175th anniversary of the office of public works || a glittering legacy

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  • Irish Arts Review

    A Glittering LegacyAuthor(s): Alan MurdochSource: Irish Arts Review (2002-), Vol. 23, 175th Anniversary of the Office of Public Works(2006), pp. 26-29Published by: Irish Arts ReviewStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25503514 .Accessed: 12/06/2014 21:02

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    Sparkling like an upturned chandelier in spring sunshine, the resur

    rected Great Palm House at Glasnevin to be awarded a Europa

    Nostra Award this June once more resembles the lavish centrepiece

    of Ireland's National Botanic Gardens it was always meant to be (Figs

    16k5). The 72-foot colossus is a throwback to the heyday of the great Victorian

    explorers. David Livingstone sent newly discovered plant seeds here, while

    Charles Darwin took a close personal interest.

    The 1884 original structure cost just under ?800 (excluding the large

    wings) and itself had replaced a rotten, storm-damaged and ungainly 1860

    glass-house derided by locals as 'like an ould gable end.' The meticulous

    reconstruction costing 13m involved an unlikely marriage of Victorian and

    modern technologies. Original wrought iron and teak dating from the 1880s

    has been renewed using traditional skills; lasers were

    used to set the restored columns back into their pre

    cise positions. Minute air gaps help limit condensa

    tion, while computer-controlled window motors now

    do the work of the unwieldy manual winding gears in

    regulating humidity.

    The overhead walkways on the outside now act as

    lateral beams, cleverly shifting the load on to the rear

    wall. It too has been completely rebuilt, stone by num

    bered stone, after an alarmed engineer inspected it

    and declared flatly 'that wall shouldn't be standing.' It

    turned out that it was only being kept in place by the


    The first crisis encountered by Ciar?n O'Connor,

    the OPWs assistant principal architect leading the

    restoration with colleague Gerry Harvey, was discover

    ing that the original columns of wrought iron encasing

    a teak spine had suffered an unusual electro-chemical

    attack. Ferrous oxide had reacted over decades with the

    teak's tannic acid causing a battery-like corrosion.

    The solution was to use a narrow, flexible mastic

    barrier between them. The oil in teak means it does not

    accept paint easily, so a special 'breathing' paint had also to be developed by

    OPW suppliers. Iron surfaces were carefully roughened so paint would adhere.

    Clear glass has replaced frosted sheets among almost 10,000 panes (Fig 2).

    Much of the uniquely uneven Victorian glass has been retained to avoid a dead

    flat 'office block' effect. The OPW built up its specialist knowledge while work

    ing on the adjacent Curvilinear Range of hot houses. This supremely elegant

    family of hot houses, each with its own distinctive climate and planting, was

    built in stages between 1843 and 1869, and is widely considered to be among

    the top five of its kind in Europe. The 1995 restoration costing 4.6m also

    won a Europa Nostra Award for faithful reconstruction of a historic building

    (Figs 3

  • The idea was that curves would allow the sun to enter from different

    angles for maximum light 5 The Great Palm


    6 The Curvilinear

    range of hot houses

    is considered to be

    among the top five

    of its kind in Europe

    7 Interior of the

    Great Palm House

    Claudius Loudon's London glasshouse experiments,

    leading the Dubliner and his collaborator, architect

    Decimus Burton, towards gothic and filigree touches

    reflecting mid-Victorian taste for the picturesque over

    the formal. 'The functional became decorative,' says

    O'Connor. 'The idea was that curves would allow the

    sun to enter from different angles for maximum light.

    Science has since shown the amount of (penetrating)

    sun is not so different.' The result was however

    uniquely graceful.

    The Turner family had long earned a crust produc

    ing mundane items: nuts, bolts, water tanks, bed posts,

    and Trinity College Dublin's 18th-century railings,

    along with one-off jobs such as the gates of Dublin

    Castle. The OPW architect believes Richard Turner

    was something of a perfectionist: 'He wasn't a feller

    who said: "let's just keep hacking out the same stuff."

    Here was a guy who was pushing his material to the

    limit'. He also had a practical manner. 'If asked "Can

    you do that?" he'd say "Oh yes" and draw it there and

    then. He had a very good rapport with clients.'

    His first breakthrough had been to convince the

    RDS in 1843 that wooden greenhouses and humidity

    loving tropical plants did not mix. Iron, he explained,

    would far outlast the timber structures that had rotted

    one after another at Glasnevin since 1800. Turner,

    described as 'an ingenious, tasty, clever fellow,' had

    been successfully building wrought iron glasshouses

    since the early 1830s. These progressed in style and

    engineering from early Fermanagh and Tipperary con

    tracts (1833-37) to later creations at the Lord

    Lieutenant's Dublin home and at Belfast's Botanic

    Gardens, before his Glasnevin and Kew triumphs.

    Today visitors stroll in off the streets, but 160 years

    ago the Gardens offered the public much the same wel

    come as Marie Antoinette's dinner table. In the mid

    19th century this was a bastion of unyielding privilege

    where the gentry and their hangers-on fought a dogged

    rearguard action in defence of garden snobbery. The

    gardens were the offspring of the patrician Royal Dublin

    Society, which first emerged as a semi-academic body to

    promote innovation in agriculture, science, industry

    and art. One of the Irish Parliament's final acts in 1800,

    before Union ended self-government, was to pump

    extra funds into the fledgling project, which opened on

    a 16-acre site (now 48) in May 1800. With arrogance

    verging on absolutism, controlling powers now turned

    the public away from an amenity they had paid for

    through tax. For half a century the gardens were a pri

    vate gentlemens' club which visitors needed a special

    pass to enter. In 1852 public access was permitted from

    Monday to Friday. Whether Glasnevin should open to

    the public on Sunday, the labouring masses' one day of

    rest, became a battle royal. The toffs rallied 6,000 sig

    natures for what amounted to a 'keep the plebs out'

    petition. This was countered by 16,000 names favour

    ing free access. The gentry and emerging middle class

    es, the so-called 'quality' feared the arrival of Dublin's

    tenement-dwelling masses would lead to the gardens'

    desecration. 'They believed "ignorant"people would not

    know how to behave,' says O'Connor. Hostilities

    reached boiling point in the summer of 1861 when the

    Government delivered the RDS an ultimatum: allow

    the public in or lose your grants. The Exchequer, with

    William Gladstone in the role of the wrought iron

    Chancellor, held all the cards. Dockers and chamber

    maids could now marvel at the glass Versailles, no


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    longer the exclusive preserve of any Roi Soleil of the

    RDS. As up to 15,000 now poured in on Sundays, a

    local magistrate reported drunkenness in decline, while

    fears of wholesale plant theft proved unfounded.

    Once the Glasnevin access row was over and with

    architects at the helm, the evolving Curvilinear Range

    was completed in 1869 after Turner and his son

    William extended the wings, doubling the size to

    accommodate swelling weekend crowds, and added the

    distinctive high turrets. The new Palm House was com

    pleted in 1884 from components cast in Paisley,

    Glasgow, from where decorative wrought iron was

    exported to customers from Australia to Bermuda. It

    was no Turner replica, but its turrets and curvilinear