Many visitors arriving at Dublin airport are likely to take a route into the city centre that leads them along Amiens Street. This takes its name from Viscount Amiens, an honorary title of the Earls of Aldborough, the second of whom, Edward Augustus Stratford, built the last great free-standing town house of the 18th century around the corner on Portland Row. Travelling along this route visitors will notice the present dreadful condition of that building.
The earl’s long-lost country seat Belan, County Kildare has already been discussed here (Splendours and Follies, September 30th 2013) and now it looks as though Aldborough House could likewise be consigned to oblivion as a result of ongoing failure by state and civic authorities to intervene in its preservation.
Today marooned amidst neglect and decay (the organisation Irish Business against Litter last week declared this part of Dublin the dirtiest urban area in the State) Aldborough House is an extraordinary building, after Leinster House the biggest Georgian private residence in the capital and a testament to one man’s regrettably misplaced ambition. The earl, who already had a perfectly fine property next to Belvedere House on Great Denmark Street, was determined to construct a new one that would serve as testament to his wealth and social position, and also serve as centre-piece to a westerly extension of the city beyond that already achieved by the Gardiners. Portland Row is a continuation of the North Circular Road, running from the Phoenix Park to the docks, and it made sense to plan for development in this part of Dublin. Unfortunately Lord Aldborough failed to take into account the consequences of the 1800 Act of Union (for which he voted) which led to a precipitate decline in the city’s fortunes and left his great town house stranded.
We know a great deal about the construction of Aldborough House, thanks to research on the subject conducted by Aidan O’Boyle and carried in Volume IV of the Irish Georgian Society’s annual journal Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies. This text, like all others on the subject, is indebted to O’Boyle’s admirable work. It is clear from his analysis of extant material that the building of Aldborough House was fraught from the beginning, not least because the earl’s aspirations were greater than his budget. Although pailings were erected and foundations dug around the start of July 1793, there were many stops and starts as unpaid workmen left the site and replacements had to be found. O’Boyle quotes several piteous letters from various architects, plasterers, painters and other skilled craftsmen who became enmeshed in the project and then found they had to plead for monies owed. It did not help that Lord Aldborough during this period was in the throes of sundry legal battles, one of which led to his temporary imprisonment.
Yet somehow the work went on and the house rose ever higher. In style, Aldborough House was something of an anachronism, a last gasp of Palladianism with its tall central block flanked by quadrants that led to pavilions, one containing a chapel the other a private theatre, thereby satisfying the earl’s spiritual and cultural needs. At least in its early stages the architect responsible appears to have been Richard Johnston, older brother of the better-known (and better) Francis Johnson. After his departure several other hands were involved but most likely it was Lord Aldborough himself who had the greatest input into the plans: a extant drawing from his hand of the theatre wing confirms just how decisive was his influence on the project.
Facing north, the main block of Aldborough House is tall and narrow, three storeys over sunken basement and seven bays wide with the three centre bays advanced and pedimented, the whole clad in granite. The pediment contains an elaborately carved Stratford coat of arms in coade stone while the rusticated ground floor features a Doric portico bearing the motto Otium cum Dignitate (Leisure with Dignity). The most striking feature is the line of exaggeratedly elongated windows on the piano nobile; these emphasise the building’s height and thereby distort is overall proportions. An eaves parapet, since removed, was surmounted by alternating eagles and urns on all four sides. A plinth in the centre of the forecourt carried a copy of the Apollo Belvedere.
The side and rear elevations are all faced in a now-mellowed brick, originally rendered to resemble ashlar and with large central bows on the east and south sides. At some point the chapel wing to the west was demolished but that originally containing the easterly theatre survives, terminating in a bow facing the street; its interior is gone. The exterior of the two wings both had blind round-headed arches with sunken panels below and lion and sphinx figures along the parapets.
