Opportunism and those who practise it are not, as a rule, judged very favorably. Yet there are times when our verdict on opportunists can be inaccurate or imperceptive. Much of Georgian Dublin is a manifestation of opportunism at work: the result of a handful of perspicacious developers – another now-detested term – recognising an opportunity and responding to it. This was certainly the case with the first Luke Gardiner who piecemeal built up landholdings on the northside of the city and there created new streets and terraces to meet growing demand for residential property. Gardiner’s first venture in this arena, and the basis of his future success, was the development from the late 1720s onward of Henrietta Street.
Luke Gardiner was a man of modest origins, far removed at the start of his professional life from the wealth he would come to enjoy. Much the same could be said of his protégé Nathaniel Clements who, although enjoying somewhat less humble beginnings, was the youngest of five sons and very much expected to make his own way. This he did, like Gardiner, by building houses and then selling them on: the parallels between the past and the present can sometimes be discomfiting. Henrietta Street was also Clements’ first venture into property development, as he took on several sites from Gardiner. One of these was number 4 (originally 5) Henrietta Street which he completed around 1740-41 and sold to George Stone, then Bishop of Ferns. Stone occupied the building but did not finish paying for it, until 1747 when he was appointed Archbishop of Armagh and, in turn, opportunistically moved into a still-grander residence on the street before selling No.4. Its second owner was John Maxwell, MP for County Cavan who nine years later would be created first Lord Farnham. Of Scottish ancestry, Maxwell was the descendant of three generations of clerical opportunists: the Farnham estate in County Cavan had originally been purchased by his grandfather, the Anglican Bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh. When John Maxwell acquired No.4 Henrietta Street, it came with a plot of land to the immediate east, perhaps serving as a garden. In 1754 Maxwell’s only daughter married another MP, Owen Wynne of Sligo, likewise the descendant of opportunists, although in this instance they had been army men. Around the time of his marriage the plot next to No.4 passed into Wynne’s hands and a house was built here. Today it is No.3 Henrietta Street.
There are unanswered questions remaining about the history of 3 Henrietta Street, not least who was responsible for its design. The house is sometimes attributed to Nathaniel Clements because like its neighbour – which he almost certainly did build – there is a semi-circular bow at the back of the building. On the other hand, by the time of No.3’s construction, Clements had moved on to other projects and, more critically, he and Maxwell were political opponents, so it seems unlikely his assistance would have been sought here. Perhaps when Wynne embarked on the enterprise he decided to copy some features of his father-in-law’s adjacent residence. The interior shows alterations believed to date from 1830. Originally the entrance hall – like other houses on this side of the street – would have been of two storeys with the stairs visibly rising to the first floor. In the 19th century this staircase was taken out and a smaller one inserted, divided by a wall from the front of the house with the new entrance hall made just one storey high. But the first floor reception rooms retain much of their original decoration, the pair to the front of the room having a deep frieze with strapwork and festoons, while below the walls are sectioned by plaster panelling. To the rear at this level is a wonderful room with rococo stuccowork in the coved ceiling which extends into the bow, and gives the space a more intimate character than any of the others possess.
As already mentioned, in the 19th century 3 Henrietta Street, like almost all other houses in the vicinity, underwent changes both of design and usage. The advent of the King’s Inns at the top of the street, and the gradual departure of private owners in the aftermath of the 1800 Act of Union meant many of the buildings came to be used as solicitors’ offices: in the decades leading up to his death in 1885 some three-quarters of the street were bought by the lawyer Tristram Kennedy and let to other members of his profession. However, his property portfolio was subsequently acquired by another – altogether less attractive – opportunist, former Dublin Lord Mayor Joseph Meade. Seeing a chance to get a good return on his investment, notoriously he converted most of the houses into tenements. The original interior spaces were divided to fit in more rooms for entire families to occupy and valuable items such as chimney pieces were stripped out and sold off. This was the fate of 3 Henrietta Street for a large portion of the last century, and evidence of its decline, as much as of its glory, can still be seen in the building. But the house is now on the market, and awaits a new owner who can offer it a viable future. What will happen next? As has been the case here over the past two and a half centuries, opportunity knocks – and 3 Henrietta Street once more awaits the advent of an opportunist.