05 September 2018

Two neighbouring buildings
show continuity in craft
traditions in Waterford

The Morris House on Great George’s Street housed the offices of the Waterford Chamber of Commerce and the Port of Waterford Company for the best part of two centuries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

I was writing yesterday about the two elegant cathedrals in Waterford designed by the architect of Georgian Waterford, John Roberts (1714-1796) – Christ Church Cathedral (1773), the Church of Ireland cathedral on Cathedral Square, and Holy Trinity Cathedral on Barronstrand Street (1796), the oldest Roman Catholic cathedral in Ireland.

Roberts, who was born in Waterford, made the most significant contribution to the architecture of Waterford in the 18th century, transforming a mediaeval city into a European city. He was influenced by the works of Inigo Jones, Christopher Wren and James Gibbs.

He designed domestic buildings, including commercial and educational establishments, and houses and hospitals, a bishop’s and a deanery, and secular buildings such as City Hall on the Mall.

One of his most prominent commercial buildings in Waterford and his finest is the building at No 2 Great George’s Street, which has housed the offices of the Waterford Chamber of Commerce and the Port of Waterford Company for the best part of two centuries.

But this prominent building was first built as a private house for William Morris of Rossduff, Woodstown, whose ancestors had come to Ireland in the middle of the previous century.

The house cost £10,000 to build in 1795. However, William Morris never lived to see it completed. In 1813, his sons sold it for a mere £2,500 to Waterford Chamber of Commerce, which was just about to be formed from the Body of Merchants, officially established on 8 March 1787.

However, the four storeys of the house, along with its basement and loft, were too much for the needs of the chamber, and the ground floor of the building was leased to the Harbour Commissioners in 1816. This was the age of sail and Waterford was a thriving port. The gracious, spacious and lofty rooms reflected the style and ambitions of the merchants of Waterford merchants. Between them, these two bodies occupied and managed the building for most of the next two centuries.

This building exemplifies the work of an extremely confident designer working closely with the finest craftsmen. It retains its original form and character. Care of this building has been a tradition of its history. It is grand in proportion. It consists of a six-bay façade and four storeys over a basement. It has a beautiful wide Doric doorcase with sidelights and a decorative fanlight. The basement has intact groin vaulting.

The house was built primarily of rubble stonework but there is evidence that brick was used inside. The exterior was originally of brick but the façade was rendered ca 1885.

The original granite plinth, doorcase, cut-granite quoins and cornice remain. The flagging to the entrance steps, service stairs and internal landings are of granite. The building is topped by a moulded stone cornice with granite frieze to the eaves and parapet.

John Roberts used the ‘golden section’ to ensure the original proportions of the façade were harmonious and balanced. The main entrance is the most prominent element. Alterations took place to the façade in the late 19th century. The front cast-iron panelled railings and limestone piers also date from this period.

The windows were embellished by adding decorative aediculae and architraves, and the sills were extended to accommodate them. The style of this work is late Victorian with touches of Art Nouveau.

The façade has kept its predominantly Georgian look, and surprisingly the original glass of the timber sash windows has survived. But in raising the pedimented aediculae well above the original façade line, the Victorians altered Roberts’s proportions.

Inside, the building is basically Palladian. The entrance hall has a portal of twin fluted Doric columns and an entablature. The main reception rooms of the ground floor, the elliptical staircase and the piano nobile have been decorated mainly in low relief neo-classical style.

The entrance hall has decorated columns and a beautiful frieze with winged horses, urns and swags. The ceiling has a fan effect centrepiece with swags and foliage surrounds. Four doors, one in each corner, allow access to the rooms and an entrance to the stairwell. It has one of the finest intact series of 18th century rooms in Ireland, and the original fireplaces remain.

The very fine neo-classical stucco plasterwork on the ground and the first floor is by Patrick Osborne in the Adam style. The friezes are decorated with elegant classical motifs, figurative medallions, urns, anthemion and palmette mouldings.

The cantilevered spiral staircase is unique and one of the most elegant in Ireland. It has interlocking timber steps, brass balustrades and rich plasterwork.

