Saving Number 21

The significance of 21 Aungier Street had first been identified by An Taisce as far back as 1987 and was a scheduled listed building under the Dublin City Development Plan. By 1992, it was virtually derelict and due to be demolished of foot of a planning permission granted in the same year when Dublin Civic Trust intervened to save the building. Once its historic importance was recognised on foot of further survey investigations by Ian Lumley, the demolition decision was overturned on appeal to An Bord Pleanála. Dublin Corporation subsequently facilitated a ‘site swop’ with the developer who had initially purchased the property from them.

Together with the Department of the Environment, the Corporation gave Dublin Civic Trust a grant to help with the initial stages of saving the building, who took formal possession of the title in 1995. In the same year, the Trust secured planning permission for the complete restoration of the building for a sympathetic mix of uses including retail/service at ground floor with an accommodation component to the upper floors, respecting the plan, layout and original fabric of the structure.

By this stage, a long-standing backlog of maintenance and neglect had severely affected the stability of the building. The original roof had been removed around 1960 and replaced with a flat felt-covered structure which itself was poorly maintained and resulted in extensive water saturation. The saturation of the bonding timbers and lintels in the front wall caused extensive bowing out onto the street, exacerbated by the collapse of multiple floor and ceiling structures internally which originally had helped to hold much of the building together. A complex structural engineering strategy was necessary to arrest the movement and to secure the building in position.

Opposite: The gaunt, windowless shell of Number 21 in the 1990s prior to restoration.

Structural works

The front elevation of Number 21 had been rebuilt c.1810, probably as part of the creation of a shop at street level and the insertion of timber bressumers supported on cast-iron columns. By contrast, surviving internal floor structures were characteristic of the late 17th-century, with massive square beams projecting below ceiling levels, supporting subsidiary square joists in a complex interlocking system. Unfortunately, many of the timbers were either missing or rotted beyond repair due to extensive water saturation over previous decades. It was decided that the positions of former beams would be replaced with steel girders, then an accepted conservation practice as undertaken at Hampton Court Palace in London following fire damage in the 1980s. All other timbers were salvaged and reincorporated where possible. Extensive bowing to the front wall, caused by heavy water saturation and a lack of lateral restraints from vanished floor structures, was resolved using steel girder I-sections and internal steel strapping to tie various walls together in a grid-like formation. 

There was considerable deflection in the levels of all the staircase landings and beams. The staircase was gradually jacked back up into position, removing as much as possible of the slope running towards the partition wall with the adjoining rear rooms. Defective landings were replaced entirely in timber, using original beam profiles and sizes.

View down through the house showing the extensive collapse of internal structures

View down through the house showing the extensive collapse of internal structures


The original brickwork on the front façade was found to be in reasonably good condition behind a coat of render that had been applied during the 20th century. The render was carefully hacked off, spalled bricks were replaced from reputable salvage sources and the entire façade was re-pointed using lime tuck pointing.

Examination of the rear elevation of the building revealed the substantial survival of original masonry walling. However the quality of this brick was poor so it was re-rendered using a lime render.

The building had unfortunately lost its original roof, as well as a likely late Georgian roof during the 20th century. In the absence of a documentary record, it was decided to instate a steeply pitched roof characteristic of the mid-Georgian period for which planning permission was received in 1996.



Opposite: Rear elevation just prior to restoration showing early brickwork through the render.


The approach to window reinstatement to the front elevation was dictated by the early 19th-century façade and the survival of a solitary early 19th-century window on the top floor, which was used as a template for reproduction based on a six-over-six pane formation with slender sash frames and glazing bars. Since there was no surviving or documentary evidence to show what the original rear windows looked like, it was proposed that the new detailing would follow the pattern of two sashes dating to c.1720 discovered in an internal partition which would have originally been used externally. Therefore the rear elevation expresses more closely the spirit of the original early construction period.

At street level, a classical shopfront design was formulated within the late Georgian Dublin tradition, consisting of panelled pilasters, stallrisers and a handsome signage entablature with emphatic cornice. This was based on a group of early 19th-century shopfronts which were located on South King Street, now the site of the St Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre.

Original early 18th-century window used as a template for reproduction

Original early 18th-century window used as a template for reproduction

Interior & staircase

In order to accommodate clearance of debris from the site and the insertion of the extensive structural framework, elements of the first and second floor interiors were salvaged for reinstatement. Wherever possible they were left in situ. This included fireplace surrounds and fire grates, door architraves, window architraves and bases, shutters and dado rails. Where necessary, repairs and replacements were replicated from surviving intact examples. Historic lime plaster wall finishes and plaster partitions were maintained where possible but unfortunately most of the original lath-and-plaster ceilings had already been lost.

The central feature of the house, the spectacular 17th-century staircase, exhibited a considerable level of deflection and required immediate stabilisation. In order to realign the levels with the landings – some of which were also deflecting – it was decided to carefully jack up individual flights as close as possible to their original position, providing more comfortable access to the rear rooms. Beam structures supporting the landings were salvaged where possible, however most had to be new-made to the original dimensions. Carraige pieces underneath the stair flights were given additional support and splice repairs were carried out to the steps, handrail and magnificent vase-shaped balusters, before final cleaning and waxing.


Opposite: The rare 17th century staircase in Number 21 prior to refurbishment. The chunky handrail and vase-shaped balusters are characteristic of the period following the Restoration in 1660.


All major works to Number 21 were completed in June 1995. The building was situated outside a tax-designated area for urban renewal, however it was approved for Section 19 tax relief status by the Revenue Commissioners under the 1982 Finance Act. This incentive certified the building to be of architectural merit, enabling an owner to offset the cost of restoration and maintenance of its fabric against their tax liability on an annual basis, provided public access was allowed for 60 days each year.

Once the property had been fully ‘enveloped’ – i.e. structurally stabilised and made permanently weathertight - an investor was sought to carry out the final phase of internal reinstatement to an agreed specification to avail of the benefit of the Section 19 tax incentive. The building was subsequently purchased by a private entity in 1998 for £110,000, subject to the Heads of Agreement which included retaining special heritage features and use of the property as a café on the ground floor and as a guesthouse on the first, second and third floors. The acceptance of its special heritage features was subject to an agreement between the purchaser, Dublin Corporation and Dublin Civic Trust under Section 38 of the 1963 Local Government Act, in order to preserve its distinctive architectural and historical features.

The more recent history of the building has been erratic. It changed ownership and has been used as a refugee hostel and then as accommodation for young offenders on early release, under a scheme funded by the Department of Justice. It is considered that such an intensive use is unsuitable for such a fragile and significant building that was intended to be accessible to the public at large.

However, the project does highlight the potential of meaningful and targeted tax incentives for culturally significant buildings. The management and setting up of such financial schemes would require careful consideration or further refinement to ensure that long-term objectives such as appropriate uses and public access to the cultural heritage are stipulated for the long-term benefit of the historic structure.