Background: Rupture of ‘Georgian Mile’ prompted widespread opposition

Replacement buildings ruined Fitzwilliam Street facade

The ESB offices, viewed  from Baggot Street. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

The ESB offices, viewed from Baggot Street. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Sat, Oct 12, 2013, 01:01

The announcement by the ESB in 1962 that it planned to demolish 16 houses on Lower Fitzwilliam Street provoked widespread opposition from conservationists, but it also got some support from architectural students who wanted to see modernism enshrined in Dublin’s Georgian core.

Opponents included the new Irish Georgian Society, leading actor Micheál MacLiammóir and artist Seán Keating, who warned that “the next move will be to feed the books in the library of Trinity College to the boilers of the Pigeon House” – then an ESB power station.

Even Princess Grace of Monaco lent her support to the cause of preserving a key element of the longest and arguably the finest Georgian streetscape in the world, extending nearly 1km from the National Maternity Hospital on Holles Street to Lower Leeson Street.

The ESB was determined to go ahead and brought in the English architectural historian, Sir John Summerson, who blithely condemned the 16 houses as a “sloppy, uneven series” with no architectural coherence: “It is simply one damned house after another”.

Protest meeting
A protest meeting in the Round Room of the Mansion House in January 1962 was attended by 900 people, with 200 more turned away at the door.

It was picketed by two groups of architecture students carrying placards with such slogans as “Don’t make Dublin a museum”.

Quite responsibly, the ESB – which had started out in a drawingroom flat in one of the threatened houses – held an architectural competition for the project.

With 45 entries, it was won by then relatively youthful architects Sam Stephenson and Arthur Gibney.

What they proposed was a modern building, with a facade to Fitzwilliam Street carefully modulated to evoke at least the plot widths of Georgian houses. Nonetheless, it was abundantly clear that this would represent a significant rupture in Dublin’s “Georgian Mile”.

The ESB’s cause was helped by the collapse of two Georgian tenement buildings in Bolton Street and Fenian Street within weeks of each other in June 1963, resulting in the tragic loss of a pair of elderly people in one case and two children on their way to a sweet shop.

Dublin Corporation, as it then was, reacted with panic and began condemning old buildings on an unprecedented scale.

Dangerous buildings
In the following 12 months, dangerous buildings inspectors condemned a total of 900 houses, compared to an average of only 30 in previous years.

This was all grist to the mill for demolitionists. Just two days after the Fenian Street collapse, Stephenson argued that Georgian houses were “never intended to last more than a lifetime” and it should be clearly understood that “they cannot be usefully preserved at all”.

Ironically, several modern office blocks have since been demolished – lasting little more than a generation – while what survives of Georgian Dublin is still standing.

And Stephenson’s own ESB headquarters is facing demolition 44 years after it was completed.

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