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Nearly a decade after the latest owner bought Aldborough House, the grand 18th-century mansion in the north inner-city, and made plans to turn it into an office complex, it’s still vacant – and planning permission is set to expire in June.
On Portland Row, within sight of the Five Lamps and the IFSC, the building has sat empty and decaying for years. It has been vacant since 1999 when it was sold by Telecom Éireann, according to an An Bord Pleanála inspector’s report.
“It’s been standing empty like that since I was born,” says Michaela Dunne, leaning on the frame of her front doorway across Portland Row from the house on Thursday morning. “It’s just such a waste, isn’t it?”
Reliance Investments bought it in September 2014. P.J. O’Donnell, director of the Isle of Man-registered company, is also part of the family behind Pat O’Donnell & Co., “Ireland’s leading supplier of heavy and compact machinery”, and was a director of that company at the time.
In 2018, when housing activists occupied 35 Summerhill Parade, P.J. O’Donnell went to court, representing the owners, to get the activists removed.
In 2022, P.J. O’Donnell was a director of Isle of Man-registered Banner A Cuig Ltd, which owned a pair of vacant two-storey Georgian houses on Fairview Strand, beside the Ballybough Cemetery.
O’Donnell declined to comment on the record about why he hasn’t brought Aldborough House back into use, or what his plans are for its future, but he did give a tour of it on a recent Tuesday – something Michaela Dunne and her sister Tanya Dunne said they’d like to be offered too.
“All these years we’re looking at that and I’ve only seen the outside,” said Tanya. “I’d love to see the inside too.”
Many of the building’s windows are broken or boarded up, paint is peeling, plaster falling down, there are holes in floors, and signs of previous smallish fires. However, parts of the roof have been mended, and some of the massive sash windows on upper floors have been carefully restored too.
On Thursday, the house is silent, its yard barren, while life goes on outside its gates – parents with children laugh along the sidewalk, young men stride down Portland Row towards Amiens Street, and cars and vans whizz by on the street.
A Grand Old House
Aldborough House was built by Edward Augustus Stratford, who was, according to Ronald Lightbown’s 2008 book about him, An Architect Earl, descended from a Warwickshire sheep farmer and coal-pit owner.
By the 1790s, though, Stratford’s family had risen in the world to the point that he had become the second earl of Aldborough. “A liberal in politics, he was active in the reforming movements for greater Irish independence,” according to Lightbown.
That’s when Stratford embarked on the last of several ambitious architectural ventures: building a new mansion in the north-east corner of Dublin, where urban development had only just begun, according to Lightbown.
“What all the evidence suggests is that the first conception and the original design of the house were the work of Edward himself,” writes Lightbown.
With its two wings sweeping out to the right and left – one housing a private theatre, and one a chapel – it belonged more to the architecture of a country house than a town house, he writes. Perhaps he was going for a “villa in the city” effect, he writes.
The Dublin Evening Post of 3 June 1794 reported that Aldborough planned to spend “no less than fifty thousand pounds” on it, Lightbown writes. He planned for it to rival Leinster House in architecture and magnificence, the paper reported.
Stratford completed the house, but then died soon after, in 1801. His house was used for much of the 19th century by the army. In the 1860s, when it was a barracks, a heavy stone guard house was built near the front entrance.
The wing with the theatre remains, but the wing with the chapel is gone, and with that subtraction and the addition of the guard house, the building’s symmetry is gone too.
Aldborough House cycled through a series of uses and owners over the years since then, until Reliance Investments bought it in 2014. Just three years later, it was added to Dublin City Council’s vacant sites register.
Since the building was valued at €3.5 million in 2021, according to the register, the 7 percent annual levy would be €245,000. Dublin City Council has not yet responded to a query about whether this levy has been paid each year.
Plans to Make It an Office Complex
In May 2018, Reliance Investments got planning permission to transform the property into a modern office complex.
Designs involve preserving the protected, stately old Aldborough House in the centre, and adding boxy glass wings to the left and right. The cost of the project was estimated at €35 million at that time.
Sisters Michaela and Tanya Dunne, chatting on the footpath across the street from Aldborough House on Thursday, said they’d just like to see something done with it.
Says Michaela: “I wouldn’t really mind if it was offices going in.”
Says Tanya: “It’d be great as a hotel.”
However, Reliance has not managed to redevelop the building as an office complex yet, and the planning permission is set to expire soon.
Recent years have seen higher vacancy rates in Dublin’s office market, as more people have been working from home, big tech companies have been cutting back, and more offices have been built.
The vacancy rate for Dublin office space has risen from about 6 percent at the start of 2018 to 10.5 percent at the end of 2022, according to a report from estate agency and property consultancy Knight Frank.
In the meantime, Aldborough sits empty – as it has for decades.
“It’s mad someone has enough money to buy it and just leave it there,” says Deirdre Donohue, standing on Thursday morning in the doorway of the house on Portland Row where she’s been renting for two years.
It doesn’t bother her though. She didn’t even really notice Aldborough House was there until around Christmas, when someone cut down a row of mature trees just inside the fence separating the house’s front yard from Portland Row.
“It’s a pretty building, it doesn’t really require tenants to look good,” she says.
And the owner has been keeping the property up, keeping it neat, says Michaela Dunne. “It’s the best it’s looked in years.”