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Historic Building Details

HB Ref No:

Extent of Listing:
Opera House

Date of Construction:
1800 - 1819

Address :
The Grand Opera House Great Victoria Street Belfast County Antrim BT2 7HR

Town Parks

Survey 2:

Date of Listing:
20/06/1974 00:00:00

Date of De-listing:

Current Use:
Entertainment Building

Former Use
Entertainment Building

Conservation Area:

Industrial Archaeology:





OS Map No:
130/13 SE

IG Ref:
J3351 7386

Owner Category


Exterior Description And Setting

Attached multi-bay four-storey Victorian opera house, built in 1895, to designs by London theatre architect Frank Matcham, located to the west side of Great Victoria Street, at the junction with Glengall Street, in Belfast City Centre. Opera house consists of rectangular auditorium with flytower with mansard roof to east end, abutted to Glengall street and Great Victoria Street by supporting accommodation; three-storey flat roofed extensions abutting north and west elevations; east elevation abutted at centre by first floor crush bar over principal entrance, added c.1980. Roofs are hipped natural slate with leaded ridges over painted stone corbelled eaves; corbelled brick chimney with painted sandstone cornice to south of auditorium; octagonal cupola consisting of ventilation louvers surmounted by copper roof with second stage surmounted by copper domed roof and finial to east of auditorium (main material not identifiable from ground floor); later ventilation chimney to centre. Walls are English garden wall bonded red brick over smooth rendered plinth with painted moulded sandstone string courses; east elevation has painted rendered walling to door head height. Windows are square-headed timber framed 2/2 sliding sashes in brick reveals with decorative carved stone pediments, unless otherwise stated. Principal elevation faces east and is abutted at first floor by timber framed glazed crush bar with curvilinear roof. Exposed central section comprises three recessed bays each containing, at ground floor, square-headed opening containing replacement double-leaf timber doors; at second floor, pair of timber framed windows containing leaded stained glass and separated by painted stone pilasters, and at third floor, roundel window in painted stone architrave surmounted by painted stone archivolt with keyblock; central section surmounted by painted frieze reading ‘GRAND OPERA HOUSE’ surmounted by decorative triangular pediment with ornate stucco tympanum reading ‘CIRQUE’. Central section flanked by engaged square towers; each contains painted stone relief panel surmounted by square-headed ventilation opening containing cast-iron openwork grille contained within smooth surround and surmounted by round-arched-headed pediment at upper ground floor level; two narrow openings containing cast-iron ventilation grilles to top stage surmounted by stone cornice to onion-domes flanking pediment. To left and right of towers, single bay contains, at ground floor, segmental-arched-headed recess with bullnose reveal surmounted by decorative hood-mould with keyblock; at first floor, timber framed casement window containing leaded stained glass surmounted by projecting lintel and triangular pediment supported on console brackets; relief panel above reads ‘MUSIC’ to left bay and ‘DRAMA’ to right bay; partial balustrade terminates at scrolled pedimented parapet rising to third floor. North-east elevation is three-storey; two segmental-arched-headed openings at ground floor containing replacement double-leaf timber panelled entrance doors surmounted by glazed fanlight; at first floor, pair of timber framed casement windows containing leaded stained glass surmounted by stone panel containing moulded arch with ornate stucco tympanum reading ‘ARTS’; above, moulded stringcourse to pair of windows at second floor (as before) in smooth architrave, separated by console bracket and surmounted by shouldered pediment; balustrade to parapet. Slated roof to second floor behind which is exposed curved clerestory (third floor) with rendered walling; four keyed oculi with horizontal transom containing metal framed casement windows, each separated by ornate pilaster detail. South-east elevation is three-storey abutted by two-storey block; segmental-arched-headed recessed panel (former entrance) at ground floor; at first floor, large timber-framed oculus window in moulded architrave with stylised keyblock set within smooth rendered surround; surmounted by triangular pediment (no base) supported on console brackets with pedimented heads; bronze statue to apex. Balustrade to parapet concealing slated roof to second floor; clerestory as north-east elevation. South elevation consists is three-storey with clerestory to auditorium behind at left; gabled bay at right. At left, double-height segmental-arched-headed entrance opening contains double-leaf timber panelled loading bay doors surmounted by panelled spandrel panel; gabled dormer above containing oculus in keyed surround. Loading bay flanked at left by single window at first and second floors; flanked at right by five openings at each floor; at ground floor, openings surmounted by hood-moulds on corbels with segmental-arched-headed lights above; that to centre and right are door openings containing timber panelled entrance doors. Clerestory contains two oculus windows in smooth architraves at left (flytower) and one at right (auditorium); signage reads ‘OPERA HOUSE’. Gabled bay at right contains pair of double-leaf timber panelled doors at left flanked at right by further double-leaf doors; surmounted at first floor left by two low level semi-circular windows with smooth architraves, pair of windows with shared corbelled sill and shared ornate scrolled pediment flanked at left by single window, and at right by single window surmounted by projecting lintel and triangular pediment supported on console brackets; relief panel above reads ‘ARTS’; four windows at second floor; scrolled gable terminates in partial balustraded parapet at left and right; gable contains pair of timber casement windows surmounted by semi-circular window set in triangular pediment supported on console brackets to apex flanked by cornice on console brackets to left and right. West elevation is abutted by three-storey extension. North elevation is abutted by three-storey extension. Building is on tight city centre site accessed directly from street at east and south; the principal entrance to the east has been rerouted through the lobby extension to the north-east side, with through access to the theatre itself. Roof: Natural slate Walling: English garden wall bonded red brick Windows: Square-headed timber framed 2/2 sliding sashes Rainwater goods: Cast-iron moulded gutters and round downpipes


