14 Henrietta Street | Georgian townhouse to tenement dwelling

Restoring 300 years

Henrietta Street is the most intact collection of early to mid-18th century houses in Ireland - work began on the street in the 1720s. From Georgian townhouse to Tenement dwellings, 14 Henrietta Street tells the story of the lives of the people who lived there, and how social change impacted on them over time.

A visit to 14 Henrietta Street allows you to see and understand how tenement living developed, through the mass conversion of the mansions of Dublin to house the families of workers not lucky enough to be securely employed in companies who were building housing such as Guinness. It also looks at the development of urban life, including suburbanisation, housing and development policy and the social and cultural life surrounding all of these.

It’s been a 10-year long journey to rescue, stabilise, weather and ultimately conserve and adapt 14 Henrietta Street. This work began as a result of the Henrietta Street Conservation Plan in 2006, which sought, in key policy points, to address the serious condition of number 14 and its neighbour number 13.

14 Henrietta Street aims to:

  • Collect the history of the house and its occupants
  • Educate Dubliners and visitors about the history of the city through the prism of tenement living, and 

  • Celebrate the strong community ethos evident in Dublin’s tenements.

The 1700s

Numbers 13-15 Henrietta Street were built in the late 1740s by Luke Gardiner as a speculative enterprise. Number 14’s first occupant was The Right Honorable Richard, Lord Viscount Molesworth and his second wife Mary Jenney Usher, who gave birth to two daughters in the house. Subsequent residents over the late 18th century include The Right Honorable John Bowes, Lord Chancellor of Ireland, Sir Lucius O’Brien, John Hotham Bishop of Clogher, and Charles 12th Viscount Dillon.

The 1800s

1800 marked a turning point, when the professionals moved into the street. Between 1800 and 1850 14 Henrietta Street was occupied by Peter Warren, solicitor, and John Moore, Proctor of the Prerogative Court. From 1850-1860 the house was the headquarters of the newly established Encumbered Estates’ Court which allowed the State to acquire and sell on insolvent estates after the Great Famine.

Family life returned to the street in the early 1860s when the Dublin Militia occupied the house until 1876, when Dublin became a Garrison town, with their barracks at Linenhall.

In 1876 Thomas Vance purchased Number 14 and installed 19 tenement flats of one, three and four rooms. Described in an Irish Times advert from 1877:

‘To be let to respectable families in a large house, Northside, recently papered, painted and filled up with every modern sanitary improvement, gas and wc on landings, Vartry Water, drying yard and a range with oven for each tenant; a large coachhouse, or workshop with apartments, to be let at the rere. Apply to the caretaker, 14 Henrietta St.’

The 1900s

By 1911 the house was filled with 100 people while over 850 lived on the street.

The census showed that number 14 was a hive of industry – there were milliners, a dressmaker (tailoress!), French polishers, and bookbinders living and possibly working in the house.

When the last families left in the late 1970s, the house was at last able to rest, quiet after all the children’s games and chatter. No boots thumped on the stairs, there was no gossip on the landings, no laundry drying in the yard. The house fell silent, only the mice continued to find shelter.

The 2000s

Dublin City Council acquired the house in 2000 and the idea for a museum unpicking the story of tenement life came into being. Work began to peel back the layers and find out who had been here before we got here. It is possible to think that those who lived here had no voice, are long gone, and forgotten, but the work to establish the museum has given an important platform to those stories, now and into the future.

The House

Number 14, like many of the houses on Henrietta Street, follows a room layout that separated its various public, private and domestic functions, with spaces that were fluid and flexible. The palatial house is built over five floors, with a railed-in basement, brick-vaulted cellars under the street to the front, a garden and mews to the rear, and a coach house and stable yard beyond.

In the main house the principal rooms in use were located at ground and first floor so that they were ‘more wholesome….being more out of reach of damps’ (Isaac Ware). On these floors a sequence of three interconnecting rooms are arranged around the grand two-storey entrance hall with its cascading Great Stairs. On the ground floor were the family rooms which consisted of a street parlour to the front, a back eating parlour, a dressing room or bed chamber for the Lord of the house, and a closet.

On the first floor level, the piano nobile (or noble floor), were the formal public reception rooms. A drawing room to the front is where the Lord or Lady would host visitors, along with the dining room to the back. The dressing room or bed chamber for the lady of the house, and a closet were also on this floor. Family bedrooms were located on the floor above the piano nobile, and the servants quarters were located in the attic. A second back stairs provides access to all floor levels for family and servants alike.

