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Dublin’s North Inner City

Conservation projects bring some much-needed historic pzazz.

Dublin’s North City fell out of fashion after the flight of the future Duke of Leinster to Kildare St and the Act of Union. That’s more than two centuries ago and the journey back has been slow. It suffered shocking poverty over succeeding generations, the collapse of world-class mansions into tenements, dereliction, the flight of nearly all private residents and a drugs and crime epidemic. In the last twenty-five years it has been subjected to an inundation of third-rate private-sector apartments, the re- division of many old houses including the removal of period features and a pogrom of gang killings. It has also witnessed wholesale immigration and a degree of cultural diversity. It has a dramatic need for new apartments but the focus for new development in 2018 appears to be hotels and (high-quality if expensive) student housing, not – perhaps because standards are in flux – apartments. It seems likely a naïve Minister for Housing and Planning will indulge a reduction in building-height standards that may compromise perhaps the area’s principal attraction, its historic human scale.


The focus of this piece is on one small new pattern of development: some exciting conservation projects.


The construction of Ormond Quay Upper and Lower – named after James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde – began during the 1670s with the development of the former lands of St. Mary’s Abbey by Sir Humphrey Jervis, and with the setting out of a formal quay-line and carriageway as part of the Corporation’s grant of substantial lands to Jonathan Amory in 1675.

These developments were facilitated by the construction of two bridges under the auspices of Jervis linking the walled medieval city with the new north-side suburbs: Essex Bridge (now Grattan Bridge), erected in the late 1670s, and Ormond Bridge (now O’Donovan Rossa Bridge), completed by 1684. The speculative development of the quay front soon followed, with the lands of Ormond Quay Upper developed as a fashionable residential parade with associated commercial uses under the freehold of Lord Santry, Henry Barry.

Then and now on Ormond Quay/ Capel Street



The house on the corner of Capel Street and Lower Ormond Quay is most famous from its appearance on a late-18th-century Malton print (the ones you find on greasy place mats and on bathroom walls in Dublin 6) with a view across the river to the then Custom House where the Clarence Hotel now stands. It’s been derelict for twenty years since it served as offices for a solicitors firm fronted by Liam Cosgrave Junior who was disgraced after unedifying information about planning corruption emerged in the planning tribunal. It comprises an existing four-storey over basement protected structure with four bays and two shopfronts facing Ormond Quay and two bays with one shopfront facing Capel Street. The shopfronts are shuttered and now messy. There was previously a fast food restaurant at street level. The façade of the building is rendered and in a poor state of repair; however, there are interesting features including arched windows at first-floor level and corner quoins.

Permission has been granted for development comprising conservation and a change of use at first, second and third floor levels from commercial occupancy to use as short-term-lease guest suites and change of use of the ground floor and basement to restaurant/cafe use, supervised by James Kelly of Kelly and Cogan Architects. Indeed it might be argued that in view of the strategic significance of the site, facing the overblown Temple Bar, in effect an ambassador for the North Side, public uses – pub or restaurant – might have been suitable for the entire building.

The site of No 1 Capel Street was originally occupied by a larger house, which also occupied part of neighbouring plots. The exact age of the building is unclear but it is shown on a map dating from 1784, and also on a 1795 image by James Malton. The building was used as the state lottery office before 1800 and was then in a variety of uses including draper, feather merchant, stationer, bookseller and bookbinder in addition to briefly accommodating solicitors’ offices. By the mid-19th-century the building had been stucco-finished, with quoin detailing and decorative moulding added. The facade to the quays was partly blank but included an arched window at street level. During the Civil War in 1922 the façade and shopfront of the building were damaged. A new shopfront was then provided on the façade to Ormond Quay, which was divided into two parts and included a new entrance lobby onto the quays, though access to the building was, and remains, tricky with narrow pavement on two sides and a torrent of parking-free traffic down the quays. By the late 20th century the retail/commercial unit at ground floor level had been subdivided.

It is stated that the building has been largely unaltered since the late eighteenth century, with the exception of the alterations to the shopfront and the plastering over the original brick façade. Original fabric, including the gothic rounded headed windows to Capel Street and the quays, survives, as do internal joinery works including architraves, staircase and doors. The building retains its commercial character, while the original plan form is substantially intact.


