Ghostly sign sealed as hospital expands on Lincoln Place


What's in a sign? A lot more than you would think, particularly at Dublin's Lincoln Place, writes Frank McDonaldEnvironment Editor

LEAVING WELL enough alone is not something we are good at, according to architect Valerie Mulvin.

So when it came to advising on what should be done with the faded Finn's Hotel sign on the gable of a building on South Leinster Street, she felt that retaining its "ghostly presence" was the only solution.

Tarting it up by repainting the lettering would have been quite wrong, not least because it would have destroyed the sense of discovery by aficionados of Ulysses "who know what they are looking for and will enjoy the experience of finding it". And so, it was conserved as a subtle reference for them.

Finn's Hotel is where James Joyce's future wife, Nora Barnacle, was working as a chambermaid when he met her on June 16th, 1904 - the day he immortalised in his master work. It is also mentioned in Ulysses, like so many other places in Dublin, including Sweny's chemists just round the corner in Lincoln Place.

The issue of what to do with the old sign arose from a project to provide more space for the nearby Dental Hospital in the terrace of four redbrick buildings on the north side of South Leinster Street, where the long run of railings fronting Trinity College along Nassau Street finally comes to an end. The hospital, which was transformed several years ago by ABK Architects, wanted more space for academic offices and research facilities, and bought the buildings from Trinity - although the college retained three ground-floor retail units; it is also landlord of "The Lincoln's Inn" pub (it used to be known as the Lincoln Inn).

McCullough Mulvin Architects, who did the Ussher Library with KMD Architects, won the latest commission, largely because of their sensitive approach to the existing buildings (all protected structures) and their ingenious idea of adding four "pods" at roof level that will only be visible from the rear, in views from College Park.

Valerie Mulvin sees these cubes - one of which is cantilevered - almost like parasites, clipped onto the roofs of the buildings to form a new library for the Dental Hospital. "It adds something new to what's old, rather than freezing it altogether," she says. "It's really just about making ordinary things extraordinary when you can."

McCullough Mulvin was selected following a series of interviews with architects for this €5 million project. According to the hospital's chief executive, Brian Murray, they "came up with a great plan that will allow us to both conserve the buildings and to use them effectively and usefully for education and research purposes". The four buildings - now sparkling after being cleaned - look late Victorian or Edwardian, but this is merely a façade. In fact, they were built as houses in the late 18th century and still contain rooms from the Georgian period; one of them (2 South Leinster Street) has a bow-fronted rear that clearly shows its true provenance.

According to Valerie Mulvin, Thoms Directory shows that Lincoln Place had become a "support street for the ladies and gents of Merrion Square" by the mid-19th century. Thus, the re-fronting of these buildings around 1900 to incorporate shops on all but one of their ground floors was done to reflect this reality. Most elaborate is the premises occupied by Lennox Chemicals from the 1930s. It had acquired a triple tier of wide windows sometime earlier; the black enamel and gilded fascia boards reading "PURE CHEMICALS" and "LABORATORY APPARATUS" were painted over older signs when the shop dealt in furnishings and ironmongery.

Both signs, including vestiges of their earlier lettering, have been retained in the refurbishment. The Finn's Hotel sign has also been retained in its present state and sealed, in line with a detailed report - including an analysis of the lead-based paint - by historic buildings consultant Dr Lynda Mulvin (Valerie's sister).

"The sign is painted in two coats of paint, an undercoat and a primer, and each letter is eight bricks high," she wrote. "It has been exposed to south-west prevailing winds and the paint surface has cracked and flaked ... The constant exposure to light over 100 years has caused the paint to fade considerably."

But authenticity is everything, and Dr Mulvin recommended that the sign "should be maintained and repaired, saving as much of the historic paint as possible", given its Joycean associations. The Dental Hospital also had "quite a lot of enquiries from the public about the Finn's sign", according to Brian Murray.

Meanwhile, McCullough Mulvin has sought planning permission from Dublin City Council for the "pods" on the rear roofs of the four buildings - and they are quietly confident that this will be granted. "The conservation people were very enthusiastic about having a really good use for the buildings," according to Valerie Mulvin.

As she says, Lincoln Place "is coming back to life". The Cervantes Institute, Spain's cultural flagship, has moved in from Morehampton Road to occupy space on a site once occupied by Turkish baths - long since gone - while the Millennium wing of the National Gallery has also brought more people into the area.

Across the street from the Dental Hospital, McCullough Mulvin were the architects for a four-storey office building for solicitors Sheehan and Company, on the site of the Taj Mahal restaurant. Trinity's eastward expansion has added to the "footfall" through its Lincoln gate, and the Dental Hospital itself has also helped.

It is unfortunate, however, that two potentially useful shop premises were incorporated into the hospital; their opaque glass windows might as well be solid walls. Perhaps, with the additional space it acquires in the South Leinster Street buildings, it might be possible to release these units for retail use once again.

Valerie Mulvin describes the Dental Hospital as "a terrific client. They want to do the best they can with the buildings." Hence the extraordinary care they have taken with protecting and preserving the historic signage - even if the residues of Lennox Chemicals is somewhat devalued by Insomnia on the ground floor.

Assuming that permission is granted for the scheme, this little corner of Dublin will end up with a quite intense architectural microclimate, in which buildings by ABK, McCullough Mulvin and Grafton Architects - who won awards for Trinity's Department of Mechanical Engineering - are battling with each other for a place in the sun.