Although now considered central Dublin, St Stephen’s Green originally stood outside the city walls, its name deriving from a church and leper hospital founded at the end of the 12th century a short distance to the west (at the junction of what are now Mercer and Stephen’s Streets). During the following centuries, the green comprised marshy ground with an area of around sixty acres used for common grazing land (hence anyone presented with the Freedom of the City of Dublin acquires the right to graze sheep in St Stephen’s Green).
In 1635 the City Corporation passed legislation stating ‘That no parsel of the Greenes or commons of the city shall henceforth be lett, but wholie kept for the use of the citizens and others to walke and take open aire, by this reason this cittie is at present groweing very populous.’ However, in 1663 the same city fathers decided that, given Dublin’s expansion, this plot of common land should be exploited for its commercial potential. A survey was conducted of the site and the following year a central green area of twenty-seven acres marked out, with the surrounding ground divided along four sides into ninety-six building plots; on average these had a frontage of sixty feet and a depth of 200 feet. The ground rent generated by this scheme was used to construct the park’s walls and paving. Owners of sites had to build properties at least two storeys high and with roofs of either slate or tile. Furthermore they were each obliged to plant six sycamore trees near the park wall so as to improve its appearance.
Progress on building around the green was initially slow, and not helped by the disruptions of the later 17th century. Charles Brooking’s 1728 map of Dublin shows many vacant plots but thereafter development was rapid and within a few decades all four sides were filled with some of the grandest private residences in the city. As with similar developments elsewhere in the city, because the owner of each site served as his own developer, there was often considerable difference in appearance between one building and its neighbours: the English travel writer Richard Twiss, in his controversial 1775 book A Tour of Ireland, observed that the houses in St Stephen’s Green were ‘so extremely irregular, that they are scarcely two of the same height, breadth, materials or architecture.’ To our eyes this lack of regularity is precisely what lends the place its charm, but Twiss’ rational 18th century mind felt otherwise.
We do not know who was responsible for the design of the majority of the original houses in St Stephen’s Green, possibly in many cases no architect was employed. However on some occasions the client did hire a professional, as was the case at no.80 on the south side of the green. This was built 1736-7 for Robert Clayton, then Bishop of Cork and Orrery (and subsequently transferred to the diocese of Clogher). A wealthy man, Clayton employed Richard Castle to design his new townhouse at no.80. Of three storeys over basement, it was fronted in brick on the upper levels but the ground floor had a stone portico similar to that of Inigo Jones’ church of St Paul in Covent Garden, London. The first floor saloon overlooking St Stephen’s Green was especially admired: even before the house was complete, John Boyle, fifth Earl of Orrery was writing to Bishop Clayton that he had visited the property in the company of its architect and commenting ‘This comes to congratulate your Lordp upon your new House in Stevens-Green. Felices quorum iam maria surgunt! [Happy those whose seas rise]…Your Palace, my Lord, appears finely upon Paper, and to shew you that the whole pleases me, I even admire your Coal Cellars. Your great Room will probably bring the Earl of Burlington over to this Kingdom…’ Unfortunately towards the end of his life, Bishop Clayton succumbed to the heresy of Arianism for which at the time of his death in 1758 he was due to be prosecuted by his fellow clerics. His residence meanwhile was from the 1860s onwards subsumed into what today is known as Iveagh House although parts of it, including the saloon, remain.
As mentioned, the heretically-inclined Bishop Clayton employed Richard Castle to design his townhouse on St Stephen’s Green and so too in 1738 Captain Hugh Montgomery for a residence at no.85 just a few doors to the immediate west: this building is now part of the Newman House complex. By this date, Castle was the most successful and fashionable architect in the country and his services much in demand. Until recently little was known of his origins, since he only comes to public attention after arriving here in 1728 at the behest of Sir Gustavus Hume to design a house on the latter’s County Fermanagh estate.
However, research conducted by Loreto Calderón and Konrad Dechant (and published in The Eighteenth-Century Dublin Town House, ed. Christine Casey, 2010) has revealed much more about Castle’s background.
