It’s the Tardis effect. Buildings that are larger than they look. Dublin has them aplenty. Perhaps it’s a Franco-Irish leftover from Marie-Antoinette’s pining to play at cottage living under the shadow of Versailles. Sir William Chambers’ 1758 Casino Marino, Italian for ‘little house by the sea’, is the Irish capital’s very own Très Petit Trianon.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, terraced dwellings with all the appearance of being single storey (ok, some of them actually are) sprung up across the city. Bungalows they ain’t. These are miniature sophisticated architectural gems in the grand manner.
This low lying building boom really took off when the Dublin to Dún Laoghaire (née Dun Leary née Kingstown) railway was completed in 1834. These little houses were erected – standalone, semi or together – along the coast from Sandymount near the city centre southwards to Monkstown. The closest equivalent English style of the early versions is Regency.
While some are all on one level, most have a flight of eight or so steps leading to a distinguished doorcase. Despite lacking the verticality of the townhouses lining the streets and squares of the city centre, these small houses still boast the typical Dublin doorcase treatment with attached columns separating the central door from sidelights and a half umbrella fanlight overhead. Many are three bay with a tall sash window on either side of the doorcase. Below the door is typically a string course and beneath it the shorter windows of a semi basement continue the lines of the windows above.
The symmetry and classical proportions of these ‘upside downside’ houses as they are sometimes affectionately called, their main floor raised to piano nobile status, so evocative of French and Italian villas but in maquette form, raise questions about their origins.
The Wide Street Commission of 1757, which lent Dublin such lasting gracefulness, could not rid the city of cholera or beggars. Middle class people quickly took advantage as speculators built summer houses or ‘bathing lodges’ along the stops of the new railway line.
Monkstown was one such area of sudden growth. It doesn’t get a mention in Pettigrew and Oulton’s directory of 1834 but a year later was recorded as being well populated. In 1843 Thackeray records in The Irish Sketchbook:
‘Walking away from the pier and King George’s column, you arrive upon rows after rows of pleasure-houses, wither all Dublin flocks during the summer-time – for every one must have his sea-bathing; and they say that the country houses to the west of the town are empty, or to be had for very small prices, while for those on the coast, especially towards Kingstown, there is the readiest sale at large prices.’
He continues, ‘I have paid frequent visits to one, of which the rent is as great as that of a tolerable London house; and there seem to be others suited to all purses; for instance there are long lines of two-roomed houses, stretching far back and away from the sea, accommodating, doubtless, small commercial men, or small families, or some of those travelling dandies we have just been talking about, and whose costume is so cheap and so splendid.’
The influence of the classical tradition in Ireland is easily traced to Sir William Robinson’s seminal 17th century Royal Hospital Kilmainham. James Gandon and Thomas Ivory flew the flag throughout 18th century Dublin. In the 19th century Francis Johnson, John Skipton Mulvany and the two generations of William Murray kept neoclassicism to the forefront of development. Chambers provided the precedential style of the mini villas; now all that was required was a forerunner in scale.
That comes in the form of an early domestic work by James Gandon. In 1790 he designed Sandymount Park for his friend the landscape painter William Ashford. Like a piece of couture, this house reaches a high standard of splendour which filtered down in a diluted prêt-à-faire fashion to the masses.
The three bay symmetrical single storey over raised basement entrance front extends on either side by a blind bay with a niche at piano nobile level. A rectangular pediment (is there such a thing?) surrounded by one helluvan urn is plonked above the central doorcase. A peak round to the side elevation reveals that Sandymount Park is in fact a three storey dwelling: clerestory windows are squeezed under the eaves.
Single storey with or without a basement houses are an Ireland-wide phenomenon. Urban builders may have been inspired by their country counterparts. Gaultier Lodge, County Waterford; The Grove, County Down; and Fisherwick Lodge all express emphatic horizontality, a love of the longitudinal.
A printed source of inspiration can be added to these built form examples. In 1833 John Loudon published his voluminous Encyclopaedia of Cottage, Farm and Villa Architect. On one of its 1,400 pages, he illustrates The Villa of Hanwayfield which is three bays wide by three bays deep over a raised basement. A pitched roof behind a low parapet rises above the symmetrical elevations, similar to Dublin’s little villas. A few months after its publication, Loudon mentioned in two magazines that his doorstop of an Encyclopaedia had been a bestseller in Ireland. This coincided with the development of Dublin Bay.
Whatever the inspiration was, the fad stuck. Towards the end of the 19th century, Portobello in South Dublin was developed on a grid pattern of one and one-and-a-half storey terraced housing. The material (brick) and the fenestration (plate glass) may have been Victorian but the upside downside model ruled.
Today, these mini villas of Dublin are much sought after hot property. Larger than life characters like Colin Farrell love them – he owns one in Irishtown. But still, a peculiar descriptive term eludes them. Their distant country cousin is a cottage orné. With that in mind, Lavender’s Blue declare ‘cottage grandiose’ as the correct terminology henceforth.