These grand rooms began as social spaces to display the material wealth, status and taste of its inhabitants. Dublin’s Georgian elites developed a taste for expensive ‘pictures, glasses and tapestry’; for fine fabrics, ‘rich damask and silks’, ‘velvets, mohairs and chints’ [sic], as well as for the growing fashion for furniture made from exotic materials, such as ‘walnuttree' and mahogany.

In the 19th century these vast rooms took on a different more utilitarian tone. Fine decoration and furniture gave way to desks, quills and paperwork with the activities of commissioners, barristers, lawyers, and clerks who moved into the house.

These rooms proved eminently adaptable once again to form one, three and four-roomed tenement flats. Rooms became homes where families cooked and ate, cleaned, washed laundry and slept. The 18th century families and their servants, the lawyers and their clerks, and all the tenement families that lived within these walls are united by their use of the same front door and back stairs.

The Conservation

14 Henrietta Street was virtually abandoned by its owners after the last residents of its tenement flats left the house in 1979. The basement and third (attic) floor had already become uninhabitable when this period of neglect saw even more serious structural issues ignored. The processes of decay accelerated, leading to rotting of structural timbers (rafter ends, floor joist ends, window heads), loss of decorative plasterwork, and vandalism, which cumulatively led to the house nearing imminent collapse.

The welcome but short-lived presence of caretakers in the early 1980s temporarily safeguarded the house. Though regrettable now, at this time the tenement layers of wallpaper and linoleum and the timber-framed partitions which were used to decorate and subdivide the house into tenement flats of 3 or 4 rooms were substantially removed, with only traces remaining prior to work to stabilise the house. The crude installation of electrical services damaged significant decorative features. Attempts were made to address structural issues which were at best ineffective and at worst severely damaging to the building’s fabric and structural integrity. By the late 1990s the house was also used as a dumping ground for domestic and office waste. As a result, the ground floor and basement rooms were largely inaccessible.

Significant work was required over a decade to save the front façade, the roof and rafters, the brick on the rear elevation and sash windows, of which only six of 18th century origin remained.

Internally the condition of the house was poor, with major structural failure, poorly executed previous repairs and moisture ingress causing decay and localized growth of Dry Rot.

The back staircase was unsafe to use and the basement flight had lost all structural integrity, preventing access beyond ground floor level. Treads had worn away and all but 7 balusters had been entirely removed from the stairs. Floor joist ends were rotted in many places but particularly at ground floor level. The floor structure of the closet space (the small room at the end of the sequence of rooms) had been removed throughout which further affected the house’s structural stability.

Predominantly of late 18th century date, internal wall surfaces were largely intact particularly in the back hall and stairs where Reckitt’s Blue and Raddle red, synonymous Dublin tenement paint colours, survived in the entrance hall, back hall and stairs.

Technically, the project was loaded with challenges; from the rebuilding of the bottom section of the rear wall (propping the upper section required inventive temporary works), to dealing with ‘the spirit of economic rationalism’ of the Dublin builders of the Georgian period who pushed materials and construction technologies beyond their structural limits and, all located within a very tight urban site with limited access.

Use of traditional crafts and skills

The 14 Henrietta Street conservation project employed expert craftspeople in the area of specialist stone repairs; wrought iron repairs; wallpaper conservation and reproduction; linoleum reproduction; specialist joinery repairs and new joinery; specialist historic paint and surface finishes; specialist decorative plasterwork (cleaning; repairs; restoration); lime plaster and render (including renewal and repair); and repairs to mid-to-late 20th century tiled fireplaces.

In addition to the traditional skills, expert craft skills are apparent in the bespoke concrete flooring; the solid wall brickwork of the new return and, the casting of new fireplace surrounds. It is a notable aspect of the works that practically all repairs and works have been done in-situ (the steel for the new stairs and the timber glazed extension are the only off-site constructed elements). Thus, for the duration of the contract, 14 Henrietta Street became a house of craft workshops.

Use of appropriate materials

Care has been taken at all stages of the project to use compatible and appropriate materials. For conservation and repair works, analysis and identification of original materials informed specifications – e.g. lime mortars; timber species; stone grafts/replacements. Reversible paints have been used where over-painting historic layers. Materials for new elements have been selected and specified for architectural compatibility and legibility. A limited palette of traditional materials has been used.

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