Ten days ago the state’s Electricity Supply Board announced plans to pull down its existing premises on Dublin’s Lower Fitzwilliam Street and build anew on the site. Since then there has been much discussion about what the replacement should look like. In order to assist in that dialogue, here follows a synopsis of how the present office block came into being.
In 1952 the late Maurice Craig wrote with rapture of this street and those on either end, describing how down its length, ‘the light ripples in gay vertical streaks, varied within modest limits, and disappearing, as cheerful as ever, into the anonymous distance.’ So it might have remained to the present but for the ESB which in 1927 had arrived in the area to occupy just the drawing room of a single building (No. 28 Lr Fitzwilliam Street). However, as the company grew and its duties and staff swelled, additional buildings were acquired along the same block until almost its entirety had come into the organisation’s possession. It was in December 1961 that the ESB first announced the intention to demolish sixteen houses on the street, Nos.13-28, and to replace the terrace with a purpose-built office block designed by the winner of a proposed architectural competition. Although this would mean the destruction of Europe’s longest unbroken line of Georgian houses (the ‘Georgian Mile’ actually somewhat less but running unbroken from the northern end of Merrion Square to the top of Fitzwilliam Place) various arguments were presented as justification for the demolition. These ranged from declaring the buildings ‘structurally unsound’ to claims that dry rot had been discovered in their roof timbers. Yet, as the Irish Georgian Society’s Bulletin noted at the time, if structural problems did exist then ‘the ESB, having used these buildings for 20 years cannot entirely disclaim responsibility for this.’ More significantly, in an interview carried by the IGS’s Bulletin in 1962 the ESB’s chairman Thomas Murray admitted his organisation had in fact envisaged rebuilding the terrace more than twenty years earlier: ‘Rules for an architectural competition to provide a replacement were drawn up in 1938, but the competition was abandoned because of the war.’
The ESB’s plans attracted widespread opposition, both at home and abroad, with The Manchester Guardian‘s correspondent asking ‘Is there a public opinion in Ireland sufficiently concerned to put a stop to this vandalism; and if not, why not?’ In an editorial on the same subject The Irish Times invited readers to ‘stand outside Holles Street hospital and look towards the Dublin Mountains. What would Canaletto have made of the view?’ A public meeting called at Dublin’s Mansion House attracted some 900 people, with 300 more having to be turned away at the door and therefore being denied the opportunity to hear the ESB denounced by the likes of actor Mícheál MacLiammóir and artist Sean Keating, then President of the Royal Hibernian Academy who warned that if Fitzwilliam Street’s destruction went ahead, ‘the next move will be to feed the books in the Library of Trinity College to the boilers of the Pigeon House.’ (Similarly in a report written by Dublin City Architect Daithi Hanly the question was posed ‘How important is the Book of Kells? At what price and for what convenience would we divide it and allow 16 pages of it to be destroyed?’). The audience at the Mansion House meeting also heard read the contents of a telegram of objection to the ESB’s scheme sent by the ground landlord of Fitzwilliam Street, the Earl of Pembroke whose forbears were responsible for the original development of the area. In an attempt to preserve the Fitzwilliam Street buildings, he now offered the ESB an alternative site nearby on James Street East. This proposal was not only declined but a compulsory purchase order was served on the Fitzwilliam Street houses, for which Lord Pembroke was paid a derisory £1,000; he immediately donated half the sum to the Irish Georgian Society to help its campaign.
On the other hand there were voices heard in favour of the terrace’s destruction. For example, two groups of architectural students attended the Mansion House meeting to demonstrate their support of the ESB’s intentions and in February 1962 the council of the Royal Institute of Architects in Ireland declared itself ‘satisfied that a new building need not destroy the beauty of the existing environment’ – despite the fact that the design of the new building had yet to be seen. (One wonders if the RIAI would still stand over that declaration). It was only in November 1962 that the winner of the ESB’s architectural competition was announced: Stephenson Gibney and Associates in which Sam Stephenson – who would write to The Irish Times the following summer denouncing Georgian buildings’ general shoddiness of construction – was a partner. The distinguished architectural historian Sir John Summerson was now hired by the ESB to champion the company’s cause. Having already pronounced that the only reasonable course was ‘to build to an entirely new design,’ in an interview carried by the Irish Georgian Society’s spring 1962 Bulletin (which was entirely devoted to the subject of the Fitzwilliam Street houses) in his report for the ESB he went further, calling the existing houses ‘a sloppy, uneven series’ and declaring ‘It is nearly always wrong to preserve rubbish, and by Georgian standards these houses are rubbish.’ In doing so, of course, he was viewing the houses individually and not as part of a greater – and more architecturally important – whole. The IGS retaliated by inviting an expert of its own, another architectural knight, Sir Albert Richardson. His retort to Summerson’s dismissal of Fitzwilliam Street was to argue that ‘no eighteenth century houses were substantially built – does that lessen their merit?’
The battle went on for more than two years. Both the IGS and the Old Dublin Society organised meetings and petitions against the ESB’s plans but no matter how much support they mustered or how vocal their objections it made no difference, not least because the Government of the day had no objections to the buildings’ demolition but instead gave support to the proposal. In late September 1964 on the very day before a new Planning Act – which could have provided salvation for the old houses – came into effect, then-Minister for Local Government Neil Blaney signed an order granting full planning permission for the new office development on Lower Fitzwilliam Street. The timing was surely no accident, and sealed the buildings’ fate. The following summer the sixteen houses were knocked down and work began on their replacement which ever since has continued to disrupt the unity of the area’s layout.
Thus we come to the present situation where the block commissioned by the ESB half a century ago has now been deemed unfit for purpose and only good for demolition. There was no need for the ESB to remain in this location in the 1960s and there is no need for it to do so today. On the contrary this is an ideal opportunity for the company to move out, allowing proper redevelopment of the terrace as a series of residential units. Instead, it has continued to acquire property in the area and commissioned a replacement of the Lr Fitzwilliam Street block from Grafton Architects and O’Mahony Pike. In no circumstances can the current building be declared an object of beauty but nor is its proposed proposed successor. The design is, quite frankly, a piece of poor pastiche: it acknowledges the authority of the original streetscape but then insists on fiddling with details of the buildings in a facile manner by playing around with window and door heights. The result suggests the architects, while accepting the power of the past, are nevertheless desperate that their interpretation, no matter how weak, receive some notice.
At the time of the old buildings’ demolition, Build magazine predicted, ‘If the ESB’s victory fires the starting gun for a wholesale onslaught on the remaining splendours of the eighteenth century, then it will be a victory most Pyrrhic indeed for the city of Dublin.’ And so it came to pass: where the ESB led, dozens of other state and private organisations followed and terrible destruction was wrought across the capital. It is surely telling that today Dublin City Council wants the lost facades to be reinstated, a huge change in attitudes over the past half-century. But one thing remains the same: the inability of corporations and individuals in Ireland ever to admit a mistake has been made. The ESB wouldn’t accept it was wrong then, and it won’t accept it is wrong now. Instead the company has declared its hand and shown the course intended to take: no matter how fierce the opposition, be prepared for the ESB to resist any change to announced plans.
Today’s photographs show Lr Fitzwilliam Street as it was in the early 1960s and as it looks today. Immediately above is a picture of the proposed Grafton Architects and O’Mahony Pike replacement. A facebook page has been established to campaign for the restoration of the original streetscape, see: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Restore-Fitzwilliam-Street-Dublins-Georgian-Mile/303073159831331