Last edited 08 Feb 2021

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

14 Henrietta Street Museum

14 Henrietta Street Museum.jpg
The facade of 14 Henrietta Street (Photo: Paul Tierney Photography, reproduced courtesy of Dublin City Council).

The museum is dedicated to broadening understanding of the street’s chequered social and architectural history, while giving primacy to the story of those who lived in Dublin’s tenements.

He emerged from under the feudal arch of the King’s Inns, a neat modest figure, and walked swiftly down Henrietta Street. The golden sunset was waning and the air had grown sharp. A horde of grimy children populated the street. They stood or ran in the roadway, or crawled up the steps before the gaping doors, or squatted like mice upon the thresholds. He picked his way deftly through all that minute vermin-like life and under the shadow of the gaunt spectral mansions in which the old nobility of Dublin had roistered. James Joyce, ‘A Little Cloud’, in Dubliners, 1914.

Henrietta Street represents two divergent histories. It is the city’s first and arguably its finest 18th-century Georgian street, once occupied by influential members of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. It also represents the high point of the overcrowded and squalid tenement housing conditions that existed in much of inner-city Dublin during the late 19th and 20th-centuries. A new museum, developed by Dublin City Council, opened on this street in 2018, following a decade-long programme of conservation work informed by new academic research, community engagement and oral history testimonies.

Henrietta Street, laid out by the politician, banker and property tycoon Luke Gardiner, was built piecemeal over three decades from the early 1720s. 14 Henrietta Street was among the last houses to be constructed as part of a speculative development of three large four-bay, four-storey over-basement houses, built by Gardiner between 1748 and 1750. From the beginning the very top layer of Irish society were drawn to the street. By the 1750s its mansions were inhabited by prominent members of the Anglo-Irish establishment, including peers, bishops, MPs and members of the judiciary. Among them was the Rt Hon General Richard Molesworth, commander-in-chief of the forces in Ireland, who in 1751 moved with his growing family to No 14. He is followed by a series of distinguished residents including John Bowes, Lord Chancellor of Ireland; Sir Lucius O’Brien of Dromoland; Sir John Hotham, Bishop of Clogher; and Charles Viscount Dillon. The house remained a residence until around 1850, when it was converted to the offices and court house of the Encumbered Estates Court, and later to a hostel for families of the Dublin Militia.

Ultimately, in 1877, the house was carved up to form 19 tenement flats. By 1901 most houses on Henrietta Street were in use as tenements. In that year 87 people lived in No 14, which increased to 100 by 1911, while 956 people lived in Henrietta Street’s 19 houses. Across Dublin at this time approximately 118,000 working-class people lived in former Georgian townhouses, appropriated but barely equipped, and mostly unfit for multiple occupancy. By the mid-20th century the precarity that defined the lives of so many of Henrietta Streets early tenement residents eased somewhat and a close, although always struggling community, developed. By the 1970s the street’s population had declined. Many of the families had moved to purpose-built housing in the growing outer suburbs of the capital. The Henrietta Street houses were gradually acquired by pioneering conservationists, many of whom saved them from further dereliction and potential redevelopment. Artists’ studios replaced tenement flats in some, and others reverted to private dwellings, while the presence of the street’s educational, charitable and cultural institutions continued.

A suitable long-term use was not secured for 14"Henrietta Street after it closed as a tenement in 1979. The building suffered from ill-considered interventions to stabilise it structurally and to modernise electrical services, before eventually being shuttered and falling further into dereliction. Other interventions erased much of the evidence of the house’s intense tenement history, ostensibly to reveal obscured Georgian fabric and original spatial qualities.

Mounting concern for the condition of No 14 and its neighbour No 3 led Dublin City Council to acquire them under new compulsory acquisition powers in the Planning and Development Act, 2000. To guide the future of both houses and the street, the council published the Henrietta Street Conservation Plan in 2005. This established a range of policies, with the consensus of the various stakeholders consulted, including policy 26 which states ‘that the precarious condition of Nos 3 and 14 be tackled as a priority, that the buildings be repaired… and that a sustainable new use and tenure be secured’.

In 2008 the city council began the decade-long, phased conservation of No 14, guided across all phases by Shaffrey Architects, principal authors of the conservation plan. With No 14 approaching imminent collapse, the initial phase involved emergency stabilisation structural works to the house (and its neighbour No 3). Interventions were extensive, necessitating the complete reconstruction of the rear basement elevation using traditional Dublin calp stone, brick and lime mortar. Structural ties were installed at metre centres to the external corners and where severe structural cracking was evident, and rotted pine window heads were replaced.

Guided by a conservation strategy developed to facilitate temporary uses, the second phase of work began in 2011. This comprised repairs of original and reinstatement of missing timber sash windows (36 in total), using sustainable, slow-grown Scandinavian pine with a ring growth of between 3 and 4mm. Existing glazing bar profiles and a mix of traditional and modern glass were used. A new panelled timber front door leaf was recreated from a Georgian Society Record photograph of the doorcase taken in 1911.

