A Thundering Disgrace No More?

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Three years ago this site drew attention to the scandalous condition of Aldborough House in Dublin (see A Thundering Disgrace, January 13th 2014). The last great aristocratic townhouse to be built in the capital (and, other than Leinster House, the largest) the building’s name comes from the man responsible for its construction Edward Stratford, second Earl of Aldborough. Although the earl already possessed a fine residence next to Belvedere House on Great Denmark Street, he was determined to construct a new one that would testify to his wealth and social position, in addition to serving 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 anticipate further 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 steep decline in the city’s fortunes and left his great town house marooned.

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Five years in construction, and costing over £40,000, Aldborough House was only enjoyed by its owner for a short period since he died in January 1801. The property passed to his widow who subsequently remarried but was likewise dead a mere eighteen months later. Then came 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 ‘Professor’ Gregor von Feinaigle, a former Cistercian monk and mnemonist, who opened a school there. (Incidentally, it is proposed that the word ‘finagle’ derives from the professor’s name and reflects his dodgy pedagogical methods). 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. At the end of the 19th century all the chimneypieces, supposedly by Pietro Bossi, were removed and placed somewhere safe, never to be seen again. 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 and over the next nine years it fell further and further into disrepair.

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Today’s photographs were taken during a recent opportunity to inspect the interior of Aldborough House, and they testify to the building’s poor condition. The vast central staircase, of cantilevered Portland stone with wrought-iron balusters, is now supported by a number of metal poles rising the height of the building: the glazed dome at the top has been covered over, so no natural light reaches here. Many of the other areas are likewise boarded up, and can only be seen with the aid of a torch. The main rooms on ground and first floors are today principally striking for their scale, immense bare spaces stripped of whatever decoration they had once been given (although in the ballroom scagliola pilasters with Corinthian capitals survive beneath layers of paint). Long windows running almost the full height of the walls provide ample views of what was once largely open countryside but is now urban sprawl. Some of the overdoors, on which classical figures recline and putti frolic indifferent to the decay around them, remain but others have been pulled out. The chimneypieces, as already mentioned, are long gone, even in rooms on the attic storey. Tantalising hints of former splendour appear here and there, but in the main the impression is of long-term neglect with inevitable consequences for the building. Aldborough House changed hands once more in autumn 2014 and initially little seemed to be happening to improve the site. More recently however, clearance and stabilisation work has taken place, as well as the advent of decent security to ensure the place is no longer vulnerable to vandalism. There are proposals now being developed to give Aldborough House a viable future and if these are allowed to proceed the property would be restored and brought back to use. For too long it has sat empty and untended: anyone who cares for our architectural heritage must hope that this situation will soon change and Aldborough House no longer be a thundering disgrace.

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For the Chop

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Further instances of the near-ubiquitous urban dereliction now found in Ireland: houses close to the central square of Johnstown, County Kilkenny, a town laid out in the 18th century by the Hely family who lived nearby in Foulkscourt House. The latter has since been lost, although some of the associated buildings survive. However, it looks like these little properties will not last much longer.

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On the Curve

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The entrance gates to the former Rockbrook estate in County Westmeath. Dating from c.1780 the adjacent lodge has a charming concave exterior wall, pedimented and with one arched window set off-centre. The building behind is ruinous, as is the main late 18th century house formerly occupied by the Isdell family.

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Change and Decay in All Around I See

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Readers of a certain vintage may remember a long-running English soap opera called Crossroads in which notoriously the sets were as flimsy as the plots. Set in a midlands motel, the series ran for over twenty years with three or four episodes every week, an astonishing achievement considering how little real drama they ever featured. Yet for much of its history Crossroads regularly attracted audiences of up to 15 million. In 1926 the American journalist H.L. Mencken wrote, ‘No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.’ The success of Crossroads demonstrates the truth of this observation.

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Today’s building looks as though it could have been constructed for an Irish version of Crossroads. Located in the north-west corner of County Meath, it appears to have been originally a modest farmhouse which was then much-extended to incorporate outbuildings around a central courtyard, the result being a budget hotel with twenty-seven bedrooms and sundry other spaces including a restaurant, bar and conference hall. Everything about the place seems insubstantial and gimcrack, except an enormous Baroque-style sandstone doorcase with open segmental pediment on one side of the property: can this have been salvaged from somewhere else? Is it even Irish? In any case, otherwise the fittings are of poor quality and are correspondingly today in poor condition.

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The hotel closed down some years ago and has since been offered for sale, with the option of alternative use as a residential nursing home. Wandering about the site, it is unclear whether or not a new owner has assumed responsibility for the building, which at present has the eerie atmosphere of a Bates Motel. Neglect has taken its toll on what was never a very robust building and the place reeks of damp and decay. Not quite as flimsy as a Crossroads set, but not much better either: testament to the transitory nature of deficient design and cheap materials.

