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Pair of Early 18th Century Houses Destroyed by Fire

A pair of early eighteenth-century houses on Benburb Street in Dublin 7 were gutted by fire on St. Patrick’s Day.

The fate of the houses, one of which was derelict, had been of concern to the Trust for some time, with the rear of the empty house at No. 6 (left, above and below) being exposed to vandalism and interior access, while both houses exhibited extreme bulging to their front facades, which was exacerbated by the fire.

No. 5 and No. 6 before the fire.

Fire Service personnel assessing the damage on Saturday night.

No. 5 and No. 6 Benburb Street comprise a rare, intact example in the city of a pair of early eighteenth-century houses that almost certainly were originally gable-fronted in the ‘Dutch Billy’ manner. They likely date to the 1720s and were built as part of a regular terrace of houses on the main road leading to the newly built Royal Barracks, now Collins Barracks. They can be seen as 'developed' on Charles Brooking's map of 1727 and more specifically outlined on John Rocque’s map of 1756.

Charles Brooking, 1727

John Rocque, 1756 

What is particularly of significance is the survival of their matching projecting closet returns to the rear, a charming feature that is almost universally associated with Dutch Billy houses, as seen on Rocque’s map above and photographed before the fire below. Exceptionally few closets of this quality survive in Dublin today – a city where they once proliferated. Early windows with exposed, flush sash boxes were also intact before the fire - some appear to have survived. The extensive yellow brick dates from the late Victorian modification of the buildings when they probably acquired their current 'non-Billy' appearance. Originally the pitches would have been much steeper, corresponding to the pitches behind the curvilinear gables at the front, and been constructed of the glowing red brick that still proliferates inside.

The Trust gained access to the roof level of the houses on Tuesday 20th March thanks to the generous assistance of Hegarty Demolition and Conservation who are carrying out works to dismantle dangerous elements of the houses for the Dangerous Buildings Division of Dublin City Council, while preserving as much original fabric as possible. From the rooftop, the scale of the enormous shared central chimneystack that penetrates the heart of the buildings becomes apparent, creating corner fireplaces in each room. This is a classic feature of houses of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The original early staircase of No. 6 appears to have survived the fire at ground floor level.

The honeycomb nature of the stack can be seen from the top, where typically only half a brick divides each of the sixteen flues. Originally the critical structural anchor for houses of this kind, the central stack sometimes becomes their downfall if flues crumple in on themselves due to a chemical build-up from centuries of smoke that corrodes the brickwork.  

Interestingly, a significant amount of rubble stone – much of it river stone – was used in the construction of the two houses, along with fiery red brick that can also be seen in the facade of No. 6 and is so characteristic of early houses.

Some fine historic wigging also survives on the brick jointing of the street facade.

The destruction of these two houses highlights the type of problems currently faced with building conservation in the city. First is the anomalies of the Record of Protected Structures, where No. 6 with the red brick facade is listed as a Protected Structure but No. 5 is not, even though they are a matching pair of important early houses. No. 5 just happens to be rendered to the front, hence it was not recognised and designated accordingly.

Second is the issue of building vacancy, where historic buildings all over the city - often site-assembled during the boom - are particularly vulnerable to unauthorised entry and vandalism, including the stripping of materials for scrap. This in turn can lead to water and fire damage as electrical and water services are interfered with. Where buildings are Protected Structures, owners are obliged to keep them in good order and to carry out all necessary works to protect them from damage. However, where these works are not carried out, the planning authority effectively has to carry out the works at its own expense pending legal action that may or may not be successful. This system encourages the neglect of perceived ‘problematic’ buildings by their owners, to the detriment of the city’s architectural heritage and Dublin City Council’s understandable frustration of taking on the cost burden.

A more streamlined system of supporting property owners through a national grant and local advice service, and CPOing neglected buildings where necessary, needs to be adopted. This way, as in many parts of the UK, the building comes first and the logistics of sorting out shared responsibility for the protection of the heritage is much more transparent for all involved.

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