Building Up and Tearing Down

Fitzwilliam Street 1

Ten days ago the state’s Electricity Supply Board announced plans to pull down its existing premises on Dublin’s Lower Fitzwilliam Street and build anew on the site. Since then there has been much discussion about what the replacement should look like. In order to assist in that dialogue, here follows a synopsis of how the present office block came into being.
In 1952 the late Maurice Craig wrote with rapture of this street and those on either end, describing how down its length, ‘the light ripples in gay vertical streaks, varied within modest limits, and disappearing, as cheerful as ever, into the anonymous distance.’ So it might have remained to the present but for the ESB which in 1927 had arrived in the area to occupy just the drawing room of a single building (No. 28 Lr Fitzwilliam Street). However, as the company grew and its duties and staff swelled, additional buildings were acquired along the same block until almost its entirety had come into the organisation’s possession. It was in December 1961 that the ESB first announced the intention to demolish sixteen houses on the street, Nos.13-28, and to replace the terrace with a purpose-built office block designed by the winner of a proposed architectural competition. Although this would mean the destruction of Europe’s longest unbroken line of Georgian houses (the ‘Georgian Mile’ actually somewhat less but running unbroken from the northern end of Merrion Square to the top of Fitzwilliam Place) various arguments were presented as justification for the demolition. These ranged from declaring the buildings ‘structurally unsound’ to claims that dry rot had been discovered in their roof timbers. Yet, as the Irish Georgian Society’s Bulletin noted at the time, if structural problems did exist then ‘the ESB, having used these buildings for 20 years cannot entirely disclaim responsibility for this.’ More significantly, in an interview carried by the IGS’s Bulletin in 1962 the ESB’s chairman Thomas Murray admitted his organisation had in fact envisaged rebuilding the terrace more than twenty years earlier: ‘Rules for an architectural competition to provide a replacement were drawn up in 1938, but the competition was abandoned because of the war.’

IMG_7576

IMG_7572

The ESB’s plans attracted widespread opposition, both at home and abroad, with The Manchester Guardian‘s correspondent asking ‘Is there a public opinion in Ireland sufficiently concerned to put a stop to this vandalism; and if not, why not?’ In an editorial on the same subject The Irish Times invited readers to ‘stand outside Holles Street hospital and look towards the Dublin Mountains. What would Canaletto have made of the view?’ A public meeting called at Dublin’s Mansion House attracted some 900 people, with 300 more having to be turned away at the door and therefore being denied the opportunity to hear the ESB denounced by the likes of actor Mícheál MacLiammóir and artist Sean Keating, then President of the Royal Hibernian Academy who warned that if Fitzwilliam Street’s destruction went ahead, ‘the next move will be to feed the books in the Library of Trinity College to the boilers of the Pigeon House.’ (Similarly in a report written by Dublin City Architect Daithi Hanly the question was posed ‘How important is the Book of Kells? At what price and for what convenience would we divide it and allow 16 pages of it to be destroyed?’). The audience at the Mansion House meeting also heard read the contents of a telegram of objection to the ESB’s scheme sent by the ground landlord of Fitzwilliam Street, the Earl of Pembroke whose forbears were responsible for the original development of the area. In an attempt to preserve the Fitzwilliam Street buildings, he now offered the ESB an alternative site nearby on James Street East. This proposal was not only declined but a compulsory purchase order was served on the Fitzwilliam Street houses, for which Lord Pembroke was paid a derisory £1,000; he immediately donated half the sum to the Irish Georgian Society to help its campaign.

