26 August 2013
I was recalling yesterday the words of Noel Purcell and Leo Maguire in ‘The Dublin Saunter’:
Grafton Street’s a wonderland,
There’s magic in the air.
There are diamonds in the lady’s eyes
And gold-dust in her hair.
And if you don’t believe me,
Then come and meet me there,
In Dublin on a sunny summer’s morning.
I had sauntered up and down the wonderland that is Grafton Street three times on Sunday afternoon in the summer sun. Each time I stopped every now and then to photograph buildings of architectural interest.
Grafton Street dates from the early 18th century, when it was developed as a mixed residential and commercial street, and it was redeveloped later that century when it became an important north-south inner city crossing.
Today, it still regards itself as Dublin’s most elegant shopping street, but it also attracts high rents, a high number of buskers and a large number of tourists.
In the summer sunshine, and at many other times too, despite many of the ugly 20th century shop-fronts and the wilful destruction of many of the attractive Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian ground-floor features, it is an attractive and endearingly-entertaining street to saunter along.
But most people walk along with their eyes on the shop-fronts, the buskers, or the people in front of them, instead at looking up at the next levels and at this great collection of architectural styles and buildings.
Starting on the corner of Nassau Street on the left (east) side, heading up Grafton Street towards Saint Stephen’s Green, the first building to look at has a two-tier oriel window, designed by Laurence A McDonnell.
It is a sad statement of where Dublin is today – just as the Town Hall in Bray is a sad statement – that McDonalds occupies the ground floor of the former Mitchell’s Hotel at 9-11 Grafton Street. A five-bay building, it was designed by the partnership of WM Mitchell, in which Charles H Mitchell and John M Mitchell continued the name of their father, William Mansfield Mitchell (1842-1910), whose father started in business in Grafton Street as a confectioner at No 10. WM Mitchell’s work can be seen all along Grafton Street.
Mitchell’s Hotel was built in 1926 with a central balcony that had a vista down the full length of Wicklow Street. Next door, at Nos 12-13, from 1860, stood the Royal Hotel. But I imagine few people dropping in for a Big Mac take time to step back into Wicklow Street and look up at this once majestic hotel.
The window pattern on No 14 is the last surviving example on Grafton Street of the old Dutch Billys that dominated the skyline of central Dublin in the 18th century. This Anglo-Dutch building style was named after William of Orange, and it was more reminiscent of Amsterdam than of London.
The broad first-floor window has a handsome stucco frame and lettered finial that were added in 1868, when the building was trading as a carpet shop.
The facades of Nos 15-20 have survived over the generations, despite extensive rebuilding for Brown Thomas, which began at Nos 16-17 and Marks and Spencer, which now sweeps around the corner into Duke Street, to meet Davy Byrne’s where, James Joyce tells us, Leopold Bloom had a glass of burgundy and a gorgonzola sandwich on Bloomsday.
On the east side of Grafton Street, between Duke Street and Ann Street, Nos 24-25, built “Celtic revival” style for William Longfield, was once one of the finest Romanesque facades until the ground floor was vandalised to make way for modern shopfronts. The building was designed by Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt (1820-1877), a descendant of John Wyatt (1675-1742), of Weeford near Lichfield, a member of an outstanding family of architects, the pre-eminent example of an artistic dynasty that continued to work in architecture for at least eight generations: at the end of the 18th century, James Wyatt (1746-1813), was involved in a reorganisation Lichfield Cathedral that was later criticised by AWN Pugin; Sir Jeffrey Wyattville (1766-1840) was responsible for the Gothic appearance of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge; and Matthew’s brother, Thomas Henry Wyatt (1807-1880), designed Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbirdge, and was involved in the restoration of Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny.
The original shopfront at Nos 24-25 combined details from many churches and cathedrals, including the doorway in Saint Lachtain’s Church, Freshford, Co Kilkenny, crosses from Monasterboice, Co Louth, and the chancel arch and crosses from Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Tuam, Co Galway.
The first and second floors, which have survived, have two super-imposed Romanesque arcades. Above them, the third or attic floor is designed like a Venetian loggia. The rich details throughout these three floors include interlaced capitals, keystone masks, foliated string courses, and chevron or saw-tooth ornamentation.
The Irish Builder on 18 July 1863 described this as “neither more nor less than an effort to adapt some of the more picturesque elements of ancient Irish ornamentation to the decoration of a structure ministering to the directly utilitarian exigencies of the present day.”
