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April 14, 2010

Barre, William Joseph (1830-1867)

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William Joseph Barre was a prolific Irish architect who built many well known buildings in Belfast and the northern part of Ireland in a Gothic Revival style, but was always overshadowed by his great rival, Charles Lanyon.

Barre’s best known work is the Albert Memorial Clock, in the centre of Belfast, built 1865-1870. Barre had a colourful history when it came to architectural competitions. By the time he was thirty he had beaten numerous rivals to win the task of designing the Ulster Hall. His design for the Methodist Church on University Road (originally the Wesleyan Church, on what was then Botanic Road) took first place in a competition of 1864, the work being completed the following year.

But he had not been so lucky in the competition, a few years earlier, to design what is now known as Scrabo Tower, the landmark building overlooking Newtownards. Although his design for the monument to Lord Londonderry took first place, the decision was overturned on grounds of cost, the commission instead going to Charles Lanyon, whose design had come second to Barre’s. Lanyon, notes Barre’s biographer, was County Surveyor at the time.

History came close to repeating itself in 1865: the Selection Committee charged with choosing a design for the monument to Prince Albert picked Barre’s clock; the General Committee, of which Lanyon was a member, chose to overrule in favour of Lanyon’s design. This time, however, public outcry was sufficient to restore the original decision, leaving us with Belfast’s well-known leaning clock tower.

Barre built several other monuments, perhaps the most unusual being that to the Banbridge-born arctic explorer Francis Crozier, featuring polar bears poised on top of flying buttresses. Barre died of tuberculosis at the age of 37, having completed several dozen major buildings, including private houses, schools, factories, and churches.

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