IMG_7695

IMG_7674

On the other hand there were voices heard in favour of the terrace’s destruction. For example, two groups of architectural students attended the Mansion House meeting to demonstrate their support of the ESB’s intentions and in February 1962 the council of the Royal Institute of Architects in Ireland declared itself ‘satisfied that a new building need not destroy the beauty of the existing environment’ – despite the fact that the design of the new building had yet to be seen. (One wonders if the RIAI would still stand over that declaration). It was only in November 1962 that the winner of the ESB’s architectural competition was announced: Stephenson Gibney and Associates in which Sam Stephenson – who would write to The Irish Times the following summer denouncing Georgian buildings’ general shoddiness of construction – was a partner. The distinguished architectural historian Sir John Summerson was now hired by the ESB to champion the company’s cause. Having already pronounced that the only reasonable course was ‘to build to an entirely new design,’ in an interview carried by the Irish Georgian Society’s spring 1962 Bulletin (which was entirely devoted to the subject of the Fitzwilliam Street houses) in his report for the ESB he went further, calling the existing houses ‘a sloppy, uneven series’ and declaring ‘It is nearly always wrong to preserve rubbish, and by Georgian standards these houses are rubbish.’ In doing so, of course, he was viewing the houses individually and not as part of a greater – and more architecturally important – whole. The IGS retaliated by inviting an expert of its own, another architectural knight, Sir Albert Richardson. His retort to Summerson’s dismissal of Fitzwilliam Street was to argue that ‘no eighteenth century houses were substantially built – does that lessen their merit?’

IMG_7666

IMG_7669

The battle went on for more than two years. Both the IGS and the Old Dublin Society organised meetings and petitions against the ESB’s plans but no matter how much support they mustered or how vocal their objections it made no difference, not least because the Government of the day had no objections to the buildings’ demolition but instead gave support to the proposal. In late September 1964 on the very day before a new Planning Act – which could have provided salvation for the old houses – came into effect, then-Minister for Local Government Neil Blaney signed an order granting full planning permission for the new office development on Lower Fitzwilliam Street. The timing was surely no accident, and sealed the buildings’ fate. The following summer the sixteen houses were knocked down and work began on their replacement which ever since has continued to disrupt the unity of the area’s layout.
Thus we come to the present situation where the block commissioned by the ESB half a century ago has now been deemed unfit for purpose and only good for demolition. There was no need for the ESB to remain in this location in the 1960s and there is no need for it to do so today. On the contrary this is an ideal opportunity for the company to move out, allowing proper redevelopment of the terrace as a series of residential units. Instead, it has continued to acquire property in the area and commissioned a replacement of the Lr Fitzwilliam Street block from Grafton Architects and O’Mahony Pike. In no circumstances can the current building be declared an object of beauty but nor is its proposed proposed successor. The design is, quite frankly, a piece of poor pastiche: it acknowledges the authority of the original streetscape but then insists on fiddling with details of the buildings in a facile manner by playing around with window and door heights. The result suggests the architects, while accepting the power of the past, are nevertheless desperate that their interpretation, no matter how weak, receive some notice.
At the time of the old buildings’ demolition, Build magazine predicted, ‘If the ESB’s victory fires the starting gun for a wholesale onslaught on the remaining splendours of the eighteenth century, then it will be a victory most Pyrrhic indeed for the city of Dublin.’ And so it came to pass: where the ESB led, dozens of other state and private organisations followed and terrible destruction was wrought across the capital. It is surely telling that today Dublin City Council wants the lost facades to be reinstated, a huge change in attitudes over the past half-century. But one thing remains the same: the inability of corporations and individuals in Ireland ever to admit a mistake has been made. The ESB wouldn’t accept it was wrong then, and it won’t accept it is wrong now. Instead the company has declared its hand and shown the course intended to take: no matter how fierce the opposition, be prepared for the ESB to resist any change to announced plans.

Fitzwilliam Street 3

Today’s photographs show Lr Fitzwilliam Street as it was in the early 1960s and as it looks today. Immediately above is a picture of the proposed Grafton Architects and O’Mahony Pike replacement. A facebook page has been established to campaign for the restoration of the original streetscape, see: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Restore-Fitzwilliam-Street-Dublins-Georgian-Mile/303073159831331

Strait is the Gate

IMG_2662

An admirable pair of stone piers in the grounds of Borris House, County Carlow, ancestral home of the MacMorrough Kavanaghs (once High Kings of Leinster). The original 18th century building, having been damaged during the 1798 Rising, was refurbished some twenty years later in Tudor Gothic style by the Morrisons père et fils. But these gates look to pre-date that overhaul; elsewhere an entrance to the estate features granite ashlar piers topped with ball finials and dates from c.1780. Perhaps these gateposts, grander in scale and splendidly finished with slender urns are from around the same period?

