An Irishwoman’s Diary on the sad fate of Wendon, ‘Dublin’s Wonder House’
Wendon – now called Balnagowan – in Glasnevin is in a sorry state. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Put the word Georgian or even Victorian in front of an endangered house and there’ll likely be a stampede of preservationists willing to fight for it, or official mechanisms in place to ensure its future. The same does not often apply to 20th-century Irish buildings, no matter how architecturally important. Maybe it’s because those years are too recent to imagine buildings of that time as being of true value, or we still think that buildings from before the State was established are more worth preserving.
The sorry state of Wendon – now called Balnagowan – is a case in point.
In 1932 an article in the Irish Builder described it as “Dublin’s Wonder House”, remarking that the house in Glasnevin on the city’s northside was “not merely the last word in artistic comfort in Ireland, but is admitted by visiting architects to be equal to anything of its type in England or elsewhere”.
Completed in 1930, it is regarded as the first individual modernist house in the country.
It was built by developer George Malcolm Linzell, who at 31 was building speculative houses on Mobhi Road and off Ballymun Road when he found the perfect two-acre site for his own family home. It seemed at first glance unprepossessing, but its country feel and elevation gave unimpeded views out beyond Delville, which had been Dean Swift’s house, over the National Botanic Gardens and the Tolka river and towards the mountains. On a stone temple built in his garden, Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels, had carved Fasticia Despicit Urbis, “from there I looked down over the city”.
For the design, Linzell commissioned British architect Harold Greenwood, who had worked in London in the office of famed architect Edwin Lutyens. Built in concrete, the two-storey house’s butterfly shape featured a central section with two wings at 90 degree angles, a flat roof and large horizontal steel-frame windows set into white rendered walls. A loggia – or open terrace – was on the second floor facing southwest with access from two bedrooms: the modernists believed in the health-giving properties of fresh air and sunlight.
Outside it looked plain; there was no gate lodge to indicate status or long sweeping driveway, but inside Linzell specified the last word in luxury. There was central heating and concealed lighting, an internal telephone system to communicate with staff, and bedrooms with hand basins and built-in wardrobes. There was a serving hatch between kitchen and diningroom with electric hotplates to keep food warm, and two bathrooms. A chute from the hot press delivered dirty clothes down to the laundry room where there was a washing machine, and among its many utility rooms was a china store, while the maid had her own apartment.
Many interior details, such as the oak panelling and chrome light-switches, were chosen for their modernist credentials.
As Linzell continued to build speculative houses in the city, he used his own home in advertisements as an example of what a modern luxury home could offer. Later occupants would add a tennis court and a swimming pool, as well as greenhouses and outbuildings, and trees to shield it from the Bons Secours Hospital built on the site of Swift’s home in the 1950s.
In 1938, the Linzells moved to Ballsbridge where he was building houses, selling Wendon to publican John Doyle – of Phibsborough’s Doyle’s Corner fame – who was moving from Ballsbridge. He changed the name to Balnagowan in memory of his family home in Rathmines and that name stuck.
From 1953, it was home to the Pettys for three years before the last family to live in the striking house, the Quinns, bought and stayed until they sold to the semi-State Central Fisheries Board, which used it as headquarters before selling up in 2005.
Since then the vacant house, now boarded up, has fallen into serious disrepair and has been the target of vandalism. In 2017, a fire in outbuildings caused significant damage, but Dublin Fire Brigade prevented the blaze from reaching the main building. The house is listed on Dublin city’s Record of Protected Structures – its current state an indication of how little that designation can mean in practice.
For his fascinating 2011 thesis “Ireland’s First Modern Home”, then-National College of Art and Design student Brendan Joseph Madden, a great champion of the house, tracked down former occupants for their experiences of living there, while building a case for the house’s architectural merit. He notes that even at the time of his research Balnagowan was in relatively good condition – the fisheries board tended to cover up rather than remove – with many original interior features intact.
Wendon/Balnagowan is now once again for sale – the advertisement suggesting “for development”.