Re: Re: ‘Dutch Billys’

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Essay no. 1 is by Niall McCullough and is entitled simply; ‘The Dublin House’.

This essay concentrates on the ordinary terraced houses of the city and explores the variety of typologies found in the building record. These are compared and contrasted and a particular light shone on the more off-standard, site specific, solutions devised for trickier locations like corner plots or the junctions between estates. Illustrated examples demonstrate that frequently there was a gulf in urban ambition in Dublin where one corner plot might be developed to the absolute maximum with full elevations addressing both streets, often facilitated by fiendishly complex internal planning, while another corner plot might terminate with nothing more ambitious than a blank flanking wall.

As always with McCullough the threads of the story are expertly interwoven and well illustrated with decent photographs, including the obligatory misidentified shot just to keep everyone on their toes.

Nobody since Maurice Craig has done more than McCullough to reveal and celebrate the architectural development of the city. In addition to setting out, in considerable clarity, many aspects of the development of the city, ‘Dublin, an Urban History’ left nobody in any doubt about the extent of the gabled tradition in Dublin in the early 18th century where before there was probably a lingering perception in many quarters that gabled houses were just some odd quirk in the Georgian record.

If there is a criticism to be made of this essay it is that McCullough doesn’t really expand on those memorable turns of phrase that lit up ‘an Urban History’;

‘In purely stylistic terms, the image of riotously gabled houses form a part of folk-memory in Dublin’

– and;

‘Dinely’s drawings of the city show Holborn gables in the 1670s, Place shows curvilinear ones – more obviously redolent of the Dutch phase of influence, and perhaps by then imbued with a political cachet in loyal Dublin’.

To a large extent in this essay the story of the 18th century town house is left to be told by the typological studies which are detailed and extensive, but we have to be extraordinarily careful with typological studies that we don’t start to give equal weight in the story to each variation found, no matter how occasionally, and thereby create the impression perhaps that there were a myriad of plan forms and house typologies bursting out all over Dublin throughout the 18th century, when in fact there were really only two primary typologies;

a] The terraced ‘Dutch Billy’, planned with front and back rooms [the latter having a rear closet return] with the stairwell located at the rear and to one side.

b] The terraced ‘Georgian’ planned with front and back rooms with the stairwell located at the rear and to one side.

In reality, these two, closely related, house types completely dominated their respective halves of the 18th century and this fact is somewhat lost in a deluge of information on the other intriguing, but far less common, variations.

What I think is revealed in an exploration of 18th century Dublin house typologies is not so much that there was enormous variety, but that there was extraordinary consistency, and that the intriguing variations in plan form, as charted by McCullough, nearly all belong to the experimental phase in the uncertain years between the abandonment of the gabled tradition and the re-emergence of almost exactly the same basic floor plan a little later on, at which point it becomes the absolute standard template for the vast majority of the houses built to line the streets and squares of the Georgian city, but now without the corner fireplaces and closet returns [and the gabled elevations] of the earlier standard ‘Billy’.

That many Dublin property owners went to extraordinary lengths in the later 18th century to transform a ‘Billy’ into a ‘Georgian’, and in the process mess with the heads of anyone attempting to carry out a typological study, is a fact that is only beginning to become apparent.

Take South Frederick Street for example;

Above is a 1950s aerial view from the east showing the street when it was still intact, and below; the street as depicted on Rocque’s map in 1757. The houses on South Frederick Street were virtually all identical in size and design and it is probable that the elevations were also uniformly gabled, before being altered to flat parapets in a widely varied programme of Georgian modernisation.

This is McCullough’s photograph of a house being demolished on the west side of South Frederick Street in 1983.

In all probability, this house started out as a standard Dutch Billy, just like at least 34 of the other 36 houses on the street. What I think we’re looking at in the unusual configuration, revealed in section by the demolition, is the tamperings of a later 18th century owner of the house [and its neighbour beyond] who has decided to modernise the front half of the houses, i.e. the bit visible from the street, eliminating the front gable, replicating Georgian fenestration, and taking out the front half of the shared corner chimney stack in favour of building a completely new flat chimney stack to serve the remodelled front rooms, but leaving the roof and the rear half of the house untouched.

Even if the right hand chimney stack had become truncated somewhat over the years, it would still be hard to believe that the guy who built the right hand chimney also built the left hand chimney. I think a later alteration is a more plausible explanation. We know that precisely this scale of alteration occurred in an effort to modernise no-longer-fashionable gabled houses, we have a surviving example just around the corner at no. 20 Molesworth Street.

The fact that the new flat chimney stack is at least two meters higher than it needed to be is probably precisely so that the expensive modernisation would be visible from the street, an action which slightly misses the point about the non-importance of roofscape in the new style regime.

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