Monday, December 12, 2005

The Weekly Building: The Custom House

Yep this is the new feature I wanted to do. Every Friday, I'll be documenting the history of a different Dublin building. It's struck me for the past few years how little so many people know about our fair city and some of the magnificent buildings within.

The Custom House
(James Gandon:1781-91)

Isn't she just the most beautiful building you've ever seen? I pass the Custom House every day on the DART, and that south front never ceases to take my breath away. Perfect in every way. Ireland's greatest building.

The Custom House is often considered architecturally the most important building in Dublin and is sited on the river front with Beresford Place to the rear. The Custom House was the first major public building built in Dublin as an isolated structure with four monumental façades. The previous Custom House by Thomas Burgh and built in 1707 was sited up river at Essex Quay and was judged as unsafe just seventy years later (despite it's not actually being terribly unsafe.). The site chosen for the new Custom House met with much opposition from city merchants who feared that its move down river would lessen the value of their properties while making the property owners to the east wealthier. The decision to built further down river was forced by the Rt. Hon. John Beresford (1738-1805) who was appointed Chief Commissioner from 1780 onwards and was instrumental in bringing James Gandon to Ireland. He favoured shifting the city centre eastwards from the Capel - Parliament Street axis towards a new axis on College Green with Drogheda Street and the construction of a new bridge linking the two sides. Mainly because he owned large estates in the area and knew that a new bridge downstream would enrich him considerably. The building was built on slob land reclaimed from the estuary of the Liffey when the Wide Streets Commissioners constructed the Quays. The line of the crescent Beresford Place that surrounds the Custom House follows roughly the line of the old North Strand along the estuary before the construction of the Quays.Started in 1781, the new Custom House was finished ten years later at a cost of over £200,000, a sum that raised uproar in Parliament (who themselves had a magnificent and not inexpensive new building on College Green). The finished external design consisted of four façades each different but consistent and linked by corner pavilions. The exterior of the building is richly adorned with sculptures and coats-of-arms by Thomas Banks, Agnostino Carlini and Edward Smyth who carved a series of sculpted keystones symbolising the rivers of Ireland.

In the Irish Civil War of 1921-1922 the interior of the Custom House was destroyed when the building was completely engulfed by fire lit by the IRA. The fire blazed for five days, destroying a huge quantity of public records. The heat was so intense that the dome melted and the stonework was still cracking because of cooling five months later and Gandon's interior was completely destroyed. The building underwent serious reconstruction and the dome and drum were completely rebuilt in Ardbraccan limestone as opposed to the original Portland stone because we were too cheap to import stone from abroad, and also because it was desired that more Irish materials be used in the building. Anyone looking at the south facade now can see the damage that did to the overall scheme, as the dark brown drum contrast unwelcomingly with the sparklingly white Portland stone. The building was further restored by the Office of Public Works in the 1980s after it was discovered that the large cornice was in danger of collapsing from the damage caused by the fire and the rusting of the ironwork braces holding the stonework together. The fine sculptures and coats-of-arms that adorn the building were restored and a new Portland Stone cornice fitted to replace the sub standard one fitted after the fire.

The Custom House has been claimed to be the inspiration for several other buildings of note, both here and abroad. It takes much of it's cues from Somerset House in London, designed by Gandon's master, Sir William Chambers, though our Dublin masterpiece surpasses that monolithic building in our sister capital by miles.

Buildings claimed to be the descendants of the Custom House include Government Buildings in Dublin(left and right), with its long street frontage, central domed entrance and use of Portland stone, and the National Concert Hall, the facade of which looks very much like a more severe-and substantially less successful-version of the Custom House, minus the drum and dome.

Abroad, it has been claimed that Edward Lutyens immense Viceroy's Palace in New Delhi, India, takes much of its frontage from the Custom House also.

A great building, then, and one of the neoclassical masterpieces of Europe (no I'm not exaggerating!).

Opening hours are sporadic at best. The Dept of the Environment and Local Government (who occupy the building) have opening hours on their site but they're...wrong. Better off waiting till the summer/spring and then checking tourism sites. I'm pretty sure the little visitor centre is closed at the mo.

I've been getting public transport past the Custom House for the past 9 years. And I have never failed to admire its magnificent design when passing. A wonderful vantage point is from the Northbound platform of Tara St DART station, but the absolutely best view is from the S.W corner (the left hand side of the building as shown in the 2nd picture in this post). I can't find a picture online to show how good this position is from which to see the building, but believe me, it's taken my breath away before. It just soars away in front of you, above and away towards the sea. The level of craftsmanship is incredible and the design must have been divinely inspired. The river facade is just perfect.

I don't intend to wax this lyrical about the rest of the city, but I thought I'd begin with my favourite.

James Gandon should have a statue to rival O'Connell's in my opinion.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I ask you if this is acceptable. I know that you know. But you say nothing. Pick up the pace please.

I shall say nothing. I shall simply wait for you to say the ritual phrase Furgle.

3:14 PM  

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