The interior of the main house begins with an entrance hall which in turn leads to an immense top-lit stair hall, with wrought-iron balusters set into the cantilevered Portland stone steps, the effect likened by the late Maurice Craig to that of ‘a well-shaft, mine or one of Mr Howard’s penitentiaries.’ On the ground floor a sequence of rooms lead off on all sides, library, dining room, small dining room and so forth, with a circular music room to the rear from which a double-perron staircase led to the garden. Some, but not much of these rooms’ decoration survived until recently such as friezes above the Adamesque doorways; after the horrendous neglect of recent years does any of this still remain? It is believed that Pietro Bossi, who tendered for the stuccowork in the house, provided the main chimneypieces but these were removed at the end of the 19th century. The first floor featured another sequence of rooms still loftier than those below and primarily intended for entertaining as they included a ballroom above the library on the east side of the building. A much quoted description by the newly-arrived vicereine Lady Hardwicke in 1801 gives an account of the staircase’s astonishing sequence of paintings which mostly seem to have been given over to apotheosising the earl and his wife. Again, these have all long vanished.
Costing over £40,000 Aldborough House was largely completed by 1798 but its owner did not enjoy the comfort of his new residence for long since he died in January 1801. Without a direct heir and in dispute with his brothers, he left the property to his widow who subsequently remarried but was likewise dead eighteen months after her first husband. There followed more than a decade of litigation before Lord Aldborough’s nephew Colonel John Wingfield was confirmed in possession of the house; he promptly sold its entire contents. The building was then let to the splendidly named Professor Gregor von Feinaigle, a former Cistercian monk and mnemonist, who opened a school there. Six years later von Feinaigle died and by 1843 the house had become an army barracks. In 1850 the garden statuary was all sold and in the 1940s the garden itself was lost, used by Dublin Corporation for social housing so that today Aldborough House has effectively no grounds.
As for the house itself, coming into public ownership it served as a depot for the Department of Posts and Telegraphs during the last century. During this time and especially in later decades the property was compromised by various ill-considered alterations such as the vertical divisions of rooms to create office space and the effective gutting of the former theatre. Nevertheless, the house remained in use and in reasonable condition. In 1999 the state telecommunications company Telecom Eireann was privatised as Eircom and that organisation offered Aldborough House for sale. The Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO) considered it for a new headquarters but then opted not to go ahead with the scheme and in 2005 the building was sold for €4.5 million to a company called Aldborough Developments, part of a network of businesses connected with would-be tycoon Philip Marley whose Ely Property Group has been much in the news of late, none of it for particularly positive reasons. Thereafter matters of ownership grow increasingly complex with only one irrefutable fact: for the past nine years this important part of the national built heritage has been allowed to fall ever further into a decline which, as the photographs above (taken in 2010) and below (taken last week) demonstrate, now risks becoming irreversible.
Last May, RTE television carried a report warning that Aldborough House was now Dublin’s most endangered historic building; this information was provided by An Taisce which for several years has been at the forefront of efforts to ensure the property is saved. In 2006 Aldborough Developments secured approval from the city council for the conversion of the house into a forty-bedroom ‘Day Hospital Medical Care Facility.’ The scheme never went ahead, the property crash occurred and Aldborough House started slithering into decay. Some years ago the council served enforcement proceedings against the owners to carry out repairs to the roof; this did not take place and inevitably the lead was all stolen from the valleys and parapet gulleys leading to terrible water damage. In December 2011 the council, having received a grant from central government of €80,000 and provided an additional €20,000 carried out emergency repairs to the roof. According to the city architect’s office, this work went ‘some way towards weatherproofing this vulnerable building until such time as the building’s owners are in a position to implement further urgent and necessary repairs in line with their statutory obligations.’
Those obligations have yet to be met: last spring, following an arson attack that could have been fatal but was caught in time, further enforcement proceedings were served on the owners to have the house’s windows, doors and other openings secured to prevent access. The city council’s Planning and Development Department’s Executive Manager Jim Keoghan commented at the time, ‘We would be concerned that there would be long-time damage done to the property in question’ as though this was a future possibility rather than something which had already occurred.
