'North Georgian mile' bursting with potential for development of city centre

Wed, Nov 14, 2012, 00:00

There is a point on one corner of Parnell Square North, just at the foot of Findlater’s Abbey Presbyterian Church, where there is a sense of how the Georgian square was intended to look. The corner is elevated just enough to see over the clutter of the Rotunda Hospital, to Parnell Square East and West.

To the left, towards O’Connell Street, most of the east side is original, bar the first four or five houses which are reproductions from the 1970s.

The park in the centre of the square, now dominated by 20th century extensions to the Rotunda, was built before the hospital as “pleasure gardens” for Dublin’s fashionable set.

The long-term plan is that maternity services will be relocated to the Mater hospital and the gardens restored to public use. In the meantime, other parts of the square are crying out to be given a purpose.

Fairly good nick

Coláiste Mhuire, a former Christian Brothers school, occupies almost half of Parnell Square North and has been empty for several years. The buildings were handed over to the State as part of the redress scheme for survivors of institutional abuse, and are “in fairly good nick” following recent work to the roof, according to Graham Hickey, conservation research officer with the Dublin Civic Trust. They would make an ideal location for a new city library, he says.

“With the Hugh Lane Gallery and the writers’ museum just next door, a city library would consolidate cultural uses on the square. This is central to the whole success of Upper O’Connell Street which requires the cultural draw of Parnell Square.”

Parnell Square is bursting with potential for the development of the city centre, but it suffers from one major drawback: it’s on the northside.

“The south Georgian core always gets the focus, of tourism, of commercial use,” says Hickey. “It’s the area people think about when they think of Georgian Dublin. As a result, the Georgian heritage of the north city has been terribly neglected.

“Parnell Square West is a dumping ground for buses which completely obscure the houses. There is a lack of control over the public realm, lines of rocket bollards, clutter, things you wouldn’t see in any other 18th-century conservation area.”

For Hickey, the square’s neglect is typified by number 41, in the middle of the terrace built from 1758 to 1773. “This is one of the most notorious buildings in the Georgian core. It is boarded up at the back, the front door is persistently covered in graffiti. It devalues all the surrounding houses. This . . . would never be permitted on Merrion Square.”

Around the corner, North Frederick Street is one of the main routes from Dublin Airport to the city centre and continues directly on to O’Connell Street. Most of the 11 windows on the front of number 30 are broken. The front door is sealed with a sheet of plate metal.

Both houses are cases of historical buildings whose future is at risk, but only the North Frederick Street house is on the derelict sites register. In fact, only 36 buildings in the city are on the register, though many more would qualify.

Dublin City Council could not deal with the number of buildings which are derelict or at risk of becoming so. The planning enforcement section only has six officers.

“The problem with putting a building on the register is that it confers an obligation, not only on the owner to put it back into good order, but on the local authority to ensure the work is done.”

Moving back down towards the square, turning left on to Gardiner Row there’s a shift in tone. The first five 1760s John Ensor houses to the left make up the Castle Hotel. The buildings’ well kept but unassuming exterior hides a wealth of original features.

“This is an excellent example of how historic buildings can be put to public use. There has been a hotel on the site since the 19th century. The concentration of high-quality joinery and robust plasterwork exceeds that of comparable modest houses on the south side of the city.”

Success story

As Gardiner Row becomes Denmark Street the sense of historical buildings in use continues, with Belvedere College to the right and to the left one of the success stories of the Georgian core: North Great George’s Street, which is almost entirely residential.

To say the next section of the street, Gardiner Place, looks unloved would be an understatement. Fly tipping is a big problem here, with domestic waste abandoned on the street. But for all that, the terrace is completely original, with no 20th century infill.

Gardiner Place opens onto Mountjoy Square. This perfectly proportioned square has taken some battering since its completion in the early 1800s. Demolition has left just two-thirds of the original houses standing.

Their replacement from the late 1980s onwards with replica facades at least gives the impression of a complete Georgian square, and the square was last year designated an Architectural Conservation Area by Dublin City Council. This has resulted in the end of its use for bus parking, but not much else has happened Hickey says.

The irony is the better commercial viability of the southside means lots of its building have beautiful facades but have been stripped of all their Georgian grandeur inside.“The houses on the southside were gutted for offices. It was through deprivation that the northside has survived so well.”

Better marketing of the area, an emphasis on the value of the “North Georgian mile” and the creation of a multidisciplinary team of planners, architects and the community could help turn the area’s fortunes and bring more buildings into productive use.

“In many cases a modest amount of work would make a big difference,” says Hickey.

Unesco heritage status ‘Worth striving for’

Dublin should be striving for Unesco World Heritage status for its north and south Georgian districts, says Graham Hickey, conservation research officer with the Dublin Civic Trust.

This “has been of enormous benefit in preserving and presenting to best effect the Old Town and New Town of Edinburgh”, he says.

However, substantial work needs to be done before the city could even get to the stage of being considered for Unesco designation. “It would entail a considerable investment.”

Mr Hickey says much of the work could be funded by a Heritage lottery fund, as in Britain, and a small tourist accommodation tax, as levied in many European cities. OLIVIA KELLY

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