On Upper Ormond Quay, to the South of the area, the Dublin Civic Trust is leading a project to restore an interconnected pair of riverfront merchant buildings. – the quayside house dates to 1842-43 and the rear building to the 1760s.

The four-storey over basement house includes a rare arcaded Georgian shopfront composed from cut granite of, depending on who you listen to, a date of 1789 or around 1810. This is the most challenging and transformative building project the under-celebrated Trust has embarked on since its foundation in 1992 and is one of the most significant initiatives of its kind in Ireland. Both buildings require extensive structural stabilisation and careful conservation of fabric. The project will restore residential use to the upper floors and traditional shop use below.

Number 18 started life as a river-fronting house constructed on the same site around the date 1680. Lease documentation indicates that intense building activity was already underway on Ormond Quay at this time, where Number 18 comprised just one of many houses and business premises being erected facing the river. Village’s office is close by and dates from 1686.

Before and after at 18 Upper Ormond Quay

This original late 17th-century building is likely to have been typical of modest city houses of its time, consisting of two storeys of brick construction with a steeply pitched dormer roof with a dormer window. Mullioned windows with small panes of glass known as ‘leaded lights’ would have overlooked the river. Lease documents indicate that the initial 1680s house was substantially rebuilt in the years 1742-43 by David Read, a bricklayer.

It would appear that this new house is the house depicted on John Rocque’s map of 1756. It is likely to have been a typical gabled-fronted ‘Dutch Billy’, of brick construction with flush-framed sash windows and a two-room internal plan. This house style became common place in Dublin from the 1690s until the 1750s and can usually be identified by a distinctive ‘closet return’ hosting a series of small rooms projecting to the rear – as visible on Rocque’s map.

During the period 1760-1770, the former building to the rear of Number 18 was substantially altered or demolished and replaced with the present building. This was recorded from this point onwards as a “warehouse” – a term commonly used in the Georgian period to describe a shop premises. It is the oldest part of the present building and exhibits important 1760s features including an impressive Rococo cornice at first floor level, chunky architectural joinery and an early sash window with thick glazing bars. The building originally featured a pitched roof and an additional row of three windows overlooking the street – all removed during the 20th century.

The granite-arcaded shopfront surviving to the river facade is likely to have been installed as part of the change of leaseholder in 1789. The fully semi-circular arches are typical of the arcaded shopfronts erected on Dame Street in the 1780s by the Wide Streets Commissioners. Even more exciting are two projects on Dublin’s grandest street, Henrietta Street, one private and the other by Dublin City Council.


This is a very rare ‘palace-scale’ house of 1755 of European significance on Dublin’s grandest street, now – after the demise of most of Downing Street in London – unique in Britain and Ireland, a unified terrace of 18th- Century houses terminated by Gandon’s King’s Inns, at the forefront of what was to become the Georgian style. It was named after Henrietta Crofts, the third wife of Charles Paulet, Second Duke of Bolton and Lord Lieutenant in 1717-21. The street developed in a piecemeal fashion, trophies for lords, archbishops and MPs.

Its layout is an unusual four-room plan, on each floor, and it has a full-height bow to the rear. The interior retains some extraordinary plasterwork including an unusually deep coved plaster ceiling to the rear bowed room. This has been meticulously restored using principles of minimal intervention, The original open-well staircase was removed c.1830 with the secondary staircase retained. The most extraordinary achievement of this restoration is the unprecedented faithful, almost perfect, replacement of this staircase, following a design from a similar house on Parnell Square, No 3 and the adjoining site were leased by Nathaniel Clements in 1747 to John Maxwell until his daughter married Owen Wynne of Hazelwood, Co. Sligo, who subsequently built this house.

It is being restored by Ian Lumley, a campaigning conservationist who has lived on the street for 30 years and Pat Wrigglesworth, a builder who developed a small number of new apartments on the street 15 years ago. Regulations enforced by the City Council require significant interventions for fire safety. Every landing just now be entered via a lobby and no baths are allowed lest they overflow onto find plasterwork. A high-specification spray mist system is being installed. The conservation architect is James Kelly. The restoration complies with the Venice Charter – new interventions, such as lobbies, are reversible, new works should be identifiable as such and historic fabric should never be unnecessarily replaced. A lot of work has gone into brick repair and pointing; and restoring and sometimes replacing windows and sashes. Again the use is short-term occupancy.