The RTE report explained that 75% of Aldborough Developments is owned by a company which is in liquidation, and this in turn is wholly owned by another company that the Bank of Ireland has placed in receivership. Astonishingly, the house remains outside the receivership process, allowing both the receiver and the bank to disclaim all responsibility for its upkeep, even though the latter has a charge on Aldborough House. No doubt legally this is the case, but where is the Bank of Ireland’s sense of corporate responsibility? Where its concern for the welfare of this country? Where its engagement with the society in which it operates? Likewise why is it that Dublin City Council, which could issue a Compulsory Purchase Order, has failed to do so? And why is it that the state, which has a department devoted to heritage, has ignored the shameful deterioration of an important historic building? Are those responsible in all three bodies suffering from collective blindness that they do not see what is happening to a property under their watch, and for the fate of which they will be held culpable? Or are they simply indifferent to what is taking place?
Last September when a farmer lost his High Court challenge over the compulsory purchase of his land, the presiding judge Justice John Hedigan declared that ‘the national interest must outweigh the interests of the individual.’ It is in the national interest that Aldborough House be saved and that all those who can act should do so now. Dear visitors: welcome to Ireland where we talk a lot of guff about history and heritage but – as you cannot fail to observe on your drive into central Dublin – where we have no qualms about allowing the remains of our past fall into dereliction.
Aside from Aidan O’Boyle’s essay in Volume IV of the Irish Georgian Society’s Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies, you can see more images of Aldborough House, and its present sorry state, on the archiseek forum: http://www.archiseek.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=15&t=7878&sid=7637199907bad5a71623348e7c96d9a0&start=25
For the news report that appeared on RTE television in May 2013 see: http://www.rte.ie/news/player/2013/0509/3530477-dublin-georgian-house-is-capitals-most-endangered-historic-building/
but where is the Bank of Ireland’s sense of corporate responsibility? Where its concern for the welfare of this country !!!!!!
this area will continue to decline , reflecting the state of this house , until something is done .
Regrettably all too true; walking around the area last week, one could not but be struck by the dereliction, and the dirt, the abandoned rubbish, the shoddy state of many buildings (not just Aldborough House), the sense that those in authority could not be bothered to improve circumstances.
This is awful. Simple: if this building was a mile south of the river this would not happen. A wonderful resource is being let rot / disappear because no-one is crying foul. Think of the outcry for Bewleys a few years ago – of less architectural importance – yet DCC decided to put a retention order on the 1980s replica shopfronts for the Westmoreland St! Yes – save replica shopfronts but let an 18th century mansion on our very doorstep crumble.
Idea: turn this into the official residence of the Taoiseach – plus a sizeable cut in salary to offset the inevitable outcry. By saving such a significant building and adding the security / importance to the area that is currently neglected it could act as a catalyst for proper re-generation of not just this building but the last remnants of the Georgian core in the north east inner city. God knows the north circular road and its immediate hinterland needs some impetus to save it from decline.
Further idea – train and upskill local people to restore this house like what was done on 20 Dominick Street. Improve people’s outlook and the local environment in one go.
Thank you for getting in contact. Yes, you are right one of the greatest problems from which this building suffers is its location: were it elsewhere, on south side of the Liffey, then it would long ago have been restored and given a fresh purpose. Because the surrounding area has undergone decades of neglect and abuse, it is now unfavourably regarded, and to some extent with good reason as this part of Dublin is not the most salubrious. It could be made so, but that would require the kind of imagination, determination and flair which is rarely, if ever, found in contemporary Ireland, certainly not among our elected representatives or the civil service class. Hence Aldborough House has been permitted to slide into decline, not least because few of the aforementioned politicians and bureaucrats ever trouble even to venture into the north inner city…
Excellent idea! As a member of An Taisce, I’m pleased with their efforts to bring attention to the plight of Aldborough House.
Mindsets must change. Its one city. The mindset and determination that embellished the northside from the periphery to the centre of grand architectural vistas and quality design in the late 18th is missing. If it returns, this sorry mess will not be permitted to happen.
DCC could do a CPO or could look to sell it to a state organisation or a not for profit as selling to such organisations would ensure that larger issues mentioned in this article are given proper consideration when Aldborough House is renovated.
