NORTH GREAT GEORGE’S STREET: A BRIEF ARCHITECTURAL HISTORY Composed of grandly scaled brick terraces and overlooked by the imposing elevation of Belvedere House, North Great George’s Street remains one of the handsomest streets in north Dublin’s ever-diminishing Georgian streetscape. While its eighteenth-century reputation as an enclave of ‘polite’ living is confirmed by property leases which record the names of distinguished former residents – including Emilia, Dowager Viscountess Powerscourt and Valentine Browne, 1 Earl of Kenmare – the history of its development also provides an instructive précis of late eighteenth-century building and decorative practices.
At the beginning of the eighteenth-century the ground on which North Great George’s Street lies formed part of the extensive private estate of Sir John Eccles, Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1710. Eccles’ mansion of the same name survived into the first decades of the twentieth-century, and stood on the site now occupied by the diminutive two-storey building situated between the present Nos.43 and 46. Illustrated in Charles Brooking’s elegant perspective of Dublin, engraved in 1728, the house had a substantial frontage of 68 feet and comprised, under Ground two Kitchins, Cellars, &c. on the Ground Floor, four Parlours, a very large Hall, and great and back Stairs, on the first Floor seven Bedchambers, and has a Garret Story of equal Size, a large Garden in at the Rere.
Eccles also funded the erection of St. George’s Church on Hill Street (formerly Temple Street Lower), built in 1714 as a chapel-of-ease to St Mary’s Church, of which only the west tower survives. Its designation was almost certainly associated with the accession of the Hanoverian dynasty, and no doubt inspired the appellation of the later residential development.
Mount Eccles is also clearly visible on the cartographer John Rocque’s celebrated map of Dublin published in 1756, but here appends the name of Nicholas Archdall Esq. The lease for the estate had in fact been purchased by Nicholas Archdall for a term of 999
Years beginning on 1 August 1749, and Archdall further acquired the fee simple of the ‘Mansion House and Demesne of Mount Eccles, with the Out-House and Appurtenances’. Nicholas Archdall, an MP for Co. Fermanagh and one of the first ‘Home Rulers’, had in fact been born Nicholas Montgomery, assuming the name of Archdall upon his marriage in 1728 to the heiress Angel Archdall, a descendant of one of the foremost Co Fermanagh families since the days of the Ulster Plantation. Following Angel Archdall’s death in 1748, Nicholas married Sarah Spurling, originally of London, and by her had eight children, one of whom, Edward, would later become a property developer, involved in the building of Nos.19 and 20 North Great George’s Street in the late 1780s. Nicholas Archdall died at Mount Eccles in 1763, and some years later his widow petitioned Parliament for the heads of a bill to enable her ‘to grant long leases for building on the said Premises.’ This decision to set out the ground as a commercial venture may have been inspired by the eminently fashionable, and ever-expanding, Gardiner estate, and motivated in particular by the opening up of Gardiner’s Row (adjoining the north west side of the Mount Eccles estate) in 1765. Sarah Archdall’s formal request was presented to the House of Commons on 12 February 1766 and stated,
That the said Grounds and Premises lie contiguous to the City of Dublin, and from their Situation will be taken by Persons in Lots for building upon, if Power to make Building Leases thereof can be obtained. That all the Petitioners…are Minors, and the youngest about six Years of Age, and until they all come of age no Building Leases can be granted, and it will greatly tend to the Benefit of the Petitioner Sarah, and her Children, to have Power to grant Building Leases.
The Journals of the House of Commons records that Royal Assent was granted on 7 June 1766 and the leasehold interest in the first building lots were advertised the following year, the notices highlighting both the advantage of the location and its proximity to established residential districts:
To be Let in Lots for Building, the Lands of Mount Eccles, in Great Britain-street, opposite Marlborough-street, joining Palace-row and Cavendish-street, containing seven Acres, which for Situation, Air and Prospect, cannot be exceeded by any in or about Dublin, subject to no Manner of Tax, Hearth Money excepted. For further Particulars, enquire of Mrs. Archdale, at Mount Eccles, where a Plan of the whole may be seen.
A proposed sale of the Mount Eccles mansion itself in 1771, including all ‘Furniture, Plate, China, &c.’, apparently never transpired and ‘the dwelling house and concerns known by the name of [the] mansion house’ was leased to Benjamin Ball Esq. in 1778. By this date Sarah Archdall had taken up residence in a smaller adjoining property (now demolished), before moving to the present No.12 North Great George’s Street in 1783.