Since he came from Germany, and his name was often spelled Cassels, it was assumed that his family originated in Hesse-Kassel. In fact, he was one of four sons of an English-born Jewish merchant, Joseph Riccardo and his second, Bombay-born, wife Rachel Burges who by 1699 were settled in Saxony where Joseph became Director of Munitions and Mines to the Elector Frederick Augustus I, the ruler first responsible for beautifying Dresden where the Riccardo family eventually came to live. Presumably thanks to his father’s involvement in mining, the young Richard Castle developed an interest in engineering and in the early 1720s spent time in France and the Netherlands studying canals and fortifications. In 1725 he was in London, calling himself ‘Richard Castle, gentleman’ and subscribing to the third volume of Colen Campbell’s Vitruvius Britannicus, from which it is possible to deduce he was in some way associated with Lord Burlington’s circle of neo-Palladians. Following his move to Ireland, and his work for Sir Gustavus Hume, he came to Dublin and was engaged as a draughtsman by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce, then engaged to design a new Parliament House in College Green. Ultimately Castle would become Pearce’s successor as Ireland’s premier architect.
Today Richard Castle is primarily remembered as the architect responsible for some of the country’s most splendid country houses such as Russborough and Powerscourt, both County Wicklow, Carton in County Kildare and Summerhill, County Meath (for the last of these, see My Name is Ozymandias, April 1st 2013). But his services were also in demand for aristocratic town houses in Dublin where he designed not just the two in St Stephen’s Green already mentioned, but also Tyrone House on Marlborough Street (dating from 1740 and now part of the Department of Education) and of course Leinster House on Kildare Street (1745-48) which since 1922 has been the seat of the Oireachtas.
Less familiar is the building featured today which he designed towards the end of his life. This stands on the west side of St Stephen’s Green, an area which suffered particular damage in the final quarter of the last century with this pair of houses being the only survivors from the 18th century (the nearby College of Surgeons dates from 1805 and the Unitarian Church further south from 1861). Otherwise the entire west side was cleared of its history, to be replaced by the long stretches of the lacklustre office and retail development one now sees. For this reason, the survival of Castle’s design, which constitute 119 and 120 St Stephen’s Green, is all the more precious. The site was acquired by the architect himself and it would seem that, following the example of other craftsmen of the period, he undertook the scheme in a personal capacity. But building work could hardly have progressed far prior to his death in 1751, after which a decade passed before two of his brothers (who were beneficiaries of his will) travelled from Saxony to liquidate the dead man’s assets. The property then passed into the possession of a Richard Thwaites who was able to lease the completed houses in 1764.
As can be seen from the topmost picture, Castle’s plan for 119-120 St Stephen’s Green provides a single red-brick facade for the two properties, as though it were one very large house. Although each building is of two bays, they share a first-floor blind Venetian window above which are respectively a likewise blank oculus and carved tablet, a string course on the first floor and a heavy stone cornice below the attic storey being likewise communal. These devices were borrowed from Pearce who used them first at Bellamont Forest, County Cavan (see (La Belle au Bois Dormant, January 21st 2013), the blind Venetian window on the house’s side elevations and the oculus in the entrance hall (where until 2012 the succession of oculi held 18th century busts, see The Bellamont Busts, March 18th 2013). Castle had a limited repertoire of motifs which he was inclined to repeat, and here are two of his favourites, found in both exterior and interior of several country houses he designed. And in turn his deployment of them inspired others to do likewise, not least amateur architect Frances Bindon who is believed to have worked with Castle at both Russborough and Belan, County Kildare (see Splendours and Follies, September 30th 2013). Bindon’s design for John Square, Limerick contains the same blind Venetian windows, lined in brick, with oval blind oculi above (see When New Becomes Old, March 24th last). Unfortunately today it is hard to appreciate the effect of Castle’s once-unified facade for 119-120 St Stephen’s Green since the ground floor of no.119 has been so badly compromised. No.120 however is better preserved and retains its rusticated doorcase.
Likewise, as these photographs show, the interior of no.120 has undergone relatively little change although one wonders whether the design was by Castle or someone else after his death. Here the staircase is not facing the entrance but at right angles and set back between front parlour and ground floor dining room, light being provided by large round-headed windows on the south wall (which faces onto a laneway). Both the ground and first floor have kept their late rococo plasterwork ceilings, in every case an effervescence of trailing garlands and floral motifs. The neo-classical chimney pieces are clearly of later date but of sufficient quality to justify their presence. One other curious feature is a gilded wooden relief panel set above the door of the former dining room and depicting drunk Bacchus being led away by his followers: its basic frame leads one to ask did this come from somewhere else?
From the late 18th century onwards the west side of St Stephen’s Green was susceptible to commercial use and by the early 1800s houses began ceasing to serve as private residences: thus the preservation of no.120 is especially welcome. Today the building is occupied by a financial group, the staff of which understand their good fortune to work in such agreeable and historic surroundings – as opposed to the anaemic office blocks found on either side.
With thanks to Sarasin & Partners for permitting me to visit the building