A genuinely reasonable sale price would need to be attached as the cost to refurbish such a property will be huge which will reduce the number of interested buyers.
Thank you for making contact. Yes, DCC could do as you propose, and ought to have done so some time ago. But that would require the kind of initiative and decisiveness that the council has shown itself incapable of possessing. And meanwhile not just Aldborough House but a large section of O’Connell Street (to cite just one other example) fall further and further into a state of decay and dereliction.
That’s absolutely true Robert, the whole thing beggars belief. It’s abundantly clear none of the relevant agencies feel any sense, even a scintilla, of responsibility.
Thank you I should say first, for this typically excellent post however, which can only help focus attention on this vexed issue. I’ve always been very interested in the house and its history, while always painfully aware of the decay and neglect, but you’ve answered a lot of my questions about the house and architecture above) but then you’ve also summarized, with equal verve the current impasse.
Frustrating doesn’t begin to do it justice. The whole fiasco is heartbreaking, infuriating, no enraging, in equal measure.
In your own opinion, what could or might be done to shame the State, DCC, and/or BoI into some sort of action? Is there any way forward, from the current, philistine, Muppet show of apathy, ignorance and non-activity ?
Thank you for your comments. I fear there is no way out of the present scenario, not least because those who can be held responsible are beyond shaming and indifferent to opinion: look at the city manager’s recent proposal to cut funds for the homeless. Instead of acting in the long-term interests of the country, they are inclined to think only of the immediate future and their own circumstances. But one battles on…
thank you for your response, as saddening and accurate as it is.
You are right of course, the city authority’s record in regard to the well-being of “the ordinary” and (especially) to the disadvantaged of this city, as well as the most rudimentary, basic discharge of responsibility to Dublin’s beautiful, irreplaceable, built heritage is all lamentable, indeed often appalling on all counts.
I see all these aspects as related, as I’m sure you do. One needs a holistic approach to heritage, amenity, education and proper resources, respect for people and place and history. They’re all of a piece.
Back in the 1820s or 1830s, Daniel O’Connell called the-now DCC “a beggarly corporation”
Yet, despite independence and seeming regime change, there’s been no apparent change of culture, they’ve not improved one jot.
I acknowledge what you say about your debt to previous writers and research, but your piece above has summarized and brought onto sharp focus this travesty.
I happen to know it is more or less going viral. Yes, I had three separate people forward me the link. Then my colleagues at the school were discussing it this morning, without any prompting from me!
I now believe your article can, and should, act as a catalyst.
O’Connell had to fight a duel, on account of his remark.
But times have changed.
What is now the best way forward?
Maybe we should start with a petition? A march? An occupation of the property? A legal challenge? Seeking a consortium of enlightened investors, to effect a buy-out? Or some combination of the above?
I know it seems like a lost cause, the whole thing is thoroughly dispiriting but as you say one must battle on, must fight.
Do you feel there is a place for a petition, or some other concerted, organized action ?
I feel one has to take a stand on this, and loudly. Speaking for myself, I’m up for this particular fight.
I would be very interested in meeting and in helping to draft or spread a petition, or a campaign of organised letter writing, and in taking the advice of the IGS, An Taisce, local community groups, and anyone else who can help force the issue now.
Thanks for this fascinating insight into this wonderful building. As someone with an obsession with the history and built environment of Dublin, every day I am more and more saddened as pieces of our heritage are squandered for want of vision.
Thank you for getting in touch, and for your kind comments. Yes indeed, want of vision is precisely the problem: why is it that those in positions of authority should have such a mediocre outlook, devoid of any imagination? Looking around not just Dublin but much of the country, one must fight against giving way to despair…
Unfortunately as we have seen many times before, a mysterious fire will probably settle any question of preservation. I just despair when I read such stories.
instead of creating hundred jobs to bring this building to purpose and its glory, the ones who can do something are going to let it go ,what a shame and damage for Irish cultural heritage
Thank you, yes indeed it would be possible to restore this building and provide jobs during the course of that process, in a part of the city which has especially high unemployment and needs help. If only there was enough imagination for this…
This building has being idle for years and has been allowed to be turned into an eyesore in the city center. Years of boom saw the rise and fall of property developers and bankers in the city center and Docklands be developed into high rise towers. City Council claim they haven’t got the money to do the work needed?? Its lies!! A motion put forward by local council and backed by Dublin City Council will see the building bought. The motion could be denied 2 or 3 times maybe 10 but it would gain a lot of coverage nationally and would more than likely force a CPO. A great point made about how the Bewleys saga rolled out. Will be interesting to see how this rolls out. Petition local council defo!!!
