On the Town IV

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Two years ago, Dublin City Council announced plans for a new so-called Cultural Quarter based around Parnell Square. Here are some extracts from the website http://www.parnellsquare.ie. subsequently set up by the local authority:readers must make of them what they will:
‘A new City Library will be built beside the existing world-class Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane and will offer a range of creative, participative and educational experiences, united by a trinity of themes, Learn, Create and Participate. A civic plaza will connect the new City Library and cultural facilities, creating a new public space that those who live, work and visit Dublin can use, engage with and enjoy in the heart of the city… Conversations identified a desire for a vibrant and modern Square, bustling with quirky, family-friendly spaces full of informal and spontaneous creative activity, with a sense of the inside spilling outside to the public realm being seen as the key to the success of the development. It should be a place which reflects modern Irish identity, along with the heritage of the area. There were many ideas and suggestions for use of cultural space in the new library complex and integrated buildings…
The Quarter will inspire and excite, welcome and include, with a new City library as the hub and anchor building. To make this work requires structures that encourage and mandate unity. This process of building relationships and collaborative models of service will challenge all parties to engage, united by a sense of common purpose to make life better in Dublin. Public service and public spaces will be key drivers of all developments. A dynamic tableau of changing creative presences and experiences will animate the spaces which will be supported by agencies, associations or other service providers either on site or remotely…
The vision for Parnell Square Cultural Quarter is for transformation of the physical fabric of the Square, and for transformation for the people of Dublin through access to ideas, information, and imagination. The objective is to achieve a quality cultural offer coupled with an equality of access and provision that reflects the locality and the city. Opportunities to learn, create and participate will be the overarching themes which will unite the Quarter.’

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Parnell Square, the oldest such development in Dublin, is essentially the creation of two men, Bartholemew Mosse and Luke Gardiner. The former, a public-minded doctor, in 1748 leased a four-acre site, described at the time as ‘a piece of waste ground, with a pool in the hollow, and a few cabins on the slopes’. Here he established the world’s first purpose-built lying-in hospital intended to serve the poor of the city and to ensure fewer mothers and babies died during childbirth. Its location lay at the top of Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, begun the following year by Gardiner who in the early 1750s went on to establish Cavendish Row to the immediate east of Dr Mosse’s plot. Further developments to the north and west of the hospital led to the emergence of what at the time was known as Rutland Square. The most distinctive feature of the square was that its centre did not contain the usual park for use of residents, but public gardens created by Dr Mosse as a means of raising funds for his medical establishment. They were the equivalent of London’s Vauxhall and Ranelagh Gardens, laid out with lawns and pleasure pavilions where entertainments, theatrical performances and concerts were offered to paying patrons. Funds raised from these events helped to underwrite the hospital to the immediate south, designed by Richard Castle. To the east were added the Rotunda Assembly Rooms designed in 1764 by John Ensor (it was as a result of this building that the hospital became know as the Rotunda). To the north of Ensor’s adjunct the New Assembly Rooms containing a tea room, supper room (now the Gate Theatre) and ballroom were built from 1784 onwards. So successful and fashionable was Dr Mosse’s enterprise that the sites surrounding his gardens became highly desirable as residences for the affluent, initially along Cavendish Row but soon throughout the district. The single most significant property was that built by the Earl of Charlemont at the centre of the square’s north side. Designed by Sir William Chambers in 1763, its stone facade and forecourt provides a fitting response to the garden front of the hospital lying on lower ground to the south. Hard though it is to conceive now, for almost two centuries the two buildings were separated by trees and lawns.

