I was shocked on the recent visit to Dublin by the ruinous state of the last great Georgian townhouse built in the city, Aldborough House. Described by architectural historian Maurice Craig as having a “gaunt and melancholy air” its decline has been dramatic and with boarded and broken windows it now serves as Dublin’s largest pigeon loft. Only lived in as a house for a short period and not improved by its gardens being covered by Council flats, its balustrade and carvings removed and one of its pavilions being destroyed it has never looked more gaunt and melancholy than now. Originally built in countryside north of Dublin with a marine view the RUS IN URBE inscribed on the portico is more than ironic for its setting today with its context destroyed is not just urban but gritty, depressing urban at that. It’s former marine vista is remembered in the road in front of it, still called “The North Strand.”
Aldborough House is the second-biggest Georgian private residence in Dublin, surpassed in size only by Leinster House. Built in the late 18th century on Portland Row, Dublin 1, it has a tall, three-storey central block flanked by quadrants which led to pavilions – one with a chapel and the other with a private theatre.
Its first owner Edward Augustus Stratford, the second Earl of Aldborough, (also Lord Amiens after which Amiens Street is named) died within three years of its completion and left the property to his widow, Lady Aldborough who remarried but died 18 months after her first husband. Following a decade of legal wranglings, Lord Aldborough’s nephew, Colonel John Wingfield of the Powerscourt family, took possession of the house and sold the contents.
Years of neglect, vandalism and, more recently, arson has left the ‘last great Georgian mansion to be built in Dublin’ close to a ruin. Aldborough House is in very poor repair. Its main chimney pieces were removed at the end of the 19th century. The garden statuary was sold. In the 1940s the garden was used by Dublin Corporation for social housing, thereby destroying its setting. Rooms were altered to accommodate office space but it is only in the past decade that it has been seriously neglected. One of the pavilions has also been destroyed.
Aldborough House had various uses: it was a school run by former Cistercian monk, Prof Gregor von Feinaigle; an army barracks; and, when in public ownership, a depot for the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. More recently, it was owned by Telecom Éireann and the Irish Music Rights Organisation which had planned to locate its headquarters in the building but couldn’t meet the restoration costs.
It was sold in 2005 for €4.5 million to a company called Aldborough Developments which got planning permission in 2006 to convert it to a private hospital. This development never went ahead and the property is still owned by a north Dublin businessman, Philip Marley, whose companies Ely Property Group and Ely Properties are under liquidation. The building, subject of a long running campaign by An Taisce, had been owned by Aldborough Developments, part of developer Philip Marley’s Ely Properties group, which was wound up last year. Bank of Ireland hold the deeds, according to the Land Registry, and has had a charge on the property since 2006.
Clearly based on Stratford House in London built by Stratford 25 years earlier to the design of Robert Adam Aldborough has sometimes been attributed to Sir William Chambers who designed the Marino Casino and Charlemont House. There is no evidence for this and it is doubtful if Chambers had a hand in designing Aldborough as the Piano Nobile is out of scale and the portico too awkward. Nevertheless this ugly duckling is a huge part of the city’s architectural patrimony and deserves far better care and use than it is getting at present. Perhaps the centre of gravity needs to move again in Dublin, a future PM’s residence, Áras an Taoiseach at the Five Lamps perhaps?
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