adrian McNally, “so we had to pull some tricks”. Luxuriant chandeliers camouflage energy-saving bulbs. The telegraph office in the lobby, where the message about the loss of the Titanic was received, has been preserved. But these days, any messages are passed through the building using lightning-fast WiFi.


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