It has featured many times before on this thread, but the corner building at No. 68-69 Upper Oâ€™Connell Street, which incorporates a number of properties, is a remarkable structure on a number of levels, in spite of its down-at-heel appearance.
Not only is it likely to be the oldest building standing on the thoroughfare, it has also survived no less than five extensive waves of redevelopment on the street:
1) The demolition of the lower end of Drogheda Street by the Wide Streets Commission in the 1780s, when the creation of a more formal corner at this point would have been a desirable aspiration.
2) The extensive wave of demolitions and grandiose rebuilding conducted during the 19th century.
3) The orgy of destruction inflicted by the 1916 Rising. No. 68-69â€™s positioning adjacent to the focal target on the street makes its survival all the more remarkable, not least considering the fate of the Hotel Metropole on the opposing side of the GPO.
4) The further destruction focused primarily on the Upper street during 1922. Again the building escaped largely unscathed.
5) The onslaught of property speculation in the 1960s and 1970s and resultant destruction, when Oâ€™Connell Street lost some of its finest stock. Again No. 68-69 stood tall.
What follows is an attempt to piece together the provenance of this intriguing structure, which has the unique cachet of being located next door to the most reproduced and photographed building in Ireland of the last two centuries, since its completion in 1818. The fact that No. 68-69 was formerly sandwiched between the grandiose set-piece of the GPO and the Pillar makes analysis of the building all the more fruitful; it unwittingly forms the backdrop to countless shots.
No. 68-69 Upper Oâ€™Connell Street has its origins in the creation of Sackville Mall, the ambitious elongated residential square laid out by Luke Gardiner c. 1748-49. Involving the demolition of some of the upper part of the late 17th century Drogheda Street, it is likely that a number of Dutch Billy houses barely 50 years old were swept away in the process.
One little observed aspect of Gardinerâ€™s choice of site for the Mall is that the majority of upper Drogheda Street remained undeveloped as late as the publication of Charles Brookingâ€™s map in 1728.
Presuming little else emerged between this point and the 1750s (quite possible if Gardiner was engaged with Henrietta Street and other parts of his extensive estate), it follows that the ideal site for a grand street laid out in accordance with the newest principles would be centrally located, vacant land in an otherwise established area. Upper Drogheda Street was an obvious choice.
Named after the Lord Lieutenant of 1751-55, Lionel Cranfield Sackville, 1st Duke of Dorset, Sackville Mall measured a breathtaking 150 in width, stretching a colossal 1050 feet from Great Britain Street (Parnell Street) in the north to the junction with Henry Street in the south. Famously, the centre of the street was dominated by a promenading mall lined with low granite walls and obelisks topped with lamps. Reference has been made to it being planted with elm trees some years later.
Eamon Walsh has noted that the first development on the Mall took place on the eastern side, with one of the first leases dating to 8 May 1750. Gardiner appears to have been keen to get development underway as quickly as possible in an effort to publicise the square, even lending money to some lessees to build their houses. Much of the eastern side was complete by 1755.
As nothing remains of this early phase of building due to comprehensive redevelopment on the eastern side of the street, we must turn to the western side for fragments of early construction. Rocqueâ€™s map indicates that not all of the western flank was complete by 1756 (at variance with Graceâ€™s idealistic artistâ€™s impression of four years previous).
Whereas the eastern side had largely been purpose-built for the wealthy and powerful, the early phase of the western side (pictured below) was built by a number of builder/developers who acquired Gardinerâ€™s narrower plots here for speculative building.
The terrace of modest two-bay houses evident in Graceâ€™s image is clearly apparent to this day in the narrow plot widths that comprise this stretch of the street. North of the modern-day Dublin Bus HQ, the houses got larger. Nathanial Clements built one of the most substantial, typical of his Henrietta Street mansions, at the corner with Great Britain Street. This plot lease, dating to 12 May 1753:
â€œcontain[ed] to the front to the said Mall 143 feet 4 inches and in the rear to stable land 49 feet 4 inchesâ€¦boarding to the north Great Britain Street., one the south toâ€¦Benjamin Burton.â€
This large double-fronted house (the street mean was about 75 feet in width) appears to be this plot at the top of the street.
This, along with the adjacent northern plot, informs the modern-day AIB building on the corner with Parnell Street. The date of May 1753 confirming an empty plot, contrasting with a developed plot as depicted by Rocque in 1756, tells us something of the date of similar buildings along this terrace. The lease of the building plot of what is now the last surviving intact house on the street today, No. 42, dates to 1752. It is fair to deduce that most of these larger houses on the west side date/dated to c. 1753-60.
The first reference to No. 68-69 Upper Oâ€™Connell Street occurs at an earlier point, in 1752. The building was constructed by a John Turner, who leased the completed structure in July 1752:
â€œunto the said Francis Morand all the new dwelling house and tenements, situated on the west side of Sackville Street.â€
Given the building had already been built by this time, it is safe to assume that construction began sometime around 1750-51, making it without question one of the earliest structures on this side of the street. Critically, the fact that this building was located on the site of an older holding on Henry Street, suggests that an existing interest may have been placated with a speedy reconstruction. Also, this building formed part of the introductory stretch of the street and gave form to its entrance corner, further suggesting a quick turnaround in building. It is likely this building was the first to be built on the Mall, and is therefore the oldest on Oâ€™Connell Street. An extensive trawl through all leases of the west side would of course confirm or disprove this. In any event, it is a matter of mere months in question rather than years.
The 1752 lease reference to â€˜tenementsâ€™ is a curious but illuminating one. This use would explain the odd design of the building as depicted in Graceâ€™s image of the Mall, where a mean rounded-headed doorway leads into the house (north), and why a bizarre square-headed doorway with adjoining picture window dominates the frontage of the corner property (south). (The elaborate doorcase on Henry Street, as at the other side of the Mall, is purely artistic licence).
Seemingly the corner building was a commercial unit of some kind, with a dwelling house proper attached to the side. The term â€˜tenementâ€™ in the 18th century had a different meaning to that of today, referring to all rights, leases and boundaries associated with a property, rather than the modern-day association with low order accommodation. Nonetheless, this unorthodox lease and building type on a grandiose new residential thoroughfare further suggests that an older interest on Henry Street was being accommodated.
By 1818, the same five-bay structure is depicted a little differently to that by Oliver Grace.
Although ostensibly the same building, the earlier regular parapet facing Henry Street is shown here as being an exposed gable. Given artistsâ€™ tendencies to blur the focus on irregularities such as these, it seems unlikely that such a roof structure would be depicted unless it was actually there.
However, given the neighbouring housesâ€™ attic windows do not align with the lower pitch of their roofs, as at No. 68-69, it is safe to assume there is an inaccuracy in that respect at least.