THE PHASED DEVELOPMENT OF THE STREET
The sites at the north end of North Great George’s Street – the present Nos.1–12, and 47– 51 – together with those on the west side of Great Denmark Street, including Belvedere House, were the first lots to be leased in 1768–69, and a map of the city published in the Dublin Directory of 1773 illustrates how much of the ground – then identified as ‘Georges Street’ and appended with ‘Rutland Square’ to assist identification – was laid out by this date. Although the map suggests that Nos.1–12 North Great George’s were fully erected at this time, building progress was in fact protracted and the construction of Nos.5–8 did not commence until after 1784 when the ground was leased to Samuel Read, ‘City Plumber’ and property developer. Furthermore, it would appear that the extent of the residential development on the Mount Eccles estate was scheduled to conclude at this juncture – opposite the southern boundary of the original mansion house – and it may have been intended to retain the tree-lined avenue, commencing at Parnell Street (formerly Great Britain Street), as a formal means of access. Indeed, upon completion of North Great George’s Street c1800, the Mount Eccles mansion was set back from the adjoining terraces, preserving a singular exclusivity within an otherwise homogenous streetscape.
In common with other notable developments in Dublin during this period, including Rutland (now Parnell) Square and Merrion Square, many lessees took two or more lots – in 1770 the ground on which the present Nos. 49 and 50 North Great George’s Street stand was let to a John Henderson, Esq., possibly the bricklayer of the same name listed in the Dublin Directory from 1779–86 – although many leaseholders often bought or leased large parcels of ground and then let smaller plots to individual developers. In 1769, a site of 120 feet frontage, corresponding to the present Nos.1–4 Great George’s Street, was set to Graves Chamney, Esq. Having erected Nos.1–2 by 1772, Chamney conveyed the undeveloped ground on which Nos. 3 and 4 stand to Benjamin Ball, an ironmonger and house-builder. The leases for North Great George’s Street contain no covenants or specifications regarding the form of the house – typical of those prepared for Merrion Square for example – save for the provision of an eight foot wide ‘area’ intended to be ‘in the front of the houses which is to be built on the said ground over and above the flagged passage which is to be 6 ft and 6 in wide’.
While building at the southern end of North Great George’s Street began from the mid-1770s, including Nos.22–27 (all now demolished) and Nos.33–35 (of which only No.35 survives), the majority date from the mid-1780s, including Nos.12–21 and Nos.36–43. In many cases, these later houses were built by some of the leading figures from Dublin’s late eighteenth-century building and house-decorating community, among them the renowned stuccodor Charles Thorp (Nos. 37 and 38), and Henry Darley, from the celebrated family of stonecutters (Nos.39 and 41–42). The largest house on the street, No.43, was built from 1786 by the Rt. Hon Henry Theophilus Clements, second son of Nathaniel Clements, the prominent MP and one of the principal developers involved at Henrietta Street, Dublin’s grandest Georgian terrace. Unique in scale, plan and decoration, No.43 is rivalled only by the more commanding and extravagantly decorated Belvedere House.
Of four storeys over a basement with plain brick elevations, the external appearance of the houses along the entire length of the street belie their divergent construction dates and are equivalent to the astylar terraces erected in Dublin from mid-century. While this homogeneity may be directly linked to the economic conditions attendant on speculative building throughout the Georgian era, it also broadly reflects contemporary concerns regarding architectural uniformity and the creation of coherent urban set-pieces. The house frontage on North Great George’s Street varies between twenty feet (Nos.18 and 19) and sixty-five feet (No.43), with most measuring between twenty-seven to thirty feet. A number of the earliest houses, including Nos.9 and 10, retain their original ‘Pain-style’ pedimented doorcase, so-called because of their resemblance to a design illustrated in William Pain’s The Builder’ s Companion and Workman’ s General Assistant, first published in London in 1758. Later houses, such as Nos.14–20 and 35–38, feature an ornamental Adamesque fanlight set within a concave stuccoed archivolt.
By far the most common plan type is the ‘two room’ plan, composed of an axially- aligned entrance hall and stair hall, and flanked by front and rear parlours, the latter typically serving as the formal dining room. The principal staircase, customarily of timber open-string construction, is situated at the back of the house and rises from the ground floor – by way of the piano nobile or ‘drawing room storey’ – to the ‘attic’ or bedroom storey, with admittance to the ‘garret’ alone acquired by a smaller, subordinate stair. A distinctive decorative feature of the garret storey stair is the ‘Chinese Chippendale’ balustrade, popular from mid-century and exemplified by surviving examples at Nos.4, 11, 36 and 50. In some of the later houses, including the present Nos.41 and 42, the principal stair takes the form of cantilevered Portland Stone treads ornamented with elegant wrought iron balustrades, and terminates at the first floor landing. The plan of No.19, built on a site of somewhat restricted frontage, is also distinguished by having a centrally placed staircase illuminated by an oval skylight. A more commonly employed late eighteenth- century amendment of the standard ‘two-room’ form is represented at Nos.5–8 and 37– 39, where a full-height semi-circular rear elevation results in elegant bow-shaped rooms.
The interior detailing of the houses on North Great George’s Street reflects both its protracted development and the trade-dominated nature of Dublin’s house-building industry, documenting the stylistic revolution from rococo to neoclassicism that emerged during the middle decades of the eighteenth-century. The interiors of No.11, completed c1774, form a representative example of the decorative manner employed in the earliest houses, consisting of raised and fielded joinery, lugged door and window architraves, and stuccowork characteristic of the celebrated ‘Dublin School’, a vernacular variation of the fashionable eighteenth-century continental rococo style. Somewhat retardataire by this date, the decorative plasterwork belonging to this early part of the street’s history is perhaps best exemplified by the saloon ceiling of the present No. 51, comprising a gadrooned rectangular frame, rocaille cartouches and foliated garlands. The rear drawing rooms of these houses are typically more simply decorated, with deep coved cornices enriched with acanthus tendrils, birds and shell motifs.
