Boulevard of Georgian dreams


One of Dublin's great 17th-century streets, Henrietta survives in all itsslightly seedy glory. Rosita Boland takes a walk down memory lane

Walking up 18th century Henrietta Street in the north-west of Dublin city is like walking through some surreal cobblestoned canyon. It's not just the huge Georgian houses looming overhead like cliff faces, nor the galleon-like bulk of the King's Inns at the end of the cul-de-sac, but a feeling of the past preserved like a rare urban fossil within the facing walls of its steep wide street.

Henrietta Street was arguably the most architecturally important and famous street in Dublin at the time it was developed by banker Luke Gardiner in the 1730s. In the seminal book, Dublin 1660-1860, Maurice Craig's description of the street in 1952 could be contemporary instead of half a century old: To walk up Henrietta Street today is a striking and saddening experience. Though it contains only some 16 houses, they are of so palatial a cast that one easily understands how it remained the most fashionable single street in Dublin until the Union, long after many rival centres of social attraction had been created.

At one point in the street's history, residents included an archbishop, two bishops, four peers and four MPs. Luke Gardiner himself lived in No 10, which is now occupied by the Daughters of Charity, who also own Nos 8 and 9.

In the last year, some of the original 18th-century wallpaper was discovered in a first-floor drawing-room during refurbishment at No 10. It was a rare and significant find: the house's past peeled back literally to the first layer of application; a peephole to 300 years ago. The wallpaper was a deep-blue geometric flock design.

"Blue," explains Ian Lumley of An Taisce, who also lives on Henrietta Street, "was the most expensive colour at that time. Only a very rich person could have afforded it, and so much of it." The wallpaper has since been photographed and covered over again, which was agreed to be the best way of preserving it.

Now, for the first time in 20 years, property in Henrietta Street is changing hands. Nos 3 and 14, which were owned for years by Ivor and Marie Underwood, who also own several other Georgian buildings in the city, were compulsorily acquired by Dublin Corporation. Both houses are listed and endangered, and it was the first time that property has been acquired under the new Heritage Act, so the future uses of these houses are likely to be watched very carefully.

Tenders are still being accepted by Dublin City Council from parties who will refurbish and maintain the house; closing date is June 19th. To date, the council confirms that there has been "great interest" in the houses and hopes to allocate tenders soon.

Whoever takes them on will be taking on immense properties in a very poor state of repair. No 3, in particular, is enormous. So big, in fact, Lumley recounts, that tenants not very long ago were able to keep a horse there as a pet. The horse wandered up and down the stairs at will, and regularly startled bypassers by sticking his head out of an upstairs window and neighing.

This is just one of many stories which have emanated over the years from Henrietta Street. When I was a student, I knew the tenants in one house. One of them built a boat in his room, and we were invited upstairs at intervals to witness its progress, and dream about sailing far away from recession-ridden Dublin. The Henrietta boat was a touchstone of possibilities, and though I left Ireland before it was finished, I never wanted to discover afterwards whether or not it had been completed, preferring simply to remember it as a fantastical work in progress.

Ownership of the various houses in Henrietta Street is common knowledge, since the occupants or landlords have been in possession for so long. The Daughters of Charity owns three houses, Ian Lumley owns one and the corporation temporarily has possession of two. Artist Alice Hanratty owns one, the King's Inns also owns a couple, another is a private family home, and Nos 5, 6, and 7 are owned by an elderly landlord who has rented out rooms within the houses as artists' studios for more than 20 years.

Among those who rent studios there are Mick O'Dea, Mick Cullen, Charlie Cullen, Gwen O'Dowd, Fergus Martin, Robert Armstrong, Geraldine O'Reilly and Paul Nugent.

Some 20 artists have studios between the three houses, and the three I met this week average 10 years occupancy each. What you have, as an artist in Dublin, you clearly hold.

Daniel McKeon's studio in No 6 has a jaw-dropping ceiling of elaborate, if grimy, beautiful plasterwork: scallops and flowers and an absurd centrepiece of four noses, pointed downwards. There's a fireplace, original floorboards, walls that go up forever, wooden panelling with its patina of age, and a quite indefinable atmosphere of history and stillness.

"Yeah, the ceiling," McKeon says philosophically. "Nobody ever looks at my paintings when they come in here; they all look up at the ceiling!"

McKeon is coy about the amount of his rent; in common with the other artists, Louise Peat and Jean-Marc Vidal. He does say it is low, and hasn't gone up very much over the years. Like his fellow artists, he is worried about the future of Nos 3 and 14.

"We feel threatened about our space," he admits. "What will happen to these houses when the others are done up? I would dread to think of looking for another studio. People come in and say, why can't you paint the place up? But if you do that, you'd lose the look. It's very hard to find this look."

Nos 5 and 6 were joined long ago, and, rare in central Dublin, they share a large back garden. A century ago, the doorcases and chimney pieces of 5, 6, and 7 were removed by Alderman Meade and the houses were transformed into tenements. A plaque on the wall recounts that 70 people lived in one of these three houses alone: 100 people once occupied the house that Ian Lumley owns.

Louise Peat's studio is in the basement of No 5. It's part of the old kitchens, and has a fine vaulted ceiling and a floor of stone flags so cold and damp that my feet start going numb not long after they make contact with them. Studios in such extraordinary premises come with pedestrian disadvantages.

Peat would like to see some kind of cultural centre in one of the houses up for tender. "A museum of Georgian Dublin, perhaps," she offers. "I don't like the cold and the damp here, but I love the area and the elegance of the street and its great atmosphere."

IN 10 years, what changes has she seen? "Film crews. Nora - you couldn't walk up the street for the cattle at one stage. Pierce Brosnan was here filming in March. There's always someone. It's quiet and hidden away; they love it. When you're on the street, you're in another world. I love the decay of the place - and yet the houses can't be left to crumble. It's a paradox."

Jean-Marc Vidal's studio is in one of the attic rooms on No 7. Walking into the hallway of this house is both eerie and marvellous. There is simply nothing like this anywhere else in Dublin: a 300-year-old double-height entrance hall, with its original main staircase, and the narrow back stairs tucked away just behind it. It's a combination of the sepia light, the immense scale of it all, the silence, and a feeling of vertigo; the illusion of free-falling through the past.

Vidal has had his attic studio for 15 years. "I live in Wicklow now, but I come in to work here. Why would I give up my studio?"

Across the street, waiting for Ian Lumley to arrive, I'm asked by three other people on his doorstep if I'm part of the film crew: an ad for a mobile phone company was shot there the previous day and they're waiting to strike the set. It is true then, you don't go long without running into cameras on Henrietta Street.

What does Lumley think makes the street so special? "It has an atmosphere that no other Georgian street in Dublin has - both the layering of the past and the enclosure of the street. There's a time-capsule quality to this street."

Going down the stairs again and glancing through open doors, I realise suddenly that the crew are striking the set in the room where that famous boat was built in my student days, and again, I'm free-falling through the past.

Work by Charlie Cullen, Mick Cullen, Daniel McKeon, Louise Peat, and Jean-Marc Vidal of Henrietta Street Studios is on show at Art Select, Meeting House Square, Temple Bar, until July 9th (01-6351046).

Life on the Street