Ronnie Lyon was a colourful character, a self-made entrepreneur from Essex, a builder and developer known for his lavish parties involving fleets of Daimlers and pet cheetahs. I like to think that it was at one of these parties that he met the equally colourful, Sir Basil Goulding. Sir Basil was known to commute to work on a skateboard, necktie tied around his waist and a streak of coloured marker in his otherwise silver head of hair. Whatever the manner of their meeting they obviously found some common ground and in 1964 Sir Basil engaged Ronald Lyon Estates to develop a new office building at Wilton Place on the banks of the Grand Canal near Leeson Street bridge. Ronnie Lyon put two of his in-house architects on the case, Emanuel Shoolheifer (1920-2007) and Don Burley. The result was Fitzwilton House.
Shoolheifer had made a bit of a name for himself with a number of high-profile residential schemes for Lyon on the outskirts of London in the early 1960s: the award-winning Wheatlands Estate in Hounslow (1963); and Manygate Lane in Shepperton (1964), a modernist residential estate which counted Tom Jones, Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger among its residents (it is located close to Shepperton Studios). Sarah Wise, writing in The Guardian in 1999, described the project as ‘a rare British experiment in modernist private-sector housing.’ Manygate Lane was designated a conservation area in 2002.
At some point during the development of Fitzwilton House Shoolheifer & Burley made a break with Ronald Lyon Estates and formed their own practice. By this stage Goulding had struck up a rapport with Shoolheifer and appointed the fledgling practice to complete the architectural design of the new office building. According to his son, David Shoolheifer, the practice went on to design a number of projects for Goulding in Ireland. Little is recorded of this output with the exception of the Insurance Corporation of Ireland building on Burlington Road (1979, since demolished). Around the same time as they were working on Fitzwilton House, Shoolheifer & Burley also designed the Little Theatre (now Dolman Theatre), in Newport, Wales which was lauded at the time as an exemplar of its type and continues to operate successfully today. The building features a mural by celebrated German artist, Hans Feibusch.
Fitzwilton House was completed in 1969 and is described by Christine Casey as ‘A nine storey tower with a low rear bustle, flanked by advanced three-storey blocks creating a raised north facing court on Cumberland Rd… a ground floor colonnade and elaborate cage-like network of concrete columns and stick-like mullions which clearly express the tower’s structural grid'.
It is a bold expression of modernist architecture with a complex layered façade incorporating at least five different concrete finishes. It is by any measure a significant building in the canon of modern architecture in Dublin. Despite its height and prominence it is almost invisible from nearby Fitzwilliam Place. By contrast, it forms a dramatic backdrop to the canal, the tower forming a bookend to the vista from Baggot Street bridge. The ground plane around the building suffers from an unsightly and unkempt surface car park – but it is not hard to imagine a redesign of this space which could engage with the canal bank and reclaim the space from the coaches that currently idle there.
The construction of Fitzwilton House was not without its controversy. Build magazine bemoaned the loss of the six detached houses which had previously occupied the site: ‘a whole passing genre of veterans who are deemed to have outlived their usefulness and are now, in the veterinary sense, being put down'. It is ironic now that Fitzwilton House itself seems set to suffer the same fate. The same dismissive attitude that saw the destruction of so much of Dublin’s architectural heritage (‘one damned house after another') is now being applied to the more recent heritage of 1960s modernist architecture.
Those who remember the damage caused to the fabric of the city by the construction of these buildings may find it difficult to shed a tear when these too are threatened but it is unfair to judge the quality of a building by the circumstances of its inception. We are in danger of stripping the city of the remnants of modernism in favour of a built environment that has more to do with maximizing ‘return on investment’ than it does with architecture. And these buildings in turn will be replaced by newer shinier replacements in a wasteful cycle of destruction and reconstruction. On environmental grounds alone this is lamentable – in the context of our limited modernist architectural heritage, it is scandalous.
An application for permission to demolish Fitzwilton House has been lodged with Dublin City Council (Ref: 2051/16). The last date for observations is 18 February 2016.
With thanks to David Shoolheifer, Simon Walker and Shane O’Toole who assisted in the research of this article.
1. Taken by Ciarán Ferrie
2.|3. Manygate Lane by kind permission from The Modern House Ltd.
Notes Ronnie Lyon Obituary, The Telegraph 07.12.2004 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1478375/Ronnie-Lyon.html.  Shoolheifer is sometimes referred to as Edward Schoolheifer [sic].  Wheatlands Estate: Past & Present http://www.wheatlandsestate.co.uk/past-present/4566255848.  The Modern House: Manygate Lane, Shepperton http://www.themodernhouse.net/past-sales/manygate-lane-7/history/.  Planning Architecture Design Database Ireland (paddi) http://www.paddi.net/?func=display_structure&structure_id=3674&structure_location_id=5934.  TABS March 1968 Vol 26 No. 1 http://www.theatrecrafts.com/archive/tabs/scans/1968_Vol26_1.pdf. Christine Casey (2005) Dublin: The City Within the Grand and Royal Canals and the Circular Road, with the Phoenix Park (Pevsner Architectural Guides: Buildings of Ireland).  Frank McDonald (1985) The Destruction of Dublin: Gill and MacMillan.  Sir John Summerson arguing the case for the construction of Stephenson Gibney’s ESB building on Fitzwilliam Street.