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As elsewhere this part of the capital, Parnell Square’s decline began in the aftermath of the 1800 Act of Union when, without the need to attend parliament, many of the country’s landowners gave up their Dublin residences. Houses formerly in private hands switched to institutional use: in the 1870s for example, Charlemont House was bought by the government for use as the General Register and Census Offices for Ireland and is now the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art. While most of the buildings around the square itself survived reasonably well, those on surrounding streets more clearly displayed the consequences of the area’s diminished fortunes, being turned into tenements with multiple occupation. As for the gardens themselves, amazingly they remained reasonably intact until the middle of the last century: one of a pair of 18th century Tuscan temples built as sedan-chair rest houses only went in 1942. As Christine Casey has written, a leap of imagination is required to envisage Parnell Square as it once looked, not least because ‘the central area is now a jumble of car parks, isolated grassy patchees and C20 appendages to the Rotunda Hospital.’ The loss of the 18th century hospital’s prospect is due to that institution which from 1895 onwards began to add new buildings with inevitable consequences. The first of these is a three- (today four-) storey block to the west designed by Frederick George Hicks as a nurse’s residence. Its red brick and yellow terracotta exterior, very much in the popular taste of the period, is fundamentally unsympathetic to Castle’s classical stone-clad hospital, unlike Albert Murray’s westerly extension of 1905, which while making the Rotunda’s facade lopsided, at least acknowledges its architectural history. Further developments to the north from 1940 onwards continued to remove evidence of the Georgian pleasure gardens, including the Garden of Remembrance, designed by Dáithí Hanly and installed in 1966 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising. Meanwhile many buildings around the square and those on neighbouring streets continued that slide into decreptitude begun in the 19th century.
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As can be seen in today’s photographs, Parnell Square today is a mess, lacking coherence or even often adequate maintenance. The condition of surrounding streets is little better, on occasion much worse. Earlier this year, Senator David Norris spoke out about the state of the area, noting that it had been allowed to slip into ever greater degradation with derelict historic buildings, a build-up of household rubbish and inappropriate infill developments on the site of former Georgian houses. Dereliction, he commented, had become “endemic” in the north Georgian core of the city and Dublin City Council appeared to be doing nothing to stop it: ‘The city authorities here are absolutely lamentable.’ In particular, Senator Norris observed that while the council held a list of endangered buildings, it seemed slow to take any meaningful action against such properties’ owners: ‘It’s intolerable that so many buildings are left like this for years.’ As if to emphasise his point, a few weeks ago large sections of the rear wall of 30 North Frederick Street, an 18th century building just a minute’s walk from Parnell Square, collapsed. A ‘protected structure’, the building has been on the city council’s derelict sites register for years yet the authority had done nothing to ensure its survival, despite being regularly warned of the inevitable outcome by concerned organisations like the Civic Trust. Several other houses on the street look in little better condition, as is also the case on the parallel street, Granby Row to the north west of the square. Multiple door bells here indicate buildings in a poor state of repair have been divided into flats; one wonders whether the council inspects these to ensure they conform to legislation on occupancy. On the other hand it is difficult to demand high standards from private owners when public agencies set such a poor example. The instance of the former Coláiste Mhuire best illustrates this point. This terrace of houses to the immediate west of Charlemont House was occupied by a school until 2003 when it passed into the possession of the Office of Public Works, which allowed the buildings to lie idle for a decade. They were then acquired by the city authorities and are, eventually, destined to become the new central library. Meanwhile, they continue to sit empty and in poor condition. No wonder other owners of property feel without compunction to look after their own houses. No doubt grand plans are – slowly – being prepared for Parnell Square but in the meantime the council could demonstrate evidence of good intent, and lead by example, through initiating work on the houses’ roofs, fenestration and so forth. Such work will need to be undertaken regardless of the structures’ eventual use. And the authority would then be in a better position to exercise its legislative powers and insist on an improvement in the condition of other buildings in the vicinity. A new Cultural Quarter sounds all very fine, but what’s really needed is a new culture, one that could and should be inaugurated by Dublin City Council.

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A Cheeky Welcome

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Peep around the life-size marble sculpture of Venus newly-emerged from her bath and you can see a view of the central hall at Mount Stewart, County Down. This octagonal space was designed in the 1830s by William Vitruvius Morrison for the third Marquess of Londonderry. In the 19th century it was decorated with suits of armour and lit by coloured glass in the dome above the first-floor gallery. Then in the last century the walls were painted a lusty red, the gallery’s balustrade replaced with ironwork and the original pale stone floor covered in a black and white checkerboard pattern. Mount Stewart reopens to the public this week after several years of restoration undertaken by the National Trust which has now returned the central hall’s walls to their intended cooler tones; plans are afoot also to remove the present floor covering and reveal the stone beneath.

