Past glories return as glasshouses bloom again
Conserving our architectural heritage demands high standards and attention to detail, and the winner of this year’s Irish Georgian Society’s conservation awards displayed both qualities, writes FRANK MCDONALD
IT MAY seem unusual for the Irish Georgian Society to give its premier conservation award to the reinstatement of derelict Victorian glasshouses. But the project at Fota House, Co Cork, was so carefully researched and artfully executed that it had to be the winner.
The Frameyard, as it’s called, consists of a range of 19th-century glasshouses along with a single-storey bothy building within a stone wall enclosure next to the ornamental gardens of Fota House. It was used over the years to propagate plants and produce thousands of bedding displays to fill the gardens.
Horticulturist Finola Reid credits the Frameyard and its assortment of glasshouses to Arthur Hugh Smith-Barry MP (1843-1925), who had continued his father’s work of planting the arboretum and embellishing Fota’s grounds and gardens, so there was a great need to supply the arboretum and propagate new plants.
Reid advised the Irish Heritage Trust, which owns Fota House and gardens, on the importance of the glasshouses (made by Richardson’s of London) and the difficult commission was given to Dublin-based John O’Connell Architects – no strangers to Fota, having worked on the house itself for many years.
The daunting task of rescuing the glasshouses from ruin was entrusted to two young women – architect Audrey Farrell and structural engineer Naoise Connolly. Even to carry out a proper survey involved first clearing out a dense growth of vegetation, including sycamores.
The first phase of the project involved repairing and restoring three free-standing glasshouses, four “pit-houses” and the L-shaped Bothy building, the construction of a new shelter and reinstatement of the original pathways and associated landscaping – so that the walled garden could be opened to the public.
My fellow juror, Edward McParland, saw the glasshouses as “intrinsically significant”. And even though their condition was “deplorable”, 60 per cent of the original material had been “imaginatively salvaged” and original solutions found for the rest, notably the use of non-toxic, machine-made Accoya wood.
“The pine generally available today is fast-grown and therefore of low durability and resistance to fungal and insect attack,” says Farrell. The alternative of sourcing hardwood from a reputable Forest Stewardship Council-certified source was “challenging” and, in any case, it would be unsuitable for “splicing” with the original pine.
That’s why they went for Accoya, which is made from “sustainably sourced” Radiata pine to create
wood product – more durable even than teak and guaranteed for 50 years. Its single disadvantage was that the only metal that could be fixed to the wood was stainless steel, as it would corrode any other.
All original timber capable of being re-used had to be dried out. Sections (mainly major rafters) deemed suitable for repair were cut back sufficiently to remove all decayed wood and then spliced with the Accoya – but only one splice per rafter, to ensure the structural integrity of the glazing that would go into the frames.
Fortunately, the specification for modern safety glass – legally required because the glasshouses would be open to the public – is quite similar to traditional Victorian “float glass”, unlike the thinner material for purely horticultural use. An original finial, found during the excavations, was used as a template for replicas.