Extraordinary new staircase


Dating from 1748, palatial No 14 Henrietta Street was one of the last great Georgian townhouses built by Luke Gardiner on the street he had first laid out 20 years previously. Over the following century it would be occupied successively by landed gentry, bishops and members of the legal profession. It served as headquarters for the Encumbered Estates Court, and a depot for the families of the Dublin Militia, But the area became less and less socially fashionable during the 19th century and, in 1877, No 14 was converted to a tenement. By 1911 it was home to 17 families and 100 people but just two toilets. The old Georgian building was first converted into a tenement in the late-1800s. The large spacious rooms were partitioned into smaller ‘compact 3-roomed flats’. These ‘flats’ commanded hefty rents at the time, and entire large families would all live in each one. In one case 13 family members lived in one flat in the building.

No 14’s staircase had been removed in the second half of the 19th century, when the building was converted for use as a “lodging house”, creating the single room where the 13 members of the Brannigan family lived in the early 1940s. Dublin City Council has now reinstated it in a simplified form. No 14 was bought by the well-meaning but undynamic Ivor and Marie Underwood in the 1960s. In the early 1980s Ian Lumley, now heritage officer with An Taisce (and, I should declare, co-restorer with me of houses we bought on Ormond Quay in the 1990s) lived as a caretaker in the building.

First floor rear room ceiling plasterwork before (left)… and after (right)

According to a report by Shaffrey Associates, design developed over the last ten years of their involvement, through planning to on-site operations, “a three-fold strategy of Support; Recover; Hold became a guiding mechanism: from interventions to ‘support’ the new museum use (the challenging works within the floor zone to accommodate structural upgrade, services, fire safety; the reinstated ‘return’ building to the rear which accommodates back-of-house museum facilities and a new lift to enable universal access to the museum and the reinstatement of the ‘grand stairs’ and entrance stairhall – part essential infrastructure for access and egress and part curatorial acknowledgement of the house’s mid-18th- century origins); to ‘recover’ significant elements (decorative plasterwork; the rear staircase; the fireplaces, amongst others) and, to ‘hold’ many of the more fragile traces of the layers of occupation, which communicate so effectively the immediacy of the stories being told”. Balancing these to “create a coherence and order, with an ethical overview throughout and continually keeping abreast of emerging research and insight from the community of former residents and neighbours, created the architecture present in the finished building”.

Former residents return to 14 Henrietta St

An oral history project, led by the City’s Heritage Officer Charles Duggan and architectural historian Ellen Rowley, brought the twentieth-century life of the building to bear on the project.

According to Brian Ward of DIT, “As study bled into design, difficult decisions were made about where and how to draw out various aspects of the house’s history; the removal of a floor revealing the double-height grandeur of the original Georgian entrance hall was balanced by the reinstatement elsewhere of the partition walls necessary for multiple family occupancy; thick layers of paint were removed from some cornices, and left on others; a selection of walls were patched but retained as found, while others were restored to either Georgian painted planes or their subsequent wallpapered state”.

Any new interventions necessary to enable the house’s re-use as a museum were treated as subservient to these spaces, surfaces and traces. Historic gas and electric piping, registering the upgrading of the house across the twentieth-century, was left visible in areas of the house but it was decided to pack any new services within the floors and to use wireless technology to reduce the amount of chasing and switches required.

14 Henrietta St before works, second from right

The Tenement Museum Dublin, whose much delayed opening is now imminent, will tell the story of tenement dwellers from 1877 to the late 1970s through immersive drama, guided tour and audio tours mining the house’s experiences, though understandably perhaps not the notorious 20th-Century murder that took place in the house, for a multiplicity of stories rather than an over-arching narrative. It will take more than conservation to revive Dublin’s North Inner City but restorations along some of its greatest setpieces, the quays and Henrietta, at least that some people love it, and care.

Michael Smith