The Irish Builder hoped Wyatt would “stimulate many an Irish architect to ... recreate a national style,” and praised it for being “at once novel and successful.”
No 42 Grafton Street is also the work of William Mitchell, who refurbished the building in 1870 for Rathborne’s as a shop, billiards room and apartments. The building has an attractive Gothic facade, with a pointed, triple-light window on the first floor.
Returning back down Grafton Street on the west side from Saint Stephen’s Green towards College Green, No 62 has an attractive ‘Tudor Revival’ front designed by Millar and Symes (1911).
On Grafton Street’s north corner with Chatham Street, No 64 was also designed by Laurence McDonnell. It is built in red brick, with narrow gabled fronts, tall brick pilasters, a fine balcony on the third floor, and terracotta dressings.
Recently, Phil Lynnott’s statue was returned to its place outside the Bruxelles (Zodiac) in Harry Street, looking out to Grafton Street.
No 70 Grafton Street, standing on the corner with Harry Street, is also the work of Laurence McDonnell, who designed it in 1900 for the American Shoe Company in Jacobean style with brick pilasters. Next door, No 71 Grafton Street shows the influence of John Ruskin’s interpretation of the Gothic style.
The next building, No 72, is the former Grafton Cinema which ran all-day cartoon shows in the 1960s and 1970s. It is a combination of Tudor Revival and Arts and Crafts styles, and was designed in 1911 by RFC Orpen (1863-1938), a brother of the painter William Orpen (1878-1931).
On the corner with Johnson’s Court, which leads onto Clarendon Street, Nos 81-82 Grafton Street was rebuilt as one premises in 1861. It has a handsome stucco skin added to the first and second storey by John C Burne, with corner quoins, a bracketed cornice and window pediments.
It is hard to believe that Grafton Street once had its own Turkish Baths. Nos 97-99, above Weir’s the jewellers, was rebuilt by George O’Connor in 1934 as the Maskora Turkish Baths, with an Art Deco frontage that includes piers pierced by narrow vertical windows.
Nos 102-103 Grafton Street, now River Island, was designed for Weir’s in 1912 by WH Byrne and Son, with Jacobean elevations in brick and Portland stone and elaborate carvings that are the work of Charles W Harrison, who also did the carvings throughout Saint Bartholomew’s Church in Ballsbridge. The style was heavily influenced by Edwardian Classicism and the work of Richard Norman Shaw (1831-1912), who had been trained by George Edmund Street and William Burn, and whose works included New Scotland Yard.
Moving further north down Grafton Street from the junction with Suffolk Street towards College Green, No 108 Grafton Street has been the premises of Barnardo’s the furriers for over 200 years, since 1812, and it still has some remains of a 19th century stucco facade.
No 114 was originally a branch of the Royal Bank designed by WH Lynn in 1904. Now a clothes shop, it has an over-the-top, three-bay facade, with a heavy, yellow sandstone, palazzo-style ground floor and polished granite and red marble columns that climb up the first and second storey.
No 116 was designed in 1906 for the bookseller Edward Ponsonby by Lucius O’Callaghan (1877-1954), who set up an independent practice when he was only 26. This building, with its narrow sandstone frontage, has giant Ionic columns that frame a bowed, two-storey Doric screen on the windows of the second and third floor.
My walks up and down Grafton Street on Sunday afternoon began or ended at the junction of Grafton Street and College Green, where the former offices of the Commercial Union Assurance Company was designed in 1879-1885 by Sir Thomas Newneham Deane and Thomas Manly Deane in the Scottish Baronial style.
This is the only surviving non-classical building on College Green. Built in yellow sandstone, it is a delightful riot of turrets, gable fronts, mullioned windows, a pointed ground-floor arcade, the romantic heads of a queen and king, and a pair of plaques representing Dublin and London in harmony – a confident statement of late Victorian Dublin unionism opposite the former Parliament buildings and Trinity College Dublin.
Thank goodness, despite the changes in commercial use over almost a century and a half, this one piece of Grafton Street architectural grandeur has not been bowdlerised at ground floor level.
Further reading: The Irish Builder; the Irish Architectural Archive; Christine Casey, The Buildings of Ireland: Dublin (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005), Pevsner Architectural Guides series.