Preservation by example

 

HISTORIC Dublin is like an art gallery. Every house, is different. That is its unique quality. We want these wonderful old houses recognised and protected, not as museum pieces, but as buildings where people live." These are the words of environmentalist Geraldine Walsh, who is chairperson of the Dublin Civic Trust (DCT).

The Trust, a registered charity which has been in existence since 1991, has all ready restored and refurbished 11 South Frederick Street and is about to start on number 10 next door.

Work is also ongoing in a house on Aungier Street. Apparently one of the oldest houses in Dublin, it boasts a 17th century staircase. The building, which was virtually derelict, was about to be demolished before the DCT intervened. Once the historic importance of the house was established, Dublin Corporation arranged for a "site swop" with the developer, and, together with the Department of the Environment, gave the DCT a grant to help with the initial stages of saving the building.

"It is probably the oldest house in the city," says artist and conservationist Peter Pearson, who is also a board member of the DCT. "It is the closest thing to an internally timber framed house that I've ever seen in Ireland. We know they were all over Ireland at one time but it was assumed that none of them survived." The DCT was able to trace the lease of the building back to 1680.

According to Ian Lumley, director of projects with DCT, 17th century Dublin houses still exist behind 19th century facades. But even 18th and 19th century houses in the city are not properly documented "We still don't know how many Georgian buildings there are in Dublin or how many decorated ceilings there are," says Lumley.

He is putting together an inventory for the DCT, focusing on parts of the city that are not as well documented as they should be, like South William Street. "Those houses are now mostly in warehouse use for the rag trade," says Lumley. "Many of them have wonderful staircases and decorative plaster work."

The DCT keeps a keen eye on areas of the city that are likely to change hands, or are designated for tax incentives. These areas, when bought up by developers, are at risk.

"Developers often like to start with a clean slate, and derelict houses do look awful," says Peter Pearson. "People are put off by the debris everywhere, manky carpets, spongy floors, temporary roofs. Ironically the people who are most dismissive are professionals, like architects. But seldom are the structural problems really so severe that you have to demolish the building. Even large cracks in the wall can be fixed with surgical procedures like steel straps. And once a house is structurally sound and refurbished, everyone agrees that it was well worth keeping."

Demolition of old houses is no longer as widespread as it used to be, but the DCT is concerned that it has been replaced by a procedure that is almost as bad that of retaining the facade of the building while gutting the inside. "We watch every skip in the city," says. Ian Lumley. "If we see smashed up Georgian cornice work, we try to find out what's going on. We want to see the kind of legislative changes that would guarantee that before anyone can start work on a listed building they must get proper advice and be offered tax incentives for maintaining the original historic features."

Peter Pearson is disappointed in much of the work going on in the Temple Bar area "Temple Bar has a mix of houses, warehouses, and institutional buildings, but a lot of it is just facades now. Where are the original mouldings, ceilings, shutters and floorboards?" Ian Lumley adds grimly that many of Dublin's finest interior features are torn out of buildings and end up in "theme pubs" all over Europe "You'll find a bar counter in a pub in Germany made out of a stripped pine shutter from a house on Mountjoy Square."

Why is this gutting going on? "Developers gut buildings sometimes whole terraces of houses to get the floor space for offices," says Lumley. "Most owners of listed buildings can do all sorts of things to them without any control." Stringent fire regulations, adds Peter Pearson, encourage developers to rip out the interiors of multiple use buildings.

The Dublin Civic Trust was set up by a small group of people who were disillusioned with "the heavy handed approach to old buildings" in Dublin, says Peter Pearson. "Most of us had been campaigning to stop demolition during the 1980s. We felt it was time to do something rather than just object. We decided to show by example what could be done to choose a building that nobody else would take on, restore it, sell it, and then buy another."

This idea of a revolving fund for refurbishment has already been used to good effect in other cities such as London, where Ian Lumley worked with the Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust.

Number 11 South Frederick Street, built in 1756 (and its neighbour, number 10, built two years earlier) was on a site that hand been purchased by New Ireland Assurance. "They had a residential content obligation, which they were happy to pass on to us," says Ian Lumley.

Although the house was not derelict, it was in need of fairly extensive work. With a grant of £75,000 from the Department of the Environment and £30,000 from Dublin Corporation (as well as monies from other donors), the DCT was able to get started. First of all the front wall needed to be restrained with steel strapping because it was not properly attached to the side walls. The strapping was buried in the wall, the bad brick in the facade was replaced with matching salvage brick, and the whole was re pointed with lime.

Any missing windows were replaced with copies of the original Georgian windows. The floorboards were patched and the timber and plaster mouldings repaired. Organic mineral paints made from a medieval German recipe were used in natural hues that matched the sort of paint that would have been used in the 18th century yellow, ochre, terra cotta, cobalt blue.

SKILLED craftsmen familiar with the necessary tasks were available, notes Peter Pearson, adding that property owners often do not bother to restore their houses in the mistaken belief that the skills involved are no longer to be found.

The work was highly labour intensive and took about a year. It was finished last September. Before the house was completed, however, funds began to run out, so it was decided to organise a buyer in order to have enough capital to finish the house. The house was not advertised on the open market. "We did not want to be bound to sell to the highest bidder," says John O'Sullivan, administrator of the DCT, "we wanted to sell it to a buyer who would undertake not to interfere with the work we had carried out."

There were other difficulties the DCT had no track record for conservation projects at this point, neither did it have legal title to the building. In the end, through word of mouth, various people came forward to show an interest in the house. It was purchased by an artist, Graham Knuttel, for £230,000 (a price which had been suggested by several auctioneers).

He was an ideal buyer as far as the DCT was concerned. "The house was designed to be owner occupied. It was built by merchant class people in the 18th century. They would have spent their family lives and their working lives in that house. Graham Knuttel is an artist who works at home, so he will use the house in a similar way," says Geraldine Walsh.

Mr Knuttel was subjected to "a rigorous interview", says Ian Lumley "There were covenants attached to the sale. He had to commit himself to retaining the building as he had found it."

Number 11 was brought to "a habitable level" by the DCT as a "demonstration project" to show "how a building ought to be restored, so that its original atmosphere is retained," says Ian Lumley. Future projects will not necessarily be brought to the same level of completion. "Enveloping" is a procedure which the DCT recognises as its major priority for the future. This is a term used in European conservation schemes and involves stepping into the breach when an old building is in a particularly bad condition

THE MOST important thing is to do the main structural work and keep water out of the building.

Then the building can be sold on with specific conditions for finishing the refurbishment," says Lumley. He notes that "enveloping" costs a lot less than full refurbishment and will allow the DCT to be more active on a greater number of buildings.

Lumley is putting together a computer database of buildings in inner Dublin that are derelict or not far off. There are at least 150 of these. Countless others have already been demolished, and many, particularly in the Mountjoy Square and Merrion Square areas, have been gutted.

Another role for the DCT is that of consultancy, and it is giving advice on the sensitive refurbishing of 25 Eustace Street in Temple Bar at the moment, as well as helping out with the restoration of two 18th century houses on Upper Abbey Street, which are to be the management offices of the new Jervis Street Shopping Centre.

"New development in the city does not have to mean the loss of its older buildings," says Ian Lumley. "The way forward is in developing partnerships between the State and the private sector."