Since last October work has been underway restoring the City Assembly House on South William Street, Dublin. This week it will be possible for members of the public to see the results of this enterprise and to (re)discover an important part of the city’s 18th century architectural heritage.
The City Assembly House dates from the second half of the 1760s and was built by and for the Society of Artists of Ireland. It was an idealistic organisation which believed the best means of advancing interest in and awareness of the creative arts in the country was to have a venue where these skills could be taught and the results put on display. Thus the core of the building is a top-lit octagonal space 40 feet wide and 33 feet high. Today this is the oldest purpose-built exhibition gallery in Britain and Ireland.
While the gallery occupies the rear of the City Assembly House, the front section was intended to hold offices for the society as well as rooms where students could learn to draw, paint and sculpt. It is this forward area which has now been restored by the Irish Georgian Society, wishing to give the old building a new lease of life.
The City Assembly House has had a somewhat chequered career, since the society responsible for its erection had gone out of existence by 1780. Thereafter the premises were used for debates, shows, balls, masques and so forth until the building was acquired by Dublin Corporation in the early 1800s. It then acted as City Hall for half a century before becoming a law court and, in more memory, a civic museum. The last of these ceased to operate out of the building a decade ago and since then the City Assembly House has stood empty.
Now the IGS has assumed responsibility for the City Assembly House and for its complete restoration. The first phase was completed a few weeks ago, returning the front of the structure to its original understated elegance. Of particular interest is a top-lit staircase that cleverly climbs up and accommodates landings at different levels to front and rear. The stairs terminate in a handsome oval gallery beneath a glazed dome that provides light down to the ground floor and in particular draws attention to the pretty rococo cornice. Much of this had become indiscernible behind layers of paint and while certain sections required repair, a surprising amount of the original plasterwork has survived intact. Other discoveries included splendid neo-classical decoration in the large first floor room overlooking South William Street, and a granite wall on the ground floor return. Original floors have been cleaned and repaired, chimney pieces reinstated and doors repaired. The result is an absolute delight.
As of last month the City Assembly House is the headquarters of the IGS, but it has always been intended the building should open to the public. And so it will from Wednesday on, with a reception area and bookshop just inside the front door and the main gallery used for temporary exhibitions, beginning with photographs from the Vanishing Ireland project of James Fennell and Turtle Bunbury (until August 31st). Admission is free, so anyone visiting Dublin – or indeed living there – should take this opportunity to delight in one of the city’s lesser-known architectural gems, and to learn more about the work of the IGS. Incidentally, funds permitting it is hoped to begin full restoration of the main exhibition gallery next year.
For more information about the City Assembly House, and the work of the Irish Georgian Society, see www.igs.ie