Fully weathered for the first time in a generation, and with only a temporary electricity supply and limited access, the city council introduced temporary cultural uses in No 14, beginning with Living the Lockout, a site-specific theatrical production that shone a light on the living and working conditions of working class Dubliners 100 years before. With the success of this production and subsequent events held in the house, support grew for the creation of a permanent museum in the house, dedicated to exploring its complex history.

In 2015 the 14 Henrietta Street museum project began. Taking the ‘building as the primary artefact’, Dublin City Council sought to tell the story of the intense history of occupation of this house and street from Georgian origins to tenement legacy. Responding to the project brief, Shaffrey Architects developed a three-fold strategy of support, hold and recover. This the guiding mechanism for addressing the complex range works.

Interventions to ‘support’ the new museum use included the works contained within the floor zone to accommodate structural upgrade, services and fire safety; the building of a new single-storeyreturnstructure to accommodate toilets, plant rooms, and a curved three-storey lift tower to provide universal access to the museum floors; and the reinstatement of the double-height entrance hall and principal stairs, lost when the house was converted to tenements. This was partly essential infrastructure for access and egress, and partly curatorial acknowledgement of the house’s mid-18th-century origins.

Significant architectural elements considered important to a coherent appreciation of the house and the telling of its layered and complex history were identified to ‘recover’. Such elements include lost or fragmented sections of 18th-century decorative plasterwork in the front stair hall and principal reception rooms, and even areas of flat plaster lost through decay, neglect or ill-judged past interventions, particularly in the back stair hall and upper floors; timber balusters missing from the rear staircase, the detail of which was based on the handful of surviving ones; and tenement-era linoleum floor and wallpapers remade from fragments found in the house as part of the recreation of mid-20th century tenement rooms.

Understanding when to ‘hold’ the fragile traces of the layers of occupation, which communicate so effectively the immediacy of the stories being told, required different solutions, depending on the context. In tenement-era rooms it became as important to leave walls pocked with nail marks or damaged by wear and tear as to intervene and make good. Missing sections of the evocative tenement paint layers of Reckitt’s Blue and Raddle Red in the back hall and stairs were reinstated to achieve a necessary coherence. On the first floor, where the story of the house’s Georgian origins is told, it was necessary to fully repair wall surfaces and remove imperfections so that a poignant contrast between the Georgian first floor and tenement-era basement and ground floors could be appreciated.

A delicate balance was sought for approaches to both new interventions and repairs. New interventions are distinguishable from the historic setting of the house, while ensuring an overall coherence using a constrained palette of materials. New materials and finishes were selected, following sampling processes, to complement the ‘tone’ of the particular space. Thus the lighter hues in the restored entrance stair hall compartment and the burnt larch timber and black screed of the link bridge, which looks on to the rear staircase, and the solid-wall brick return and lift compartment, facing on to the rich patina of the rear elevation.

The approach to repairs and renewal of historic fabric relied on the use of traditional materials and established techniques. Using compatible mortar mixes and materials for lime plaster repairs included lime grouting to re-adhere loose areas of flat plaster without impacting important surrounding surface finishes; and the renewal of surfaces lost over time. Stone repairs involved localised grafting of new stone, and the removal of synthetic paint layers using a low-pressure, inert, fine-granulate medium. Timber repairs, including splicing in of new sections, and the restoration of lost detail, were achieved using compatible timber species.

Most important to note is that overcoming the complex curatorial and conservation challenges inherent in this unique project was possible only through a close collaboration between Dublin City Council, the design and curatorial teams, and the contractor/craftsmen, who together responded thoughtfully and carefully to emerging insights shared by the house’s former residents and new academic research. The finished result is a house of memory, where the varied lives of its former residents is communicated through its very form and fabric.

14 Henrietta Street received the awards for best conservation/restoration project and best overall project at the RIAI Irish Architecture Awards 2018. It received a special mention from the Jury of the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage/Europa Nostra Awards (conservation category) 2018. The judging panel said that it recognised and appreciated the action taken by Dublin City Council to ‘rehabilitate the historic fabric of the city, while acknowledging the multi-layered social history of the site’. 14 Henrietta Street was shortlisted for the prestigious European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture (the Mies van der Rohe Award) 2019, and it has been shortlisted for European Museum of the Year Award, 2020.

This article originally appeared as ‘The making of the 14 Henrietta Street Museum’ in IHBC's Context 163 (Page 15), published by The Institute of Historic Building Conservation in March 2020. It was written by Charles Duggan, a heritage officer with Dublin City Council. 14 Henrietta Street is managed on behalf of Dublin City Council by the Dublin City Council Culture Company.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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