Matcham, Frank

Historical Information

The Grand Opera House was constructed in 1894-5 to designs by Frank Matcham, the leading theatre designer of his day. (Gallagher) The Grand Opera House was declared open on 16th December 1895, a week before the opening performance, a pantomime called ‘Blue Beard’. The proprietor of the theatre was J F Warden who had been the manager of a previous theatre in Arthur Square. Warden commented on the opening night, ‘I consider we are all under a deep debt of gratitude to that king of architects, Frank Matcham. He is the hero and father of forty theatres and he has expressed to me his great love for this, his favourite child’. The Belfast Newsletter commented favourably on the building calling it “one of the prettiest buildings of the kind in existence. From an architectural point of view it is a most handsome addition to the public buildings of this city. Charming in design and noble in proportion, it reminds one of a sumptuous Oriental palace”. The lavish interior was also minutely described, the newspaper declaring itself dazzled by the ‘most brilliant and charming Eastern effect’ produced by the decoration. (Belfast Newsletter) The appearance of the theatre on opening differed slightly from its appearance today. Among other minor changes over the years, a glass and iron canopy which sheltered the entrances in Glengall Street and the corner with Great Victoria Street has since been removed. (Gallagher) In 1863 Warden was appointed the Temporary Manager of the Theatre Royal, Arthur Square and began his enduring association with the city although he had previously been an actor and continued to take many leading roles in Britain and Ireland. He rebuilt the Theatre Royal in 1871 and in 1881 when it was destroyed by fire and built a new Opera House for Derry in 1877. It was Warden who approached Frank Matcham, a designer of 150 theatres throughout Britain, to design a Grand Opera House for Belfast. (Gallagher) Matcham took an innovative approach to safety in providing sufficient exits and complex fireproofing precautions and ventilation and sightlines also received the benefit of his experience. He was able to construct ‘an elaborate building on a small site (which had been chosen for its excellent location), and to fill such a building with the maximum number of paying seats.’ (Gallagher) The theatre was expected to accommodate opera, variety, pantomime and circus and could be adapted to fulfil the varying requirements of each type of entertainment. (Gallagher) The theatre was completed speedily. Plans were submitted to Belfast Corporation in November 1894 and the building was completed within a year. The Opera House was built on an appropriate site, next to the train station and on the site of Ginnet’s Circus which had been open since 1882. Belfast’s population was expanding rapidly and it was felt that the Theatre Royal was inadequate for large-scale productions. (Gallagher) The building is first shown on the OS map edition dating from 1901-2 and enters valuation records in 1895 as a ‘Grand Theatre Opera House and Cirque’, the property of J F Warden valued at £580. The cost of the building is said to be £12,000 and it replaces William Harminston’s Equestrian Circus formerly on the site. In the Belfast Revaluation of 1900 the valuer notes that the total cost including all fittings was £18,688 and that ‘A Lord Mayor’s license empowers them to keep bars open for half an hour after the performance. The building was by this time valued at £870 and was said to seat 2,500 people. The Opera House initially concentrated on popular entertainment in the form of burlesque and musical comedies, but classical drama was soon added to the repertoire with the visit of Frank Benson and his Shakespearean Company which played to full houses every New Year. Opera was well represented with regular visits from the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company and the Royal Carl Rosa Opera Company who gave an early performance of Puccini’s La Bohème, before the opera had been seen in London. By 1898 the theatre also boasted a ‘Summer Circus Season’ by a system that allowed the stage to be provide a circus ring. J F Warden died early in 1898 and the theatre was taken over by his son Fred W Warden, but the son was not as comfortable with the role as his father had been and relations with the public and press soured. Complaints were made about the quality of entertainment being presented to the Belfast audience, and that ‘Warden Limited’ possessed a monopoly, controlling at that time both theatres in the city, the Theatre Royal and the Grand Opera House. In 1900 the Grand Opera House, dropped the designation of ‘cirque’ and between 1900 and 1904 presented some of the greatest names in quality drama of the era including Mrs Patrick Campbell, Lily Langtry, Henry Irving and Ellen Terry. However, audience numbers were not as large as was hoped and in 1904 Warden Limited transferred all serious drama to the smaller Theatre Royal while the Grand Opera House was renamed the Palace of Varieties and ran with a twice-nightly variety programme composed of comedians, dancers, minstrels and novelty acts. Occasional ‘flying visits’ were still made, however, by celebrated personalities fitting in a matinee between appearances in Dublin and