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Laid to Rest

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The Lloyd Mausoleum in the graveyard at Aughrim, County Roscommon: a church dating from 1744 (and described by Samuel Lewis in 1837 as ‘a neat plain building with a small spire’) stood adjacent until 1955 when it was demolished. Monuments inside the church were moved outdoors and can now be seen in plots around the mausoleum. It was erected in 1907 by Major William Lloyd following the death of his wife May and he was subsequently interred there five years later. Members of the Lloyd family had lived in nearby Rockville House since 1740 but sold the estate in 1918; after passing through several hands, the house was demolished in the 1950s.

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In Miniature

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One of what might be termed Ireland’s pocket cathedrals: that dedicated to St Feidhlimidh at Kilmore, County Cavan. The present building was designed by London-based architect William Slater who received a number of such commissions in this country. Consecrated in 1860, it replaced an older and much altered structure which by the mid-19th century was deemed unworthy of purpose and therefore almost entirely cleared away. The only surviving trace of its predecessor is a much-weathered Romanesque doorway set into the north wall of the chancel, although it has been proposed that this feature originally belonged to another church, that of the Premonstratensian Priory of Holy Trinity of nearby Lough Oughter (although this was founded about a century after the doorway was likely carved). The cathedral is one of a group of buildings on this site that also includes the now-empty early 19th century Bishop’s Palace, or See House (for more on this read See and Believe, September 14th 2015) and one section of a much older palace. The see’s most famous incumbent was William Bedell who as Bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh was responsible for commissioning the first Irish translation of the Old Testament.

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Repair not Restore

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Last week, a group of graduate scholars and fellows from the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) held a meeting in Dublin to propose the establishment of an Irish branch of the organisation. SPAB was founded in England in 1877 by two idealists, the designer and writer William Morris and the architect Philip Webb. They, and other members of their circle, were concerned about what they, often correctly, saw as ill-conceived and over-zealous ‘restoration’ of old buildings, the effect of which was to obliterate much evidence of a property’s cumulative history. This is a situation that has pertained here too, and on occasion continues to do so: for example, a particular moment in a house’s evolution can be selected and anything not relevant to that moment is scrupulously removed. Not only does this have the effect of air-brushing the background, but it often leads to speculative adjustment, to a recreation of what those responsible for the restoration believe would be correct. This is what Morris deemed ‘forgery’, and what he and Webb witnessed happening to buildings across England, especially old churches and cathedrals, and the same ill-advised approach was often adopted here (viz. what happened to both Christchurch and St Patrick’s Cathedrals in the 19th century). Repair not Restore is the motto of SPAB.

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Here is the most significant, and most often quoted, section of the manifesto written by William Morris in 1877 to define the purpose and ideology of SPAB: ‘It is for all these buildings, therefore, of all times and styles, that we plead, and call upon those who have to deal with them, to put Protection in the place of Restoration, to stave off decay by daily care, to prop a perilous wall or mend a leaky roof by such means as are obviously meant for support or covering, and show no pretence of other art, and otherwise to resist all tampering with either the fabric or ornament of the building as it stands; if it has become inconvenient for its present use, to raise another building rather than alter or enlarge the old one; in fine to treat our ancient buildings as monuments of a bygone art, created by bygone manners, that modern art cannot meddle with without destroying. Thus, and thus only, shall we escape the reproach of our learning being turned into a snare to us; thus, and thus only can we protect our ancient buildings, and hand them down instructive and venerable to those that come after us.’

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There are many merits to the creation of an Irish branch of SPAB, not least the opportunity thus provided to draw on its experience, and the skills of both members and graduates from various programmes run by the organisation. We need more skilled conservators across a range of disciplines, and the training courses run by SPAB are unquestionably of high quality. On the other hand, much of what SPAB does in England is already being done here by a number of existing bodies, and there is the risk of already-scarce resources being further diluted by the entry of another player into the field. Multiplication ought not to lead to duplication. Anyone who attended last week’s inaugural meeting could not fail to be impressed by the ardor and commitment of those who had called it. One of the best features of SPAB is the manner in which it puts ideology into practice, through the organising of various events during which members put their talents to use. Today’s photographs show the kind of property where the intervention of SPAB could make a real difference. The pictures are of a collection of buildings in the yards behind an old house in County Wexford. Various structures have undergone alterations and modifications over time, presumably as their purpose, and the needs of earlier owners, has required. Now they have a special patina that only long and diverse history can convey. Repair not Restore would see these buildings retain that patina, while being given the chance to have a viable future. If SPAB in Ireland can do that here, and in many other places around the country, then its establishment will be of inestimable value to us all.
*Anyone interested in making contact with the advocates of an Irish branch of SPAB, at the moment the best means of making contact appears to be through twitter: @SPABIreland.

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