• Sunday , 17 November 2019

Angels in the Architecture – looking up on Grafton Street


It’s that time of year when people pause in the street to look up at the lights. The magical atmosphere of Christmas makes people walk at a slower pace, taking in their surroundings more than they usually would. And when you look up from the shopfronts on Grafton Street, you realise that there’s a lot more to see than just some festive decorations.

Although Grafton Street dates from at least the 17th century, much of the street was redeveloped in the Victorian and Edwardian periods, as it gained its identity as the pre-eminent shopping street of Dublin. The eclectic mixture of styles along the street gives it a special character, and ensures that the streetscape remains lively. Much of the Victorian/Edwardian Street was developed to the designs of either William Mansfield Mitchell or Laurence Aloysius McDonnell, and many of their works can be seen to this day. The special character of the street has been recognised by the 2006 Dublin City Council decision to make it an Architectural Conservation Area.

An example of Mitchell’s work can be seen at Ted Baker, near the top of the street. This Gothic façade has a pointed triple light window at first floor level, accentuated by the contrasting red brick window surrounds. The façade is animated by the contrast between red and yellow-white bricks, and by the courses of moulded bricks at second, third and cornice level. Mitchell also rebuilt most of the block between Wicklow Street and Suffolk Street, in red-brick, with some limestone keystones on the first and third floor windows, and strongly articulated quoining. The block would be quite homogenous were it not for later reconstruction of some buildings, namely the ornately carved 1912 Jacobean façade of River Island, and the 1930s dark red brick Art Deco façade at Weir’s Jewellers – originally a Turkish bath house – which create variety in this part of the street.

Numbers 24-25, home to Meteor and Carl Scarpa, is one of the most interesting facades on the street (see photo below). Built in the 1860s, the four-storey, five-bay, Italian style building has faces carved into the keystones and column capitals, and intricate string courses. The Dublin Builder described it as, ‘novel and successful when it was completed, and was designed by Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt and William Francis Caldbeck.’[i]


While Mitchell’s works were mostly carried out in the 1870-80s, McDonnell presided over the 1890-1900s development of the street. The most striking of McDonnell’s buildings is on the north corner with Chatham Street, now home to Monsoon. Terracotta is used lavishly here, outweighing the amount of brick on the façade, with high relief panels at first floor level showing putti (secular cherubs) on a background of foliage (see photo below). The red brick and terracotta were supplied by J.C. Edwards, of Ruabon, Wales, and give the building a monochromatic appearance, McDonnell adhering to the Waterhouse dictum that colour contrast kills form.[ii] It was originally one of two identical commercial premises: the headquarters of Lambert, Brien and Co., ‘lamp oil refiners, soap merchants and wax chandlers to her Majesty’; and Robinson and Sons photographers, and was two gables wide. Located on a curve in the street, the building had a prominent position and could be seen from St. Stephen’s Green. The vista from St. Stephen’s Green included the façade to Chatham Street and Grafton Street, and so both facades are given equal decorative treatment.


McDonnell returned to this block between Chatham Street and Harry Street some years later, to rebuild the building to the north end of the block, now Permanent TSB, in a neo-Jacobean style. Later again, he filled in the remaining buildings in this block, three two-bay red brick buildings with oriel windows, and extensive use of terracotta (see first photograph). Only one of these three buildings remains today, now vacant at ground floor level. In 1948 a modern building was built on this block – replacing two of these buildings and also one gable of the ornate Monsoon building. Until recent years this new building was the home of HMV. This block can be seen in the photograph below, with the ornate Lambert building to the left and the later buildings with the oriel windows beside the neo-Jacobean Permanent TSB to the right.


McDonnell was also responsible for the sandstone and red brick building on the corner with Nassau Street, now the Bank of Ireland. Terracotta panels depict urns and floral swags here, and the two-tier round oriel turns the corner to Nassau Street elegantly. As with the Monsoon building, this building occupies a prominent position in the urban street scape, visible as you turn the corner from College Green. These buildings closed urban vistas, and McDonnell took great care in their detailing and appearance so as to enhance the urban environment.

An issue raised in the ACA for Grafton Street was the insertion of modern shop fronts, and the resulting loss of architectural richness and character. For the most part, the higher levels of these buildings survive intact, and we need only look up, above the shopfronts and past the Christmas lights, to see the detail and beauty that still remains.

[i] Caldbeck also designed the original Brown Thomas premises, now home to Marks and Spencer. This building was remodelled and only the façade remains today.

[ii] McDonnell worked in the offices of James Franklin Fuller, in the late 1870s. Fuller, in turn, had worked in the offices of Alfred Waterhouse as a young architect.



Casey, C. (2009) Buildings of Ireland: Dublin. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Keating, S. ‘Chromatic Delights: Dublin’s Terracotta Buildings in the later Nineteenth century’. In:  Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies. Vol IV.
Dublin City Council. (2006) Grafton Street and Environs Architectural Conservation Area.

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