Who saves buildings that fall derelict?

Organisations such as the Irish Georgian Society and An Taisce want to compile a national register of buildings at risk to drive policy to protect the thousands of derelict historic properties strewn across the country

Thu, Feb 27, 2014, 00:00

Travel through almost any county in Ireland and you’ll find signs of historical dereliction. In some cases, it will be boarded-up shops and empty terraced houses on main streets of rural market towns whose heyday is long past. In other cases, it will be a country house, bought by a developer at the height of the economic boom with plans for yet another hotel with adjoining golf course and maybe a few additional houses off the stable yard.

Many of these properties are now embroiled in a protracted process between bankrupt owners, liquidators and receivers. There are many examples. Hazelwood House outside Sligo town is one poignant one. Situated on a scenic woodland peninsula jutting out into Lough Gill, Hazelwood was Richard Cassel’s first country house commission. Originally built for Owen Wynne in the early 18th century, Hazelwood House remained in the family until 1937 when it was sold to the Land Commission. Since then, its owners have included the Department of Health and an Italian yarn manufacturer that built a giant factory on the site.

It was purchased by a consortium of local Sligo developers in 2006 for whom planning permission for a development of 158 detached houses and four apartment blocks was refused. The 80-acre property including Hazelwood House and derelict factory buildings has been on the market since May 2013.

The square three bay, three storey over basement was linked by arcaded quadrants to three bay, two-storey kitchen and stable blocks. An estate map dated 1762 shows a formal Dutch style garden with two octagonal walled gardens.

Historical buildings
In Co Cork, Vernon Mount, the 18th-century geometrical villa south of the city is also a building at significant risk of decay. The Irish Georgian Society has been campaigning for several years to prevent further exterior and interior damage. It was only when the house was placed on the World Monuments Fund list of 100 most endangered sites in 2008 that Cork County Council undertook minimal repairs.

In Dublin city centre, Aldborough House has faced similar neglect. Described by An Taisce as the last great town mansion built before the Act of Union, it was abandoned by a bankrupt developer and only recently had emergency repairs carried out by Dublin City Council.

As the latter cases illustrate, although each county council has legal responsibility (since the Planning and Development Act 2000) to protect buildings at risk, this usually only happens when the roof is about to cave in, the windows broken or the house is at serious risk of vandalism, theft of valuable fixtures and fittings or illegal inhabitation.

Efforts to protect significant historical buildings from dereliction instead falls to organisations such as the Irish Georgian Society and An Taisce – both of whom have campaigned furiously to save buildings such as Hazelwood House, Vernon Mount, and Whitfield Court in Co Waterford, which is currently for sale.

The IGS has an architectural conservation and planning committee with planners, surveyors, architects and architectural historians checking out what buildings are at risk throughout Ireland.

As a starting point, chartered building surveyor and architectural historian, Frank Keohane has voluntarily put together a Buildings at Risk register for Co Cork, highlighting the level of risk of each individual building.

Of the 345 buildings at risk identified (which include castles, farmhouses, estate buildings, country houses, military and defence buildings), 29 were found to be in critical danger and a further 178 in high risk of collapse.

The IGS has recently met with Cork County Council to discuss how buildings on the register – such as Vernon Mount – could be saved by incorporating them into the county’s development plans.

Funding available
“We want to achieve something significant with this register. Ultimately, we would like to compile a national register of buildings at risk to drive policy at local and national level,” says Donough Cahill, executive director of the IGS.

“We would like to be constructive and work with councils to assist them in advocating for the protection of historic buildings,” says Emmeline Henderson, assistant director and conservation manager at the IGS. Henderson adds that the IGS receives calls from people keen to restore old buildings in the right circumstances.

In Britain, for instance, there are detailed buildings at risk registers which the local authorities can refer to. There, the local authorities play a much more active role in encouraging owners to restore or sell on their building to someone who would better care for it.

However, much larger funds are available to restore historic properties in Britain – including large tranches of lottery funds targeting heritage buildings.

As part of its effort to highlight buildings at risk, An Taisce has compiled its own top 10 buildings at risk in Ireland. These include Whitfield Court in Co Waterford, a 19th-century Italianate-style house which is currently for sale at €1,350,000, the recently sold Carrigglass Manor in Co Longford, Belcamp, the late 18th-century Georgian house on the Malahide Road, Dublin and Hazelwood House in Sligo. To compile its list, An Taisce drew on local authority planning applications (which it receives as a prescribed body) and local heritage knowledge from its branch network.

“The problem is that some of the most architecturally sensitive houses in the country were traded for huge prices during the boom years with planning applications for upmarket hotel resorts with golf courses,” says Ian Lumley, architectural officer with An Taisce.

“Since then, developments have stalled or didn’t even begin and the properties are between receivers, liquidators or financial institutions which are just sitting on them.”

“Hazelwood House has the potential to be a major tourism draw for Sligo in the way Lissadell should have been and the huge legal costs for Lissadell could have gone to acquire and restore Hazelwood.”

Lumley adds: “There is a common misperception that many empty historic buildings are linked to Nama, but we have discovered that very few are.”

Another problem Lumley highlights is that buildings can experience enormous structural damage due to the theft of lead and copper dressings on the roofs and copper piping in the interiors.

“When you have water pouring down into a building, you’ll have outbreaks of dry rot, decorative plasterwork ceilings collapsing and damage to wood carvings which are very costly to repair,” he says.

Lumley says that at least temporary measures such as security or temporary occupancy should be put in place for buildings at risk.

Smaller steps
Although defined as the National Trust of Ireland, An Taisce doesn’t have the resources to either buy or manage historic properties. In contrast, the National Trust in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland manage numerous historic properties whilst the owners continue to live in them.

The Irish Heritage Trust was set up in 2006 with the aim to manage significant historic properties when the owners could neither afford the restoration work nor manage public events.

Fota House was taken over in 2007 and continues to be managed by the Irish Heritage Trust. The trust was mentioned as a possible purchaser of Hazelwood House at one point. However, with the collapse of public funding, it has instead branched into heritage education projects.

“Like many other organisations, we’ve had to re-frame our activities and take much smaller steps to work with owners of historic buildings,” says Kevin Baird, chief executive of the Irish Heritage Trust, which is grant-aided by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

The trust recently worked with Dublin City Council and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions on the Dublin Tenement Experience: Living the Lockout in a Henrietta Street Georgian building at risk that Dublin City Council took possession of 10 years ago.

Danger zone: An Taisce’s top 10 buildings at risk
Aldborough House, Dublin
Vernon Mount, Co Cork
Belcamp, Malahide Road, Fingal
Hazelwood, Co Sligo
Carrigglass Manor, Co Longford
Whitfield Court, Co Waterford
Bellamont Forest, Co Cavan
Belline Temple, Pilltown, Co Kilkenny
Boole House, Cork City
Charleville Castle Estate, Tullamore, Co Offaly

A regular feature , Buildings At Risk, starts soon. Anyone concerned about significant historic buildings at risk can send details to buildingsatrisk@irishtimes.com

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