After the Sale

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A view of the entrance hall at Ballynagall, County Westmeath. The house dates from c.1808 when it was built at an estimated cost of £30,000 for James Gibbons to a design by Francis Johnston. This photograph was taken in 1961, a year before the contents of the house were sold: within two decades the building itself had been stripped of its fittings and left to fall into ruin. The photograph below shows the same entrance hall today. I shall be discussing the plight of Ballynagall, and several other houses which have seen their contents sold, at a conference on Art in the Country House being held at Dublin Castle next Thursday, April 23rd. For more information on this event, see: http://www.igs.ie/events/detail/art-in-the-country-house

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Ray of Light

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The inner hall of Kilrush, County Kilkenny. A branch of the St Georges settled here in the 17th century but for a long time the family lived in a late mediaeval tower house which was refurbished and enlarged. Finally in the second decade of the 19th century and following his marriage, Arthur St George commissioned a new residence from local architect William Robertson. Its most striking feature is the space shown here which looks as though it might have  been designed by Sir John Soane. Via a substantial staircase, the inner hall leads to the first-floor landing at the centre of which is a circular well-gallery surrounded by Doric columns and pilasters. Thanks to this being topped by a glazed dome the opening sends a broad pool of light into the hall below: notice the shadow of the gallery’s balusters thrown onto the far wall.

Change is Constant

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It has long been commented that Mountainstown, County Meath is mis-named since its location in the midst of flat countryside is near neither a mountain nor a town. One ill-tempered Englishwoman in the 1840s wrote ‘At the beginning of this month we came to a place called Mountainstown, which name it must have been received from the inveterately stupid and perverse disposition of the Natives, because the place is situated in a low and flat Country, and there is not a Mountain to be seen within the Horizon.’ In fact the denomination most likely derives from an Anglicisation of the Irish for ‘Beside a Bog.’ It has borne the name for hundreds of years since the house here, soon due to celebrate the tercentenary of its construction, has always been known as Mountainstown. It is believed to have erected around 1720 for Richard Gibbons whose father Samuel acquired the estate in the late 17th century: in the same year he made a visitation of his diocses, Bishop Anthony Dopping of Meath recorded ‘Mr Gibbons and his wife came here in xmas 1693.’ Mr Gibbons’ son Richard is likewise recorded as being at Mountainstown in Faulkiner’s Dublin Journal in 1745, by which time the house would have been well finished.

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The oldest part of Mountainstown is a stocky rectangular block with six bay front, of two main storeys with dormer attic above and basement below. Kevin Mulligan has described the building as occupying ‘the middle ground between farmhouse and mansion’ and like others employed the terms bucolic and naive when speaking of its design. Mountainstown’s facade is its most immediately striking feature, a determined effort on the part of Richard Gibbons to display awareness of current architectural trends even if these were employed in a somewhat unsophisticated manner. Four slender Ionic pilasters ascend to the top of the building but without the intervention of an entablature and frieze; instead they meet the roofline via a narrow moulded cornice. The two central pilasters support a pediment but again appear too slight for the task. The raised entrance is reached by flights of stone steps with iron work railings on either side, the Venetian doorcase once more being flanked by pairs of pilasters with sidelights above which sit half-urns while over the door itself is a stone cartouche featuring the arms of the Pollocks, the family that followed the Gibbonses at Mountainstown. The latter remained in possession of the estate until 1796 when it was sold to the John Pollock who had already been renting for some time.