Scotland. However, the experiment was not financially successful and in 1909 the theatre reverted back to its old name of Royal Opera House and to the mixture of opera, drama and light entertainment that had been its staple in former years. (Gallagher) Towards the end of the decade the theatre saw the rise of a new phenomenon, drama from an Irish and Ulster tradition, with performances by the Abbey Theatre and the Ulster Literary Theatre, the latter continuing its relationship with the Royal Opera House until 1934. Shows continued as usual throughout the First World War. During the twenties and thirties was the great era of musical shows such as ‘The Student Prince’ and ‘The Desert Song’. Shakespearean companies continued to be popular and the works of George Bernard Shaw. After Fred Warden’s death, Edward Buckley took over as Managing Director and continued with much the same mixture of popular and serious entertainment. Hugely popular was the visit of Gracie Fields in September 1933. (Gallagher) Improvements to the building were carried out by James St John Phillips in 1930. ( After an accidental fire in 1934, it was decided to replace the stage, and the work was completed in two months under the supervision of architects Messrs Stevenson & Son, the work being carried out by H & J Martin, contractors. In 1940 restrictions were placed on the travel of theatre companies within Britain and the Opera House formed its own repertory company, the first and last time it did so for any lengthy period. In 1944 the US Army presented ‘This is the Army’ to packed houses, enthusiasm reaching fever pitch at a personal appearance by Irving Berlin. In 1949 a controlling interest in the theatre was bought by George Lodge, general manager of the Imperial and Cinematograph Theatres and several changes were made, although the theatre initially remained committed to a programme of theatre and pantomime. The architect Henry Lynch Robinson remodelled the dress circle bar, removing the naked putti that held the drapes and entrances to the circle and stalls were combined, social segregation having eased in the aftermath of war. Experiments with cinema began to take place beginning with a short film season in 1949 and George Lodge’s ownership of the theatre culminated in a compilation of extracts from Shakespeare, starring Orson Welles as Falstaff. In 1960 the theatre was bought by Rank Odeon and renovations were carried out including new seats and a new main entrance hall on Great Victoria Street through what had been the pit bar. The theatre continued with a mixture of live shows and films and opera was a large part of the programme in the early sixties, but changing tastes and civil unrest conspired against the continued profitable running of the theatre and in 1972 it was closed and the site sold to property developers. (Gallagher) However, at the commencement of statutory listing in 1974, the Grand Opera House was the first building to be listed and was bought by the Arts Council in 1976. Robert McKinstry was the architect of the subsequent restoration and the contractors were H & J Martin, the company that had originally built the theatre in 1895. The original decoration of the theatre was restored and some improvements were made to provide the technical requirements of a modern raising the roof of the stage by twenty feet and lowering the floor by two feet. ‘A sense of the exotic and an atmosphere of magic’ was retained in the restoration. The painted ceiling of the auditorium was re-created by Cherith McKinstry using printed descriptions, personal memories and her own creativity. McKinstry’s major adaptation to the appearance of the building was a conservatory style crush bar which was added to the front of the building in the style of Matcham’s Theatre Royal at Portsmouth. The theatre reopened with a gala night in September 1980 and began to show the same mixture of pantomime, opera, comedy, serious theatre, musicals and ballet that had characterised its programme from the earliest days with a production of Brian Friel’s Translations starring Liam Neeson. The Opera House now became a venue for rock musicians such as Van Morrison. Its opening was seen as a gesture of hope in a bleak period of the city’s history and rejuvenated pubs and restaurants in the area. However, the theatre was severely damaged by bombs in 1991 and 1993. The first bomb closed the theatre for nine months and the second, which tore the side out of the building, for seven. (Gallagher) References: Primary Sources 1. PRONI OS/6/1/61/1 – First Edition OS Map 1832-3 2. PRONI OS/6/1/61/3 – Third Edition OS Map 1858 3. PRONI OS/6/1/61/4 – Fourth Edition OS Map 1901-2 4. PRONI OS/6/1/61/6 – Sixth Edition OS Map 1931 5. PRONI VAL/12/B/43/D/1-22 – Annual Revisions (1862-1930) 6. PRONI VAL/7/B/9/49 – Belfast Revaluation 1900 7. Belfast Newsletter, 7th December 1895 8. Belfast Newsletter, 24th December 1895 9. Irish Builder, Vol 72, 4th January 1930, p.27 Secondary Sources 1. Brett, C.E.B. “Buildings of Belfast 1700-1914” Belfast: Friar’s Bush Press, revised edition 1985 2. Larmour, P “Belfast, An Illustrated Architectural Guide” Belfast: Friar’s Bush Press, 1987 3. Patton, M “Central Belfast: An Historical Gazetteer” Belfast: Ulster Architectural Heritage Society, 1993 4. – Dictionary of Irish Architects online