The elegant stairwell is embellished with exuberant plasterwork, and the wall decoration follows through onto the ceiling without a break. Delicate friezes of flowers and deers adorn the stairwell at first-floor level. Looking up to the sky-lit oval dome, lit by a skylight, there is exquisite plasterwork in high relief of flora and fauna, garlands, musical trophies and elaborate chinoiserie birds.

The first floor or piano nobile has a series of magnificent reception rooms.

The upper floors were used as an hotel in the 1830s and 1840s.

After 188 years, the Waterford Harbour Commissioners, now known as the Port of Waterford Company, left the building in 2004.

The first floor still houses Waterford Chamber of Commerce. Over the years, various business tenants have come and gone. The French restaurant La Bohème has been in the vaulted basement since 2006, and the Parlour Vintage Tea Rooms opened on the ground floor at the end of 2015.
Mbr /> Waterford Chamber is the leading business representative organisation in Waterford, representing members’ interests and contributing to the economic development of the city and county.

The Morris House retains its original form and character, with many of its original atures and materials, both outside and inside. It remains one of the most important heritage buildings in Waterford City and is a protected structure. It provides an attractive termination to the vista from Merchant’s Quay through Gladstone Street to Great George’s Street.

No 1 Great George’s Street, was designed by John Henry Brett in the Ruskinian Gothic style (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Next door to the Morris House, No 1 Great George’s Street, was occupied until recently by FBD Insurance. This is the former premises of the National Bank, and is an attractive and imposing exercise in the Ruskinian Gothic that retains most of its original form and character.

The building was designed in 1887 by the architect and surveyor John Henry Brett (1835-1920). He was prolific in his designs of utilitarian buildings, but was often flamboyant in his Ruskinian Gothic blend of Victorian Italianate and Venetian Renaissance styles, heavily influenced by the principles of John Ruskin (1819-1900), author of The Stones of Venice.

Brett was born in Tubbercurry, Co Sligo, and was educated at Waterford Academy. He first worked for William Dargan on the railways, before he was appointed county surveyor for west Limerick (1863), Co Kildare (1869), Co Antrim (1885). He also practiced with his father as Henry Brett & Son, and with his brother Charles Henry Brett as John H & HC Brett. He retired in 1914 and lived in Belfast until he died in 1920.

The mixture of limestone and red brick in this building, with pink granite accents, produce a highly polychromatic and textured effect that gives it a distinguished presence on this street and that is a picturesque contrast with the classical-style Morris House next door and other banks in the immediate locality.

This three-bay, three-storey, double-pile Ruskinian Gothic red brick building with a half attic was built on the corner with Sargent’s Lane in 1887. It has a single-bay, single-storey flat-roofed projecting porch on the ground floor.

On the ground floor, there is a square-headed door opening with polished pink granite Corinthian colonettes, timber panelled double doors, an entablature over, and a round-headed overlight with moulded reveal, a keystone and decorative wrought iron fittings.

There is a group of three square-headed windows on the ground floor with cut-limestone sills, polished pink granite Corinthian colonettes, lintels, and round-headed overlights, and a moulded limestone hood moulding with foliate stops.

The limestone ashlar wall at the ground floor level has cut-limestone dressings, including piers with Corinthian colonettes, moulded courses, and a scalloped moulded cornice with inscribed consoles. The limestone ashlar walls at the porch have polished pink granite Corinthian colonettes.

The first floor details include round-headed and shallow segmental-headed window openings, two of them paired, a moulded limestone sill course, paired colonettes, a moulded stringcourse, keystones, and hood mouldings.

On the upper floors, there are red brick Flemish bond walls with cut-limestone dressings, including moulded courses, a scalloped overhanging cornice to the half-attic, and a scalloped cornice to the eaves.

At the parapet, there is a moulded stringcourse, a scalloped cornice, profiled consoles with cut-stone coping and wrought iron railings.

The building was renovated and extended in the mid-1980s. The ground floor and first floor of the building are for sale with an asking price of €260,000. The ground floor (210 square metres) is vacant and the first floor is let at €6,000 a year.

Although these two buildings are separated by almost a century in their building and decoration and are contrasts in their size and dimensions, the details and high quality of work in each shows a continuity in the tradition of excellent craft work in Waterford in the 18th and 19th centuries, throughout the Georgian and Victorian periods.

The ground floor of the Morris House at No 2 Great George’s Street, Waterford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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