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TU Dublin’s Conservatory of Music and Drama on Chatham Row, a quaint thoroughfare set between Grafton Street and South William Street, is set to close later this summer.
The college is due to move out of its three-storey red-brick building, which has been home to jazz musicians, pianists, and teachers for the past 112 years.
“The street will miss us, walking past you might hear a trumpet or a tuba, people stop in their tracks,” says David Mooney, head of keyboard studies.
“When the singers were here, the windows would be open in summer and you would hear the opera singer from the top of the road,” he says, laughing. “People used to shout up at them.”
“People always say, ‘Chatham Row has charm, it has atmosphere,’” says Mooney, in his second-floor classroom, which doubles as his office, and where sunlight streams through one of the windows and casts a spotlight on the white keys of one of two pianos in the room.
Once the Chatham Row campus bows out and moves to the new TU Dublin campus at Grangegorman, it’ll leave the building empty. It’s owned by the council, and last January, Dublin City Council Chief Executive Owen Keegan included it on a list of property that he wants to sell.
Some councillors wonder if it could be kept in council ownership, and used in another way, given the frequent concerns they raise about neighbourhoods being in need of more community and amenity spaces.
The Buzz of the Building
The Municipal School of Music was founded in 1890 and moved to Chatham Row in 1908. It was named the Dublin College of Music in 1962 and that name stuck, even after it was technically renamed the Dublin Institute of Technology Conservatory of Music and Drama in 1996.
Nowadays, it is the TU Dublin Conservatoire, sharing the name with another site on Rathmines Road, a suburb on the southside of the city, that takes children as young as three. Teachers also instruct in traditional music and drama at third level.
“This was never designed to be a school” says Mooney, who has been teaching music there for 30 years. “None of the spaces work.”
If someone is tapping their foot upstairs the walls shake, he says. Still, if he had his way, he’d stay put as would his colleagues. “Almost everyone who ever worked here has an affection for the place,” he says. “There is a real nostalgia.”
On a recent Monday, the conservatory buzzes with people. Children sit in the reception, waiting patiently to take their music exams. Parents chat with each other.
Down the hall, a father who has arrived late, is peering through the auditorium window to watch his son playing the piano.
In another room, a young woman sits on a leather stool playing the harp; there is a piano on one side and three cellos hang on the opposite wall.
Generations Passing Through
Many of the teachers were students here themselves, says Mooney.
Past pupils often drop in to visit and see the school, and since music runs in families they often return with their own kids and even their grandkids, he says.
Some of their former students are now conductors of international orchestras. “This school has produced some of the top musicians that ever came out of this country,” says Mooney.
“As everyone knows, the arts are not well supported in this country,” says Mooney, also head piano teacher. “So everything is done for the love of it, for the art of it.”
That results in a great atmosphere in the music school, he says. “There is something good in the walls here.”
Those walls line a maze of blue-carpeted corridors, linking around 30, mostly small classrooms and a small performance space.
The retired teachers want to come back and see the place one last time before the conservatory moves out, so they will hold an event in June to say goodbye.
“We all assumed that it would be knocked down and become a shopping centre like next door,” says Mooney, pointing to a construction site on Chatham Street through his classroom window.
He would love to see the building restored and retained for music or cultural uses though, he says.
At a recent meeting of the arts committee on Dublin City Council, Sunil Sharpe, a DJ and campaigner with Give Us the Night, pointed out that there is a shortage of recording studios for musicians, as well as artists studios. He asked what was happening with the conservatory premises.
Green Party Councillor Claire Byrne says the council should hang on to the building, and use it to address the shortage of creative space in the city centre. “It would be great to keep it for educational or cultural use,” she says.
The report that the council’s chief executive presented to counsillors suggesting properties they should sell, said it wasn’t suitable for housing. And “there is probably enough commercial and retail on that strip”, she says.
But creative people need access to artists studios, rehearsal space and performance space, says Byrne.
There is a small performance space in the school and “there are small theatre companies looking for affordable spaces for intimate performances,” she says.
There is also a shortage of places to hold public meetings, she says.
“The site is valuable, because of where it is, which presents a tricky problem” says Byrne, because the council also needs money.
She doesn’t want the building knocked for another hotel though, she says. “It would be a real shame to let it go.”
Labour Party Councillor Alison Gilliland said that in light of the housing crisis all council-owned buildings should first be assessed for whether they are suitable to make into homes: “Almost any building has the potential to be converted to housing.”
Gilliland, who chairs the housing committee in Dublin City Council, recently tabled a motion calling for a full independent assessment to be carried out on any land or property, before councillors decide whether or not to sell it. “Anything we have got so far has lacked detail,” she says.
She wants precise details on how much it would cost to convert it to housing and what other community uses it might have.
But if the council can sell the building for a very high price, it might be better to do that and use the money for housing elsewhere, she says. “We would need a good viability study done, that is fully costed so that we could make a decision.”