Magic Mushroom Off Season
Originally Belfast’s grandest pair of semi detached houses, built in the 1850s for banker James Thompson Bristow and his son, Wilmont House was combined into one house by the Dixon family in the 1920s. Its name comes from a previous house on the estate built by William Stewart circa 1740. Wilmont House is generally attributed to Thomas Jackson, a Waterford City born Belfast based architect. His prolific output was typically eclectic for its day ranging from the wedding cake gothic of St Malachy’s Church to the robustly rusticated Italianate Scottish Amicable Building. Wilmont House is much more reticent: balanced red brick elevations discreetly softened by sandstone dressings. If it falls under the Italianate genre, it only does so as a Belfast variant.
A high two storey main block, a low two storey ancillary block and a three storey campanile type tower all fit more or less into one rectangular footprint (except for south and east facing bow windows and north and south facing porches), neatly threading together the polite and service rooms of the house. Tall chimneystacks, some a storey in height, rising over slate hipped roofs, form a stimulating roofscape. Wilmont House is the centrepiece of a 54 hectare estate on the outskirts of Belfast.
Today, the estate is named after its last private owners Sir Thomas and Lady Edith Dixon, shipowners and timber merchants, who bought it in 1919. This philanthropic couple handed over the house and its grounds to Belfast Corporation, the forerunner of Belfast City Council, just 40 years later. Conveyancing conditions included: “Not to permit the sale of intoxicating liquor upon the said land and premises or any part thereof” and “To use the house and lands for the greatest good of the Citizens of the City of Belfast and in particular to use the lands as a public park and public playing fields and not to erect buildings thereon except as may be necessary in connection with these purposes.”
The park was officially opened to the public in 1963 and the house was converted to a nursing home, so fulfilling Lady Dixon’s wishes. The following year a large rose garden was planted near the house and before long the estate became synonymous with the annual Rose Trials. The horticultural attractions were augmented by a Japanese Garden in 1990. While the park has flourished, the house has not, lying vacant for over three decades. Various attempts by Belfast City Council at reinventing the house have seemingly gone awry.
“Sadly what we look at now bears little resemblance to what the house was in its heyday,” Lady Dixon’s great great nephew Andrew Dixon told the Belfast Telegraph in 2019. “They [the Council] have said they would like to talk to the family. I have plenty of ideas on how it could be used and surely that’s more preferable than letting it go to ruin. I and my father Robin Dixon, Baron Glentoran, have already watched how another of the properties at Cairndhu in Larne has been handled and I would hate to see Wilmont House go the same way.” The Council responded, “We’re currently preparing an invitation for expressions of interest to go to the market to seek a suitably qualified developer for the restoration and regeneration of Wilmont House, to bring it into a new use.”