Yes the comments about tourists were a little sweeping (though having worked at the coalface of tourist heritage sites, your eyes get quickly opened to the reality of the game). But the general point is one of reluctance to exclude the populace from the building on a day-to-day basis, rather than any antipathy towards visitors. These buildings were built (or adapted) for patrons’ use while conducting everyday business, exposing one to a fleeting dose of grandiosity – the Georgian equivalent of a swig of L. casei Immunitas for the aesthetically-dependant – as part of daily life. This is a ceremony that has even greater impact in today’s world, and one that should not be erased in a hasty clamour to give a perceived ‘dignity’ to such a building as seen through modern eyes – this is especially true of the Public Office of the GPO. There is little more dignified that a construct serving its intended function.
gunter, agreed in relation to the dubious (and latterly nonexistent) prestige of banks, but the nature of the occupant is not the core point. What I was trying to say is that the building retains an air of prestige because the Bank of Ireland possesses it for that very reason – it wants to command a public presence, make a civic statement, and generally be pretentious about its operations. As such, and with banking in the hierarchical scheme of things pretty tightly woven into modern society, for good or evil, the building on College Green is lent a very special significance in its current role. It is fit for purpose. Its very (what one imagines to be) uneconomic viability is the very reason that it is viable – its extravagance is what lends it such appeal, what makes its design relevant, and what makes its positioning in the city appropriate as it ever was. Realistically speaking, outside of a predictable and enforced State occupancy, there is no other deserved use for this building.
The enormous architectural and heritage value of the building as converted into a bank has always considerably underplayed. Indeed, the majority of the building that stands today is the result of the complex’s lengthy, hugely expensive and extremely accomplished modification for banking use. It is more a bank than a parliament house. The conversion is one of Francis Johnston’s finest works, one that is rarely assessed beyond a haze of politics and nostalgia, or without the usual denigrating stance of the project being one of mere tweaking around the edges. The alteration was an immensely challenging prospect, one that involved the assimilation of the work of four previous architects’ work into a coherent whole, coupled with the over-riding demand of preserving the primacy and design intention of Pearce’s masterpiece. In fact, it is as much what Johnston did not do, amongst ever-heightening calls for bells and whistles Regency embellishment to the existing exterior, as much as what he did do, that is to his immense credit as project architect.
C. P, Curran’s outstanding essay on the conversion of the Parliament House to Bank of Ireland, published in a quarterly Bulletin of the Irish Georgian Society in 1977, remains the leading account on this much-unknown part of the building’s – really the city’s - history. We can directly quote the correspondence of Johnston in due course, but sticking with the decision to build or acquire a new headquarters in the first place, we must look to north of the Liffey to the site of St. Mary’s Abbey, where the Bank of Ireland had established itself in 1783 off East Arran Street. This was still a commercially thriving part of town, though the brick building in which the bank was located was not secure, forcing the institution to look elsewhere as it expanded. The enormous growth in the scale of the bank in the space of two decades, from being located in a modest premises in a secondary part of the city to proposing a bombastic palace on the city’s principal thoroughfare – indeed comprising
a city thoroughfare in the case of the Soane proposal – is truly extraordinary, even by Anglo standards.
Tying in with thebig C’s comments above, suggestions were made during the 1780s that the Royal Exchange should be converted into the National Bank, while James Malton advocated in 1786 that the Exchange be moved into the old Custom House which was shortly to be vacated by the new building downstream in 1791, noting: “where I have heard the Bank is intended to be built, a most ineligible site indeed.” The Bank even petitioned the Lord Lieutenant for the grant of ground occupied by the old Custom House and a second time in 1795 – both efforts to no avail. It was because of this intransigence on the part of the State that negotiations were opened with the Wide Streets Commissioners in 1799 regarding the Westmoreland Street site – what Curran describes as the entire site bounded by Westmorland Street, College Street, D’Olier Street and the river – not just to the Fleet Street boundary. The deal fell through for the simple reason that the Wide Streets Commission did not yet own all the land, the majority of which it had purchased from Trinity College. Much of it has already been cleared and enclosed, but as the Commissioners where short of funds to purchase the remaining lands at that point (the war with France having a huge impact on finances, with the Commission already enormously in debt), the Bank finally pulled out of the agreement in 1802. Architect Thomas Sherrard drew up plans for Westmoreland Street in 1799 to include the Bank, with College Street marked out as ‘Bank Street’ (can you imagine how that street sign would be corrupted today?). This is the same year as the Commission’s architect, Henry Aaron Baker, drew up approved elevations for the rest of Westmoreland Street.
Presumably the two drawings above (there are seven Soane designs in total) are what Curran refers to in relation to Bank Street, with a building frontage:
“of 320 feet. For this front Soane prepared two alternative elevations for the new bank, one of 287 feet 6 inches in length and the other of 260 feet; the rest of his building was disposed on the longer sides of the wedge-shaped site about two internal courtyards separated by his central block which consisted of portico, vestibule, hall and a cash office, 90 feet by 60 feet.” “The drawings in some cases are signed and dated and are accompanied by an undated printed sheet tabulating the Bank’s requirements.”
As early as 1801 the Bank was actively considering the Parliament House site as the most practical solution to its needs (not to mention much slimmed down, given the depression in the Dublin economy). A definite proposal was made in March 1802, with the Bank purchasing ground at Foster Place from the Commissioners in May of the same year. In June an Act of Parliament was passed enabling the disposal of the former Parliament House, and on the 27th of August 1803 the Seal of the Corporation was directed to be put to the deed of conveyance, passing the building into the possession of Bank of Ireland.