Thank you for making contact. It would probably help if people living in the area petitioned for the building not to be made safe against intruders (which is still not the case, despite the greater fencing and so forth) but to be restored as this would have a positive impact on the entire area. One should also point out that restoration of a site such as this would lead to considerable employment, particularly in the construction sector.
When I visited Dublin, this mansion really caught my eye and looking at it from the bus, I remember thinking – what a pity! – but knew nothing of its history by then.
It’s great that you’ve exposed it here, it’s perhaps the best way of fighting back this kind of situations. We also have historic buildings in Lisbon on the ‘wrong’ place, on the ‘wrong’ neighbourhood, falling apart… inheritors that don’t want to or can’t afford the repair works, politics and finance messing it all up, … – exactly the same story and most of your critics directly applicable!
Thank you for getting in touch, you are right, these issues are global and so must be the solutions. Not every old building can, or should, be saved, but those that are clearly of importance – such as Aldborough House – need to be protected, not least because they are of importance to our history and indeed to our tourist industry, on which we are so heavily dependent: visitors to Ireland do not come here to see our heritage left fall into ruin…
Furious and helpless at yet another part of our heritage left to rot. Although our tourist board promotes Georgian dublin they do nothing towards its preservation. This building would make a prestigious headquarters for one of national organizations. Anyone got any ideas as to what we can do before it becomes another demo site
Yes indeed. What is really frustrating is the visible squandering of national resources: the longer this building is left in decline, the more it will eventually cost to restore – no doubt at our expense. But as usual short-termism means nothing is being done now…
Perhaps, the people really have spoken by not speaking in support for this structure. It reminds me of some Americans who wanted government subsidies to renovate a stately plantation manse in the south. Yes, the architecture was beautiful, but the house also symbolized the vile human condition of slavery with its related atrocities, poverty and racism. The project did not receive government funds.
Likewise, Aldborough House IS a Georgian masterpiece, but it also represents an aristocratic landlord class absolutely befuddled with great sums of money (also known as “regrettably misplaced ambition”) collected from Irish society’s most vulnerable and stricken through oppressive, unrelenting domination.
If the Republic is at all perceptive, it will allow Aldborough to continue its slow mouldering, thereby offering some small redress to such historical human folly.
Thank you for your comments. However, I cannot agree with your argument. On the basis of what you propose, the pyramids should be permitted to fall down since they were built by slaves. Likewise surviving monuments of ancient Greece and Rome, likewise indeed most significant buildings of the past since they were constructed for the privileged few by the disenfranchised many. But it is precisely because of the latter’s labours that we should support and celebrate their work today and preserve it for the future. Aldborough House might have been built for one man, but it is the product of many splendid and talented Irish craftsmen and labourers, and to allow it to fall into ruin is to show them a signal lack of respect. We must move on from allowing ourselves to be preoccupied about why a building was erected and for whom and in what circumstances (although all this should be remembered) and instead appreciate its inherent qualities and significance. Do we punish children for the sins of the fathers? Nor should we buildings. The people may have spoken, but if this is what they say then they have spoken in error.
I could not agree more.
Just want to echo the comments in praise of your article above. I live locally and while it is hard (very hard) to get Dublin Corporation or any other body to act in the interests of the area, it is not impossible.
Mountjoy Square was being used a glorified coach terminal until recently – that changed.
Mountjoy Square and the surrounding streets were also being completely ignored by waste collection services (public and private) until recently – that changed.
The pool at Seán McDermott Street was earmarked for closure – that changed.
Change is possible so I think Aldborough House can be saved. The Corporation must act.