Holding the Fort

Qih1BhAXBmcGJ09l6LQysC0Bs32IzyipWtFSv8gvS8M

Next week, on Tuesday 23rd April the contents of Fort William, County Waterford are due to be auctioned (see http://www.fonsiemealy.ie for more information). The sale will close a memorable period in many people’s lives; there have been few Irish houses in recent years more welcoming, more filled with joie de vivre than this.
Located a couple of miles west of Lismore and on a superb site above the Blackwater river, Fort William dates from the 1830s when it was erected to the designs of those prolific brothers James and George William Pain, both of whom worked as apprentice architects for John Nash in London before moving to Ireland. The Pains produced houses in whatever style was requested by their clients and at Fort William they came up with a benign form of Tudor Revival. Faced in local sandstone which has a wonderfully mottled appearance, the exterior is ornamented with an abundance of gables and pinnacles and angled chimneys but these are decorative flourishes on what is essentially a classical building, as can be seen by the regular sash windows.
Fort William was built for John Bowen Gumbleton whose family, originally from Kent, had settled in the area by the early 18th century. Their main residence – once called Castlerichard but later renamed Glencairn – lies a little further upriver. The property on that site was substantially transformed around 1814 by John Gumbleton’s father into fashionable High Gothic (complete with faux cloister) and this may be the explanation for Fort William’s appearance: in every sense a chronological continuation of the parent house.

ZIFFwi1ImU24PM9fc3PxpM5b1kd2HX2gMhIY-_F7CwY

zhF0iJUewuIxHrrnikZv4IzoXN20QEEdKIUBr4Z_l5w

Ever since being built, Fort William has regularly changed hands. On John Bowen Gumbleton’s death in 1858, the estate was inherited by his son 17-year old John Henry but he died at sea eight years later. Ownership of Fort William then passed to his two sisters but they lived elsewhere and so the house was rented to tenants. In 1910 the place was taken by Lt-Col. Richard Keane, whose older brother Sir John Keane of nearby Cappoquin I discussed a few weeks ago (Risen from the Ashes, 4th March). A note in the forthcoming auction catalogue notes that Richard Keane and his wife Alice ‘had two cars, one of which – replete with a cocktail cabinet – was commandeered by the IRA during the War of Independence and never returned.’ Furthermore during the subsequent Civil War the servants’ wing at Fort William was occupied by Free State troops; this may help to explain why Sir John Keane’s house was burnt out in 1923 by the opposition.
Richard Keane died in 1925 following the accidental discharge of his shotgun and seven years later the estate was sold to a local man who continued the established pattern of renting the house; among the tenants at this time was Adele Astaire, sister of Fred, who in 1932 had married Lord Charles Cavendish, younger son of the ninth Duke of Devonshire; for centuries the Devonshires have owned the neighbouring estate of Lismore Castle.

