The expert who oversaw the restoration of a historic building's long-lost original limestone facade says he hopes the work on Cork's main street will inspire others to save old buildings, and help ‘activate’ the area.
Heritage conservation specialist Chris Southgate was speaking on Saturday as builders struck the last remaining scaffolding from the former Victoria Hotel site on St Patrick’s Street to reveal the full extent of the stunning cut Cork limestone which lay hidden beneath layers of paint and render for decades.
“It wasn't until we got up there on scaffolding and got a look at what we were up against. We couldn't believe that anyone would cover the limestone, let alone paint over it but no one in living memory could remember the limestone,” Mr Southgate, of Southgate Associates said.
“There was a real atmosphere of discovery on this project. It was a heritage-led restoration project from the start. Instead of being a problem on the street, it became an opportunity.
“I think it is a wonderful metaphor about what needs to happen in an active and dynamic city.
“It inspires this idea about what makes a city habitable and dynamic.”
The former Victoria Hotel has occupied this site on the junction of St Patrick's St and Cook St since 1810 and it played a significant role in the social and historic life of the city for almost two centuries.
Among its high-profile guests were Charles Stuart Parnell, Michael Collins, Winston Churchill and James Joyce. It hosted the second meeting of the fledgling Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) in 1884 and it was one of the few buildings on St Patrick’s St to survive the burning of Cork by British forces in December 1920.
Its location marks the line where the burning of Cork stopped and beyond which the street was subsequently rebuilt.
Over the latter part of the 20th century, the hotel’s glory faded, the limestone facade of its upper floors was plastered and painted over, and in 2003 the ground floor was converted to separate retail uses. While the hotel continued to operate on upper floors, it closed in 2011 and has been vacant since.
In 2017, a planning application was lodged by RESAM Properties which sought permission to retain and refurbish the front bays of the building as part of a new high-order retail outlet, for the demolition of the building facing Cook St and for it to be replaced with a new build, and for the addition of a new top floor. There were also plans to restore the hotel’s ballroom.
An Taisce was among those who appealed the city council’s grant of planning to An Bórd Pleanála, raising concerns that the additional floor would “mutilate the existing elegant façade", describing the restoration of the ballroom as “a poor bargain” given the loss of the building's Cook St elements, and “the impairment” of the St Patrick St façade.
Grafton Architects defended their approach and said the scheme had been carefully considered to integrate new and historic elements of the façade.
“Given the prominent location of the site, the proposal was for shopfront of the highest quality design to provide high-quality retail space for a high-quality tenant,” they said.
“The expression of the new shopfront has considered the scale and quality of the context, with elegantly proportioned windows and doors, and a rich palette of robust Irish limestones in keeping with the legacy of the best retail buildings on St Patrick’s Street.
“It was our ambition that the new shopfront, together with the renovation of the historic Cork limestone façade to the upper floors and the reinstatement of the original roof profile, would positively transform the adjacent streetscape, consistent with the intention of our client to make a refined and enduring retail offering appropriate to this important location in Cork City.”
Experts spent months microblasting the paint and render to reveal the limestone, which was then repointed and restored.
Surveying the scene, Mr Southgate, who worked with Arup on the scheme, praised the conservation work by Ahern Bros and Christian Helling, the expert leadwork by Thomas Parsons, the stonework of O’Connell Stone under Summerhill, and the new lime plastered Cook St facade carried out by master plasterer Ken Sisk.
The restoration work even extended to saving an interesting iron weather vane on the chimney stack.
He said: “In my opinion, this is the best example of modern shopfront design for an historic building in my 30-year career. The discovery of the original limestone facade influenced and inspired the current choice of materials to ensure that old and new are soulmates.”