Architect’s family considers conservation order to halt ESB plan

When controversy erupted in the mid-1960s over plans for its construction, a revered architectural expert opined that the ESB headquarters which now stands on Dublin’s Fitzwilliam St was only replacing “one damned house after another ... a rubbish uneven series”.

Architect’s family considers conservation order to halt ESB plan

One would have to wonder whether Sir John Summerson, an English architectural historian, had been given a look at the plans for the building which would replace the 16 Georgian homes of which he was being so dismissive.

At the time the ESB’s drive to erase the properties was met with abject horror in many quarters — huge public meetings were held to discuss the plans. The Irish Georgian Society even hired its own internationally regarded architect Sir Albert Richardson to rubbish the power company’s claims that the houses were degrading while residents in the surrounding streets petitioned the “ground landlord”, Lord Pembroke, saying their properties would be devalued by the ESB’s new proposals.

A petition by the IGS attracted 3,000 signatures and one by the marquis of Sligo on behalf of the ESB Fitzwilliam Street Protest Group attracted high-profile names including Princess Grace of Monaco and Charlie Chaplin.

Their efforts were in vain as local government minister Neil Blaney overturned Dublin Corporation’s decision to reject the plans by architect Sam Stephenson whose design is what one now sees as one drives through Dublin’s southside.

It would appear even the State-owned power company itself became somewhat unhappy with the building it currently occupies. It went so far as to open a Georgian museum next door, in which visitors could see what a house from the era might have looked like.

Now the power company is admitting its current home is “very inefficient and expensive to maintain” and promising a replacement which “respects the surrounding architectural heritage”.

The problem is the family of the late Sam Stephenson are none-too-happy with the planned redevelopment of the building which he masterminded. Most vocal is his niece Simone Stephenson, herself a renowned conservation architect renowned for a number of projects including the restoration of a Martello tower in Dalkey.

She was recently quoted by the Sunday Times as saying the building her uncle designed is a “monument in itself ... has intrinsic value and deserves to be recognised”.

The family are contemplating a conservation order to stop the ESB’s plans. Those plans are thanks to a design by two award-winning architect firms, Grafton and O’Mahony Pike. Their proposal bears a striking resemblance to the streetscape that was levelled to make way for the current building.

The ESB itself says the proposal is “to deliver a building that is respectful to its history, sensitive to its surroundings and representative of its own time”, though it concedes the design “reinterprets” the surrounding architectural heritage.

Given the battle which surrounded the construction of the existing behemoth, it is not surprising the power company is circumspect as to a construction date for its replacement.

“Construction could commence as soon as 2016 subject to the planning process and subsequent business case approval,” it cagily forecast in its press release.

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