Criteria for Listing

Architectural Interest

A. Style B. Proportion C. Ornamentation D. Plan Form E. Spatial Organisation H-. Alterations detracting from building I. Quality and survival of Interior

Historic Interest

V. Authorship W. Northern Ireland/International Interest Y. Social, Cultural or Economic Importance Z. Rarity


Attached multi-bay four-storey Victorian opera house, built in 1895, to designs of the renowned London theatre architect Frank Matcham, located to the west side of Great Victoria Street, at the junction with Glengall Street, in Belfast City Centre. This proscenium theatre has been altered and modernised at various times over its life, with most recent additions creating a new contemporary entrance lobby, bar and backstage area, shifting the main entrance slightly, however, the drama and opulence of the auditorium has remained throughout, and its highly ornate character remains. Internally, the auditorium detailing is largely intact and the remainder of the building has a relatively well-preserved interior. The exterior of the building displays an eclectic mix of elements, including oriental style onion-domes, classical detailing, and Victorian ornamentation. Of significant historical interest and architectural interest, the building is is an important local landmark in the area and in the wider context of Northern Ireland. The theatre remains one of the most celebrated in Northern Ireland.

General Comments

Additional listing criteria apply-R-Age, S-Authenticity, T-Historic Importance

Date of Survey

09 May 2011