Thank you for your comments and kind words. The changes you note are significant but so too is the fact that they were driven by local initiative, the determination of people living in the area to make sure their voices were heard and their wishes met. It would be wonderful if something similar could happen in relation to Aldborough House, but I suspect this may not happen. one has to look also at similar instances elsewhere around the country where despite local campaigning an historic building of major importance has been allowed by the relevant authorities to fall into shocking decline: I cite Vernon Mount in Cork and Hazelwood in Sligo as two examples about both of which I have already written on this site.
On the other hand, one is happy to be proven wrong…
Does anybody know anything about this?
Advanced negotiations with Dublin Council?
Thank you for pointing this out, most interesting. A couple of points strike me, the first being that Dublin CC doesn’t actually own the building, it remains in the hands of a private company. The second is that the Kendal Interior Ltd remarks include ‘Securing of Operator/Tenant’ which suggests this may all just be speculative and the ‘advanced negotiations’ are for Kendal to undertake such a project study? It would be most interesting to know if anyone has additional information…
[…] great article on Aldeborough House and its sorry state (http://theirishaesthete.com/2014/01/13/a-thundering-disgrace/) was further evidence to me of the unequal hand that parts of the city are dealt with by DCC. In […]
Idea, perhaps rather lofty but I think it has significant merit not just for this house but for the general securing the northern Georgian core for future generations and improving the general environs.
Aldborough House should be taken over by the Irish State as the Taoiseach’s official residence. It would act as a counterpoint to the geographical centres of power centred around Merrion Square etc. It would also have the nice effect of having the two heads of government and state effectively living on the same thoroughfare – namely the NCR: President at one end, Taoiseach at another.
Finally, aside from the saving of the house for future generations, the attendant security and focus of having the official residence in this part of Dublin will implicitly improve security and the desirability of living there. Power is visibly too concentrated in one part of Dublin and its no wonder that the rest of the city is overlooked when those in charge have no need to visit let alone care for those areas…
Lofty, but the consequences would be far reaching.
Thank you for getting in touch. I think your idea, while undoubtedly lofty, has a lot of merit. However, I also think it demonstrates far too much flair to appeal to our flair-less elected officials who have shown a consistent preference for banality over imagination…
Hi, I am an architecture student, and I am doing a building study on Aldborough House to investigate its many issues and create a plan of conservation for it. I have tried to contact the current owners to gain access, but to no avail. I see that there are some images of the interior of the building and I was wondering if I could contact you further to ask how to gain access? Any help would be greatly appreciated
Thank you for your message. I shall reply to you by email.
[…] current status of Aldborough House is well documented on the Irish Aesthete’s website. You can receive email updates when a new post is published by subscribing […]
I remember a story about Aldborough House told to us as children growing up nearby on the old Richmond Crescent at the top of Portland Row, now the end of the North Circular Road. The owner wanted a certain grandeur to his house but ignored the practicalities of heating and was said to have died of pneumonia in the winter soon after moving in. I don’t know the origin of this morality tale, worthy of a Georgian Grand Designs perhaps, but I agree that making it a government residence could bring attention to this part of Dublin. I loved living so close to the city centers, and remember lying to my Country Catholic parents and spending Sunday morning at the Hugh Lane Gallery instead of the neo classical St Agatha’s church in Charleville Mall. We never understood why anyone would want to live outside the canals!
How interesting, thank you so much for sharing that piece of folklore, much appreciated.
Informative article by Cónal Thomas in the Dublin Inquirer here: https://dublininquirer.com/2016/01/27/whats-going-on-with-aldborough-house/
Many thanks, yes I have seen (and left a comment on the matter…)
In just 2 phrases in your original piece and one of your comments above – about we Irish talking a lot of guff, and how the authorities could not be bothered – you have, in my opinion, got to the heart of not just this problem but a lot of what ails this country. Would that it were not so.
Interesting article, thanks, always enjoy your writing.
Thank you for getting in touch, and for your kind remarks. Watch out ref. A Thundering Disgrace: I shall be posting an update shortly…