The majority of houses in North Great George’s Street are decorated in the neoclassical or ‘Adam’ style that prevailed in these islands from the mid 1770s to 1800. Here, the joinery is typically enriched with applied composition ornaments and the decorative plasterwork ceilings are characterized by linear geometric compositions freely adapted from ‘antique’ sources and executed in shallow relief. The present No. 19, built by the bricklayer John Prendergast from 1787, is arguably the most elegantly detailed of these later interiors, with plasterwork designed and executed by Michael Stapleton, Dublin’s premier neoclassical stuccodor, drawings for which survive in the Stapleton Collection at the National Library of Ireland. Houses from this period, erected by the same developer, often feature identical decorative finishes including the present Nos. 17 and 18, built from 1786 by William Taylor, a tallow chandler of Essex Street: here the spatulate petal roundel at the centre of the front drawing room ceiling in No.17 is repeated as the overdoor tympanum on the first floor landing at No.18, and suggests the controlling hand of the developer in determining the extent and character of the interior finish.
The neoclassical style is also well represented by Belvedere House. Built for George Augustus Rochfort, 2nd Earl of Belvedere, and completed by 1786, it is one of the finest city mansions built during the latter part of the century. The interiors of this house represent a text-book model of how Irish stuccodors invented freely within the Adamesque idiom, deriving their decorative vocabulary from architectural treatises, builder’s manuals and pattern books. Belvedere House is also one of the few houses in Dublin that illustrates the architect Robert Adam’s idea of the ‘integrated interior’, where the enrichments of the individual architectural elements within a room complement one another: in the Diana drawing room the ceiling medallion of ‘Diana in a chariot’, derived from a plate in Michelangelo Pergolesi’s New Book of Ornaments (1777), is duplicated as the central tablet of the chimneypiece, while the plasterwork frieze is composed of quivers with arrows, hounds and crescent moons, all emblems associated with the goddess of the hunt.
In response to the emerging fashion for neoclassicism, a number of the earlier houses on the street were updated, presumably in the late 1780s and early 1790s, confirming the significance attached to the townhouse as a mark of status. While some of these schemes represent a more economical approach – such as at No.50, where the extent of the redecoration was confined to the use of standardized enrichments in the form of figurative plaster medallions – others were more extensive. At No.10, originally built c1772 by Samuel Read, a more pervasive renovation of the interior was undertaken from the entrance hall through to the front drawing room. Here, the original lugged door architraves at first floor landing have been augmented with fluted neoclassical entablatures, and the plasterwork in the front drawing room consists of an elegant Adamesque tripartite ceiling, and a frieze of alternating urns and enclosed palmette motifs. The truncated doorcases of Nos.10, 12, 47 and 48 were almost certainly altered for similar reasons, their original pediments and entablatures removed to accommodate larger, more fashionable fanlit opes.
The later houses on the street are also recorded in the papers of Bryan Bolger, a ‘measurer’ or quantity surveyor, active in Dublin c1787–1818. Bolger measured various construction and decorative schemes on the street between 1789–91, which not only help to identify those contractors engaged by specific builders and developers, but further provide tantalizing glimpses of long-vanished interior finishes. On 30 September 1789 Bolger measured the work executed by the painter and plasterer Benjamin Hallam at No.19, including ‘4 times painting 2 Ornamental Ceilings in drawing Rooms, & picking in in fancy Colours’. Later that same year, on 21 December, Bolger recorded the erection of ‘a pair of folding doors in hall’ executed by James Bowden, a carpenter of Bolton Street, for Henry Darley at ‘Lord Headfort’s House in G. Georges St. Rutland Square’, the present No.39.
DECLINE AND FALL…AND RENAISSANCE
The Georgian Society Records, published between 1909–14, chart the inexorable decline of North Great George’s Street as a centre of fashionable living in the wake of the Act of Union. Although the nobility and gentry had largely forsaken the street by the mid nineteenth-century, a genteel respectability prevailed, the houses now typically occupied by the medical and legal professions. However, at the beginning of the twentieth-century the number of houses described as tenements and lodgings confirms the rapid economic decline that blighted much of Dublin’s north inner city, a fact borne out by the regrettable loss of a number of shamelessly neglected houses on the south east and south west sides of the street.
An unexpected reversal of fortune, something akin to a renaissance, emerged in the 1970s when a number of houses, many in an advanced state of dilapidation, were purchased and sensitively restored. Concerned residents and business owners subsequently formed a preservation society aimed at maintaining the existing eighteenth- century fabric and promoting best conservation practice: their continuing efforts represent an exemplary model for the survival and rejuvenation of Dublin’s important historic built environment.
University College Dublin April 2008