Repair not Restore

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.

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.’

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.


16 comments on “Repair not Restore

  1. Herbert Schubert says:

    In Ireland are huge resources wasted on voting machines, reforms which are scrapped half ways etc…..In a country with a massive tourism sector it should be obvious – even for pure commercial reasons- to keep the remaining buildings intact and use them for a purpose.
    As money is in short supply and politicians are more inclined to line their own pockets then putting it into heritage, I wonder if we don’t need a money making machine like the National Trust or the Landmark Trust in the UK to save these buildings.
    The OPW is hopeless in commercial activity and as money is alocated in the moment, buildings start to crumble again, when a project is finished.
    I am in despair, if I only look at the buildings falling apart here in Tipperary. Legislation needs to be changed, too. Buildings not looked after need to taken out of the hands of owners not looking after them. PVC windows in buildings over a certain age should be banned etc.
    Herbert Schubert

  2. Patrick says:

    While we love these wonderful images they do not hold the same charm for the last occupiers of these buildings who endured the pain and devastation of their downfall . We have many such buildings still occupied but on the brink of being abandoned who could perhaps be saved with a little help . This SPAB may well get some traction here but they should be aware and sensitive to our abandoned countryside dwellings having little commercial value compared to England.
    They should also have a sensitivity to the residual trace in the DNA of many of a reluctance to take instructions from the same people who once owned many of the properties where we were once enslaved . Nothing will be said and nothing will be done .
    On the basis that something is better than nothing many will argue that the SPAB can only help save our heritage . I for one do not agree and forsee the current devastation continuing unabated unless more help is given to our existing bodies whose current fragile state will be further undermined by this new group .

    • Herbert Schubert says:

      Arguing about the “Pain of downfall” doesn’t help any much. Most castles,cathedral, mansions etc. could be seen as a symbol off oppression ….in any country! These structures are part of our history and should be preserved, independent of any feelings. A lot of people come to Ireland to see these “Romantic Ruins”, we should not think they are of no “commercial” value.
      My point is, that we need a body, who besides preserving them….makes the money to preserve them.

      • Your points are soundly made. Nevertheless, the fact is that in many people’s eyes these buildings have a symbolic significance that outweighs their historical or aesthetic merit. Until that hump is overcome then there is always going to remain a problem with their preservation. In addition, there does seem to be an inherent dislike of old buildings – a notion that they are not as good as something new – in the Irish psyche: one sees this in the neglect of vernacular architecture and the abandonment of structures that have nothing to do with the former dominant regime. Again, we need to persuade the broadest possible public that all historic buildings in this country can have inherent merit – and potential commercial advantage. It is a long, long and exhausting struggle but one must persist…

      • Herbert Schubert says:

        Neuschwanstein in Fuessen, Bavaria has the symbolic significance, that the king Ludwig II squandered all the money of the Bavarian state and drove it into bankrupty. The aesthetic value has been questioned as well. The main tower is standing on a moving rock, it has cost over 100 million to stabilize this tower in the 90’s. Still it is one of the most beloved and visited castles in the world.Cultural heritage of a country is a funny thing and the views about it change all the time.
        The problem about it is, when it’s gone….it’s gone….

      • liamóhé says:

        In fairness, Bavaria does not have a history of contested narratives on the same scale as Ireland. There is still a task to be completed in this still partitioned country on reconciling all threads of Irish architectural history into a shared vision of the future. SPAP Ireland is now a thing, but I agree with Patrick that this should be driven through, or in agreement with, the main State entities OPW / An Taisce and not through sister organisations of their UK equivalents. Websites like this one do a marvellous job in bringing neglected structures like Duleek House to light, including our Gaelic heritage (though I do not approve of the tagline “this is not an oxymoron”, which reinforces old prejudice, in this case coming from an Irishman).

      • Thank you for your contribution, and interesting observations. The tagline ‘This is not an Oxymoron’ is intentionally provocative: it is important that we are all kept on our toes and not permitted to become complacent (and if we cannot criticise ourselves, how can we accept criticism from others…)

  3. Katharine Larkin says:

    The images show abandoned buildings, not buildings that have been repaired and conserved. SPAB are not advocates of abandonment of repairable buildings.

    • Thank you for getting in touch but I wonder if you have read the text thoroughly? There is no suggestion that these buildings have been repaired or conserved – and in fact they have not been abandoned, simply allowed to fall into disrepair (other parts of the same yards are still being used). The images were presented as examples of buildings which have undergone alteration over the centuries and which SPAB would advocate should be permitted to retain evidence of that transition. I trust this makes matters clearer.

  4. Robert Towers says:

    Dear Robert,

    If a branch of this organization does open in Ireland, do let me know, please>

    Thank you,


  5. Sounds like another conversation to be had, Robert! Moving things along on raising money for this type of work is still paramount and in the works. Anyone interested in what I’m doing, please feel free to get in touch. Ginger

  6. Sheila Robinson says:

    Maybe if we regard a building as not just a structure but a testament to the makers of it and it’s inhabitants during it’s lifetime as a shelter. Its fabric should be able to tell its owm story

  7. Deborah SEna says:

    I have been a fan of your site since I started planning my trip to Ireland, particularly since I am traveling to Westmeath on my own and you can’t get there on a any commercial tour. Am also a fan of more real sites to visit and find it interesting to follow the woes of your preservation efforts, not much different from here in the US-specifically NJ. I just had to comment on how appropriate it was for me to read this posting today regarding the Wm. Morris quote. I am getting ready to volunteer at a local ‘restored’ company town village (a bog iron furnace and foundry). Part of my instructions relate that anything we wear or demonstrate has to pertain to the year 1836 ONLY! Meanwhile, in today’s paper was an article about the coming demolition of the ‘county sheriff’s house’, a 5 bay 2 story brick Federal style building built in 1851 that had been listed on the National Register of Historic places in 1993.The county historian, unfortunately, also wants it gone. But thought his remarks fit the Morris intent, saying the building “was misused when the county government converted the house into office space in 1939 and moved filing cabinets and other equipment into it that were too heavy for its wooden floors…” Lets just say the pictures of the house’s current state would fit right in with those on your website.

    D. T. Sena Toms River, NJ

  8. Margaret says:

    Love your website. Where I live, we have unused tobacco barns. The crop has moved on but the barns remain. My farm….four hours away….in my family since 1834….the barn has a span that defies gravity. The roof is straight. It needs new boxing on the south side. I boxed the east side 12 years ago. New roof. Workers came from an hour away. Barn carpenters in short supply. Keeping it standing….repairing the roof after storms, but why? It will never be used again. Sad.

    /Users/ghuff/Pictures/iPhoto Library.photolibrary/Masters/2015/02/08/20150208-171904/huff barn 072.JPG

    Attempted to send a picture of the work….might not have taken.

    • Thank you for your message. Unfortunately the picture did not come through, but I have a fair idea from your eloquent description of the predicament in which you find yourself, as do so many other people who have become responsible for old buildings which are no longer needed for their original purpose but do not appear to have a new one. My sympathies…

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