On Francis Street, Waiting for a Ruling on the Demolition of Two “Dutch Billys”

Guide and activist James Madigan says he often encourages tour groups to stop in to Two Pups café, to grab a coffee, and admire the premises.

He calls it one of the few bits of joy at the bottom of Francis Street.

On a recent Thursday around midday, the café smelt of ground coffee, pastries and frothed milk, and was awash with the clatter of cutlery and disco music, scribbles and typing and talk of coursework and Irish history.

But it isn’t just that Madigan wants visitors to enjoy this homely, vivacious atmosphere, he says. He wants them to soak up its history.

The interiors of 73 and 74 on the street, he says, can offer a sliver of insight into architecture in the city during the 18th century.

“There would have been a lot of buildings in and around Francis Street from the 1700s, and very few are left,” he says.

Madigan is now worried about this one too, he says.

A proposal is pending to demolish these buildings – alongside the majority of 72, a neighbouring four-storey red brick property – and replace them with apartments, and café and shop spaces.

A final decision on the case by An Bord Pleanála is nine months overdue. It’s due in the near future, said a spokesperson.

Two Dutch Billys

To passersby, and those with keen eyes for architecture, it can be hard to guess the ages of 73 and 74 Francis Street.

In its 2012 “Survey of Gable-Fronted and Other Early Buildings of Dublin City”, the Dublin Civic Trust observed that the exterior of 73 was suggestive of a building constructed circa 1830.

The trust attributed this to “its refined façade wigging and delicate sash windows”. But, in reality, it is estimated that it was built circa 1730.

Similarly, the non-descript façade of 74 is indicative of a mid-twentieth-century style, the Trust said, but this house too dates to around the same period in the 1700s.

Architect Peter Keenahan says both were gable-fronted townhouses, often referred to as Dutch Billys, a near-extinct style of building distinguished by curvilinear gables.

After the success of William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 there was a positive sentiment towards the new king among some Dubliners, Keenahan says. “People wanted the latest thing.”

One means of honouring the king, says Keenahan, was to construct what were perceived as houses in a Dutch style.

“Now, if you actually compare them with any houses in Holland, they are nothing like what was being built,” he says. “But it became immensely popular.”

A key feature of such buildings, and those the Dublin Civic Trust cited in its 2012 survey as key to identifying the period in which they were constructed, are subtle details inside: an angled chimney breast in 73, and another in the corner of 74.

Today, however, all traces of their presence are gone.

Madigan’s fear is that the building’s historic status has been undermined by the removal, with this paving a way for the further erasure of the street’s already diluted heritage.

He bemoans the character of the street at present. It is, he says, a dreary and miserable place.

“The Iveagh Market is in tatters and the Tivoli Theatre is now a square,” he says.

If the proposed seven-storey complex at the end of Francis Street is given the green light, it will damage the views around St Patrick’s Cathedral too, he says. “This monstrosity will have a huge impact on the cathedral.”

Applying to Demolish

On 14 April 2021, the property owner Richard Smyth applied for planning permission to demolish 72 to 74 Francis Street, save for number 72’s façade, and to build 24 apartments with shop, cafe, and co-working spaces and a multi-purpose space for education, exercise and community uses.

The buildings were not protected structures and were considered to be of “Record Only Importance”, said an architectural heritage impact assessment filed with the application. As such, it noted, they were not of such interest to warrant their retention.

“It is proposed to salvage some surviving sound brickwork from 73 Francis Street and display it in the proposed development,” the report says.

It’s not the first time the developer has applied to demolish the buildings. In March 2003, an earlier application had asked for permission to do the same.

A conservation report at that time said that none of the buildings were listed as protected structures and that significant elements of 73 and 74 Francis Street had been removed.

Their roofs and upper floors were removed. What remained was the plan of the original eighteenth-century houses. Little of the original detail, however, remained – due to long-term neglect.

The conservation report said that, in the cases of both houses, their corner fireplaces were “interesting”, as such fireplaces were common to early “Dutch Billy” houses, whereas placement became more central later in the Georgian period.

When Two Pups café opened in 2016, the angled chimney breast in number 73 was one of its most prominent features, visible from out on the street.

Positioned between two armchairs, the outline of its mantlepiece was etched into the wall, with the entirety of its rugged surface painted white.

The final photograph showing the chimney breasts was featured on the Two Pups Instagram page in September 2020.

Later, in July 2021, the same section of the room was featured on the social media page once more, with a cased opening now in the place of the angled chimney breast.

Smyth did not respond to queries sent via his agent, Hughes Planning and Development Consultants, as to why the chimney breasts were removed.

Knocked Back

As with the 2003 application, Dublin City Council refused Smyth’s application last year to demolish the buildings.

Among those objecting was Sinn Féin Councillor Máire Devine, who says that, while housing and apartments are needed, the proposed development was incongruous with the area’s architectural heritage.

“Francis Street is at the historic epicentre of Dublin,” says Devine. “We need to preserve what we have got and the mix in this instance doesn’t work.”

When it refused permission to demolish on 8 June 2021, Dublin City Council said 73 and 74 Francis Street make a positive contribution to the area, and the demolition of the early buildings was considered wholly inappropriate.

A conservation officer’s report confirmed that the chimney breasts had been demolished, despite being the principal identifiers of the buildings’ architectural, historical and cultural significance.

But, they noted “that historic fabric of significance still remains within the buildings, including the primary structural fabric and the historic floor plan … a number of historic doors and historic plasterwork”.

Still Waiting

Smyth lodged his appeal to An Bord Pleanála on 5 July 2021, with the original due date for the decision set for 8 November 2021. As of 3 August 2022, no decision has been reached.

A spokesperson for An Bord Pleanála said that the case is at the board level for consideration and that a decision is due to be made in the near future. “There is a general delay situation on appeals at the moment due to prevailing intake levels and complexity of certain categories of that intake.”

Madigan says he is exhausted by the wait, and frequently queries why An Bord Pleanála’s decision is so delayed.

“That building should be loved and cherished,” he says. “It should have been celebrated for what it is, a survivor with such a history.

Even if the demolition can be prevented, he laments the loss of the chimney breasts.

They had been there for three centuries, he says with a sigh, and now they’re not.

“They’ll never be brought back, and so all we can do is fight and get that building protected,” he says, “because they would be rewarded for taking them out if they got the planning.”

Author:

Michael Lanigan: Michael Lanigan is a Dublin-based freelance journalist. His work appears in Vice, Totally Dublin, TheJournal.ie and the Business Post.

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