Opinion: there are many other buildings in Dublin that could be converted into homes if urban regeneration was supported and not stymied
In the mid-1960s, the ESB demolished 16 Georgian houses on Fitzwilliam Street in Dublin in order to build their new headquarters. Almost as an act of belated atonement for the destruction of the historic fabric of the city, the company opened Number Twenty Nine Fitzwilliam Street Lower as a Georgian House museum in 1991. The house was built in the mid-1790s and the museum showcases life in late-Georgian Dublin, enabling visitors to explore the house, each room full of period furniture, paintings and household objects, many of them borrowed from the National Museum.
In 2017, the museum closed, temporarily, while the ESB got on with demolishing its 1960s headquarters and building a new one. Every museum across the country is currently closed because of Covid-19, but the ESB has decided that Number Twenty Nine should remain permanently shut and the company has applied to Dublin City Council seeking permission to convert the building into three apartments which it plans to sell. A spokesperson for the ESB stated that the company had "never envisaged that the exhibition would run forever" and claimed that "since 1991, there is a changed landscape in terms of historical/heritage offerings, with many museum/heritage alternatives now available".
We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences
From RTÉ Radio 1's Liveline, tour guides at Number Twenty Nine on why it's a loss to Irish tourism and heritage
It’s true that there are more museums across the country than there were in 1991, but there is no equivalent of Number Twenty Nine. Dublin promotes its Georgian architecture to lure tourists to the city streets. Postcards, tea towels, tablemats of Georgian doors and fanlights are for sale in every souvenir shop. Yet Number Twenty Nine is the only Georgian house in Dublin that allows visitors to imagine what it was like to live in these houses in their heyday. The public may be able to access other Georgian buildings, but none attempt to recreate life as may have been for those living there when they were fashionable and popular.
Perhaps the ESB has confused 14 Henrietta Street on the north side of the city for a Georgian House museum. It is not. A tour of 14 Henrietta Street certainly mentions its Georgian origins, but the focus is not on telling that story. Number Twenty Nine and 14 Henrietta Street make excellent companion museums, but they do not replicate each other in any way.
We need your consent to load this YouTube contentWe use YouTube to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences
From Mixed Reality, the story of Number Twenty Nine from the housekeeper's perspective to show what life was like in Georgian Dublin in the late 1800s
Number Twenty Nine is a hugely important (and undervalued asset). It is important for learning, teaching and tourism. Indeed, on the museum website, the ESB recognises that it is "an educational resource" and that the ESB's "mission is to make accessible the social, decorative, cultural, and political history of the Georgian capital". Turning the museum into apartments strays very far from this mission.
It is possible to argue that retaining Number Twenty Nine as a museum and educational centre is vital while also being in favour of encouraging more people to live in the city. These are not contradictory positions to hold. We do not have to choose housing over the museum. We can have both. There are many buildings, Georgian and otherwise, that could be converted for residential use, and ministerial focus could be directed to facilitating that.
From RTÉ Archives, Michelle McCaughren reports for RTÉ News on plans for tax incentives to promote development in Dublin's inner city in 1986
Eamon Ryan, the Minister for Transport and Green Party leader, has claimed that the transformation of the museum into apartments is a good idea. He said that the ESB conversion "has the potential to become an exemplar scheme for Dublin to demonstrate successful city living".
This is nonsense: tens of thousands of people already make the city their home very successfully. If the Minister wants to see an exemplary conversion, all he has to do is get on his bike and go to 3 Henrietta Street, which was sensitively and beautifully transformed into apartments and which won the Irish Georgian Society Conservation Award in 2019.
Instead of supporting the closure of a museum (an educational, cultural and tourist facility) and transforming it into three apartments Dublin and Ireland would be far better served if robust structures were put in place to foster genuine appreciation for our built heritage and discourage using it for property speculation. The capital is littered with historic buildings that have been allowed to fall into disrepair with no consequences for those responsible. Indeed, Dublin City Council has recorded almost 150 acres of derelict sites between the Royal and Grand Canals. Proper implementation of the Derelict Sites Act, the levying of fines and use of compulsory purchase orders would see regeneration of parts of the city that currently lie derelict.
From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ News report from 1965 on the destruction of 16 Georgian houses in Dublin to make way for a new ESB headquarters
There have been efforts to encourage people to move into the city including the Living Over the Shop scheme and the Living City Initiative. But these have largely failed. Dublin City Council's development plan for 2022-28 will include a policy to encourage the conversion of about 4,000 empty spaces above shops into housing.
For this and other schemes to be successful, a flexible approach needs to be developed. Most urban regeneration is stymied by red tape and by inflexible building regulations that operate on a one size fits all basis. Allowing a museum to close to facilitate the speculative developments of apartments is madness. Finding a way to genuinely and practically facilitate city living would be progress indeed.
Dublin City Council’s current development plan states that it will "protect the cultural and artistic use of buildings in established cultural quarters". This should guarantee the survival of Number Twenty Nine as a museum. If it is not, then the city, its inhabitants and its visitors will be much deprived of an important educational, cultural and historic space. Much of Georgian Dublin has already been destroyed (quite a lot of it by the ESB). If we are not careful, we will be left, in the words of Louis MacNeice, with only "the bare bones of a fanlight".
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