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The history of Mountainstown’s next owners represents a familiar trajectory from merchant class to gentry, a route to which many families formerly aspired. The first John Pollock moved from Scotland to Ireland in 1732 and settled in Newry where he became involved in the burgeoning linen trade. His son continued in the same business and was commemorated by a tombstone in St Mary’s, Newry declaring he and his wife Elizabeth had been ‘parents of eleven children all of whom they lived to see established in the world.’ One of those children, another John, became a successful solicitor in Dublin and was appointed Transscriptor of the Court of the Exchequer. He also acted as agent for the Hills, Marquesses of Downshire, among the country’s largest landowners: at one time they had 115,000 acres, mostly but not exclusively in County Down. Hence being their agent was a profitable occupation and allowed John Pollock first to rent and then to buy Mountainstown although he retained a townhouse in Dublin’s Mountjoy Square so that his business could continue. Married to the daughter of a London banker, around 1811 he extended Mountainstown by adding a two-storey wing to the south-west of the older building. The ground floor of this new section contains a large drawing room with canted bay window and beyond it an equally substantial dining room. To the immediate right of the facade is a long kitchen wing and behind this lies a very substantial stable yard added by the next generation.

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Mountainstown is thus of two periods and two parts, each complementing the other. While the later portion of the house is relatively plain and very much in the Regency taste with deep tripartite windows, high ceilings and understated plasterwork, the earlier reflects the more ostentatious taste of the period in which it was built. The entrance hall, stairs and first floor landing retain their original decoration, moulded plaster panels with lugged heads forming tabernacle frames beneath a dentil cornice. The handsome stairs are wide and shallow, Doric balusters supporting the handrail and the side of each tread adorned with carved curls of foliage. As with the facade, this decoration represents the original builder’s interest in showing he was au courant with the latest fashions. The most unexpected feature can be found almost immediately inside the front door: what looks to be a death mask set into the ceiling. It is commonly believed that the man shown is Samuel Gibbons, perhaps placed here as an act of filial piety on the part of his son Richard. The rooms in the front portion of the house are noticeably smaller than those added in the 19th century, and some have angled corner chimneypieces: a marble panel on that in the former morning room featuring a knight in armour.

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In the mid-1820s Mountainstown was inherited by Arthur Hill Cornwallis Pollock, named after his father’s patron, Arthur Hill, second Marquess of Downshire. Almost twenty years before he had been sent on a tour of Europe by his parents, presumably keen that their heir have the upbringing of a gentleman. Having visited France and Italy, he travelled as far as Russia, spending time at the Imperial court in St Petersburg with his friends Lords Royston and Somerton, before finally returning home in the second half of 1807. Four years later he married a cousin and devoted the rest of his life to agriculture and country pursuits. It was Arthur who created the spacious yard immediately to the north of the main house as he often won medals for his animals at agricultural shows. The Pollocks were always keen on hunting and Arthur had his own pack of hounds at Mountainstown as did many of his neighbours: eventually these were amalgamated into the Clonghill Hunt which later became the Meath. And so it has gone on until now, when the present generation has decided the moment is right to pass Mountainstown on to another family, perhaps one that will remain in the house for as long as have the Pollocks. It is always sad to see an historic property come on the market, especially in Ireland where relatively few families have stayed in the same place for so long. However, one should remember the words of Disraeli who in 1867 observed, ‘Change is inevitable in a progressive country. Change is constant.’ Whatever one’s personal feelings, the proposed departure of the Pollocks from Mountainstown, like that of the Gibbonses before them, is a reflection of that necessary change.

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Return of the Native

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On a table in the Gothic Saloon of Birr Castle, County Offaly, a porcelain figure looms over Cecil Beaton’s photograph of a former chatelaine Anne, Countess of Rosse. Home since 1620 to fifteen generations of the Parsons family, in the past couple of years Birr Castle has welcomed back Patrick, Lord Oxmantown, his wife Anna and their young children who were previously living in China. You can read more about their return to the ancestral seat in an article I have written for the May issue of Architectural Digest. For more, see http://www.architecturaldigest.com/decor/2015-05/birr-castle-tour-county-offaly-ireland-article

A Trans-Atlantic Connection

 

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A mid-19th century lithograph showing the façade of Rossenarra, County Kilkenny. Dating from the early 1800s the house’s Palladian manner must have seemed rather anachronistic by the time of its construction. The architect responsible is sometimes claimed to be James Hoban, a local man who in the mid-1780s emigrated to the United States of America where he achieved considerable renown, not least for designing the White House in Washington. Rossenarra has other American connections, since in the last century it was home for a period to New York-born Richard Condon, author of such novels as The Manchurian Candidate and Prizzi’s Honor.