xXELfnzC-oOprqgNGKBKYsSyvI7W0Fre3C6uplJ1GF4

yaxFV3_i14wCVLnlmOfuuPa8JwtNb1By0_FPJFy5O0E

The ducal connections continue because after a brief Gumbleton interlude in 1946 Fort William was bought for £10,000 by the second Duke of Westminster. This was the famed Bend’Or, one-time lover of Chanel (among many others) who following the failure of his third marriage had fallen in love with Nancy Sullivan, daughter of Brigadier-General Edward Sullivan. An outstanding horsewoman she had grown up in Glanmire on the outskirts of Cork city. This may explain why the Duke acquired Fort William, although it is worth remembering that a daughter from his first marriage, Lady Ursula Grosvenor, together with her second husband Major Stephen Vernon lived at Fairyfield outside Kinsale, County Cork. Whatever the explanation, the Duke certainly spent some time in the house: the dining room panelling is said to have come from the interior of one of his yachts and he is also believed responsible for installing the French painted and gilded boiseries in the drawing room. Following his death in 1953 his widow (who only died in 2003) retained Fort William but spent the greater part of her time at Eaton Lodge, Cheshire where her stables held many fine racehorses, not least Arkle who won the Cheltenham Gold Cup three times in succession.
Fort William was sold again in 1969 to an American couple, Murray and Phyllis Mitchell. Following her death, it was bought by Ian Agnew, one-time Deputy Chairman of Lloyd’s. Ian acquired the place on a whim but he had strong Irish connections through his mother, Ruth Moore who had grown up at Mooresfort, County Tipperary. The Moores were an old Roman Catholic family. Ian’s great-grandfather, Arthur Moore was created a Papal Count in 1879; the previous year he had provided most of the funds necessary to establish the Cistercian monastery of Mount St Joseph outside Roscrea, County Tipperary. Curiously Glencairn, the estate immediately adjacent to Fort William is today occupied by Cistercian nuns.
Ian and I never spoke much of his forebears but among the most remarkable was his maternal grandmother, Lady Dorothie Feilding. A much decorated volunteer nurse and ambulance driver during the First World War, in September 1916 she became the first woman to be awarded the Military Medal for bravery in the field. After she died in 1935 her husband Captain Charles Moore moved to England to become manager of the Royal Stud. Continuing those links, Ian’s father Sir Godfrey Agnew was for 21 years Clerk of the Privy Council.

WvZE-BY4cgx0mwW0Xg4fxVWNDVvNDZ_1xfU1yVvh2CY

qVklmb4zCXhsbmOEGsa16dJBZ9KGsAj8F_ljHcrhp_0

A wonderful man with seemingly boundless gusto, Ian Agnew went to enormous trouble to restore and modernise Fort William while ensuring none of the patina it had accumulated was lost. (He also put in some time trying to teach me the finer nuances of fly fishing on the Blackwater, with less successful results.) The outcome was a house of tremendous comfort and warmth, very much a reflection of his personality and that of his beloved wife Sara. Sadly Ian died four years ago and since then Sara has been literally holding the fort, and continuing the tradition of abundant hospitality already established while her husband was alive. I could not begin to enumerate the charmed days I have spent at Fort William, but I have also managed to work there with equal delight: more than one piece for this blog has been written while sitting at the George III secretaire which can be seen in a corner of the morning room above.
I cherish all those memories because the time has now come for Sara regretfully to pass on the baton, hence next week’s sale. Without question she is going to be enormously missed by everyone in the area but one wishes the new owners as much delight in Fort William as was enjoyed by Ian and Sara – and their lucky houseguests. Below is a final image summing up Fort William in recent years: a passage leading to the ever-welcoming kitchen bathed in sunshine (something the house’s spirit has seemed to radiate even on days of rain). And there on the rug is Alfie who despite his recumbent pose for the camera has been ever a faithful and tireless companion on Fort William walks no matter how far the distance or how bad the weather.

crcc4JNizYI5pCFul-DVY68le0YDR4R0dMMVuCzE9WA

All photographs by James Fennell (www.jamesfennell.com)

Dowth Update

Dowth pic

For those of you who have been concerned about the future of Dowth Hall (see my piece Netterville! Netterville! Where Have You Been? on December 24th last), the estate was sold at auction yesterday. Seemingly there were three interested bidders, the buyer is Irish and paid €5 million for Dowth and surrounding 420 acres (a considerably higher figure than the €3.75m guide price). A lot more will need to be spent if the house, with its ravishing rococo plasterwork, is to be brought back to good condition. Let us hope the new owner is prepared to undertake this task…
*On Thursday February 7th The Irish Times reported that Dowth’s new owner is a County Meath resident, Owen Brennan, who owns a successful agri-technology business.