Will the Mews Go to the Money or the Museum?

Last week, it looked like the fate of the last two surviving Georgian coach houses on Stephen’s Green had been decided.

The two coach houses – or mews – at the rear of 14 and 15 St Stephen’s Green date back to the 1770s. Both of the two-storey structures have rare equine and architectural features: original stalls, mangers, and unusual eighteenth-century Gothic-revival-style windows.

Dublin City Council’s management had proposed that they be sold to Anville Properties Limited, which had plans be restore the two historic buildings and turn them into a bar, café and food market.

At a council meeting on Monday, though, the anticipated disposal never came. Instead, South East area manager Rose Kenny deferred the decision until next month’s meeting in order to have another information session with councillors.

Could it be that council officials are having a changing of heart? Are they having second thoughts about selling the historic buildings for commercial use?

For Sale

It’s unclear exactly what Dublin City Council officials have in mind. The press office said it would be premature to comment on the issue when it is before councillors for consideration.

Council chief executive Owen Keegan was also unavailable for an interview.

Dublin City Council has owned the two coach houses for decades now, during which time they have become run-down and derelict. But they’re still special. It is rare to find mews that haven’t been altered or converted.

Last April, the council applied for funding from the state to restore the structures. “The survival of a mews house in St Stephen’s Green is rare in itself, but their survival to this level of intactness is quite astonishing,” its application said.

It highlighted a rare octagonal-pane sash window, perhaps the only one of its kind in Ireland.

Evidently, the council failed to receive the €154,093 it requested for works; earlier this year, it put the mews on the market with real estate company Savills.

The bidding was open to everyone, as the mews have their own access through a lane on Dawson Street, despite being in the gardens of two of the green’s Georgian mansions.

The asking price was set at €350,000. Fourteen tenders were submitted for the two mews, with the understanding that the successful bidder would be required to restore and conserve the protected structures.

A Buyer

After the tenders were assessed by panel, the council’s chief valuer recommended that the two buildings go to Anville Properties for €620,000. The company’s proposal included a café, bar and food hall.

Little is known about most of the other bidders, except one – the Little Museum of Dublin.

The museum is located in the Georgian house at number 15 St Stephen’s Green, and, since its launch in 2011, has proved a successful tourist attraction.

It has expanded from its original exhibit on the ground floor of the grand Georgian home, and its displays have now extended to every crevice of the building. It is now looking to expand even further: through the gardens, to the two mews located at the rear.

If Dublin City Council didn’t sell the mews to the Little Museum, it would be missing a great opportunity to support a significant cultural success, says Green Party councillor for the South East area Patrick Costello.

“They would also miss an opportunity to link the coach house and the house again, which would be proper conservation of what is a very rare piece of our city’s heritage, given that most coach houses have been demolished already,” he says.

Though the museum’s bid was below asking price – €300,000 – it had plans to restore the mews and create a cultural amenity for the public. And most conservation experts agree with Costello’s view that the two coach houses should remain linked with the main house.

A Bid to Reunite Them

All the experts recommend that the mews be affiliated to numbers 14 and 15, with which they were originally built – even reports written by the council itself.

So the conservation benefits of choosing the Little Museum’s offer may make up for its monetary shyness.

The council’s application for state funding to conserve the mews in 2014 was comprehensive. It emphasised the relationship between the two mews and their townhouses, which share stylistic features.

The application highlighted a number of potential uses for the mews, and expansion of the Little Museum of Dublin was among them. Some of the suggested uses were separate from the uses of the main houses, but it stressed that the mews should not be physically alienated from the townhouses.

An older report done as part of the Historic Heart of Dublin – a joint conservation project between Dublin City Council and the Dublin Civic Trust – also considers the mews an important feature of the main houses and recommended that they remain together.

The mews form a major part of the artistic, architectural and historic interest of this house, wrote authors Frank Keohane and Erika Sjoberg.

“It is necessary to highlight the fact that while the decoration of the houses themselves is very fine, it is the survival of the internal features of the basement, cellars, returns and mews houses which is most astonishing. This entire complex forms an ensemble which should not be broken up,” it states.

Strong Support for Another Bid

Today, the Dublin Civic Trust’s view on the matter hasn’t changed much.

Conservation officer Graham Hickey acknowledges that the two structures would remain protected no matter who they were sold to. He also recognises that a café or market would mean the public would have access. But he would like to see the mews remain with the main house and become part of the Little Museum of Dublin.

“It looks like they were never used for anything else, which is very interesting,” he says. “It’s unique on a city-wide level . . . most of them were converted in the ’70s and ’80s for residential use.”

Donough Cahill of the Irish Georgian Society would also like to see the houses, mews, lane and garden united. He commends the Little Museum’s work in making use of number 15.

An Taisce’s heritage officer Ian Lumley also believes the mews would be best as part of the museum. He thinks an extension of the exhibition and maybe a small café would be appropriate.

He has looked at the possibility of relocating the Lord Mayor’s eighteenth-century coach to the mews buildings, but it seems the coach would be too big to fit.

Another information meeting on the disposal of these mews buildings will take place before the month is out. Councillors have asked for a copy of all reports on them, so that they can make a decision knowing all the facts.

It would appear that the choice comes down to Anville Properties Limited or the Little Museum of Dublin – more money for Dublin City Council’s budget, or an expanded cultural amenity for citizens to enjoy.

Whatever council officials select will still have to be approved by the area’s elected councillors.

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Louisa McGrath: Louisa McGrath is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at lmcgrath@dubinq.com.

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