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/