Barre, William Joseph (1830–67), architect, was born in Newry, Co. Down, and articled to Thomas Duff of Newry (1847–8) and Edward Gribbon of Dublin (1848–50) before establishing his practice (1850) in Newry. He gained immediate recognition with his controversial design for the unitarian (later the non-subscribing presbyterian) church, Needham Place, Newry (1852–3), which marked the transformation in Ulster's nonconformist churches from the classical to the decorated Gothic-revival style. He delighted in ornament and in the use of polychrome brick and sandstone, as in the methodist church (completed 1865), University Rd, Belfast, designed in Lombard Romanesque style, but was also adept in the classical style, as in the First Presbyterian church (1858) at Portadown, Co. Armagh. He designed churches for five different denominations; particularly fine is St Anne's Church of Ireland, Dungannon, Co. Tyrone (begun 1865).
In 1859, out of forty-one competitors from all over the British Isles, he won the competition for the Ulster Hall; built in Italianate classical style and crowned with a coat of arms supported by the old deer and wolfhound of Ulster (removed 1959), it was the largest music hall in Britain or Ireland, its interior resplendent with galleried and arcaded walls. On his moving his office to Belfast, his practice rapidly expanded. He designed a variety of highly individualistic buildings – including schools, banks, warehouses, mills, and opulent mansions – throughout Ireland, but mostly in Belfast: Clanwilliam House (1864; later known as Danesfort), Malone Rd, one of his most impressive buildings with its combination of French chateau roof, Tudor chimneys, Italian arcades, and elaborate four-storey tower, is one of the finest Victorian mansions in Ireland (later the headquarters of the Electricity Board). He designed the Provincial (subsequently the Allied Irish) Bank, Royal Avenue (1864–9), a splendid, richly ornamented two-storey building, its interior lit by a tall circular dome over an octagonal arcade.
He entered many competitions including that for the Albert memorial clock tower, Queen's Square, Belfast. Drawings were submitted anonymously and Barre's was selected by a sub-committee, with the entry by Lanyon, Lynn & Lanyon placed second. The general committee, however, reversed the order – Charles Lanyon (qv), MP for Belfast, was a committee member – and the subsequent public outcry led to the reinstatement of Barre's winning design. A highly distinctive monument (1865–9), it became a prominent landmark in the city. The memorial (1861) to Arctic explorer Capt. F. R. M. Crozier (qv) in Banbridge, Co. Down, a delightful pedestal with its four mourning polar bears, was designed by Barre to support the statue by J. R. Kirk (qv).
Barre was a prolific architect, and his eclecticism, versatility, and inventiveness were responsible for some of Belfast's most distinctive Victorian buildings. Warm-hearted and greatly respected, he was the only Irish architect of the Victorian period to be the subject of a contemporary biography, A memoir . . . by Durham Dunlop (1812–82), which provides photographic illustrations and lists many of his buildings. A council member of the RIAI (1863–4), he was also a prominent freemason, a member of several lodges, and three times master of Lodge 23 Newry.
Having contracted a lung infection (1865), he travelled to France (1866) in search of a cure, returned to Belfast (1867), and resumed work, but died 23 September 1867 at his home in Fisherwick Pl., Belfast. He was buried in St Patrick's churchyard, Newry, where the elaborate Gothic style tombstone – which he had originally designed for his father – also marks his own grave and was erected by his widowed mother. Several of his works were executed posthumously. He never married.