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The Wide Street Commission – Reshaping Dublin

Although it was disbanded over 150 years ago the Wide Street Commission left a legacy that we see in the city to this day. It was created by an act of parliament in 1757, and over its 94 year existence, was responsible for the reshaping of the medieval city into what we recognise today.

The Custom House

The Custom House

The actual reshaping of the old city began in earnest during the reign of King Charles II (1660-1685), when the Earl of Ormonde (Lord Lieutenant of Ireland at the time) had radical plans drawn up. Before this, houses backed onto the Liffey, that over time became little more than a collective sewer. He wanted all house frontages to face the newly built quays, with a street between them and the river. It was an inspired decision that changed the face and character of the city. New large houses and grand buildings, like the Custom House and Four Courts (both designed by James Gandon), enhanced the city’s image.

The commission’s main work was in reshaping central Dublin and it did this through careful planning with different developers given areas of responsibility. One of its first projects was to widen Essex Bridge (now Grattan Bridge) in 1755, so that it could better deal with the traffic of people, horse-drawn vehicles and cattle on their way to market. Parliament Street and the Royal Exchange (now Dublin City Hall) were built later.

O'Connell Bridge

O’Connell Bridge

Most notably, under the guidance of the then Chief Commissioner John Beresford,  a number of narrow streets were demolished to allow for the creation of Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street), which at  160 ft is one of the widest streets in Europe. O’Connell Bridge (also designed by James Gandon) was erected between 1791-1794 connecting both Westmoreland Street and D’Olier Street. Westmoreland Street ran into College Green (as it faced Trinity College) and a newly widened Dame Street led past the Irish Houses of Parliament to Dublin Castle and Christchurch Cathedral beyond. This north-south axis became the dominant feature of the city, leading to better movement for people and carriages. And the new buildings and statues improved the architectural aesthetic. The work of the Commission, though short-lived, certainly left its mark.

O'Connell Street

O’Connell Street

 

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The Custom House – A Dublin Favourite

James Gandon

James Gandon

The Custom House is one of Dublin’s most important and beautiful buildings,  and the first major work designed by James Gandon. He was also responsible for such iconic buildings as the Four Courts, King’s Inns and the curved    screen and portico for the Irish Houses of Parliament facing College Street.

John Beresford, who was appointed the Commissioner for Revenue in Ireland in 1780, was determined to have the new building further east and away from the Parliament Street – Capel Street axis. This decision met with great resistance from merchants who felt that it would reduce trade and property values. Construction was halted by members of Dublin Corporation and the High Sheriff who led a demonstration of may thousand. Beresford, however, was determined to have the building situated on the newly reclaimed land on the north quays and appointed Thomas Cooley as architect. When he died suddenly, Beresford contacted Gandon who came from London and began work in 1781.

Gandon's drawing desk

Gandon’s drawing desk

Work continued for ten years providing employment for the city’s carpenters and stonemasons, and was officially opened on 7th  November 1791. It cost £200,000, a huge sum at the time. The building is 375 feet in length and 205 feet in depth, and has four fronts, of which the south (facing the Liffey) is entirely of Portland stone, and the others of granite. The exterior is adorned with sculptures and coats-of-arms by Thomas Banks, Agnostino Carlini and Edward Smyth who carved a series of sculpted keystones symbolising the rivers of Ireland.

The building was destroyed in May 1921 during the Irish Civil when centuries of records were irrevocably lost. The dome, with the statue of Commerce  atop, was replaced using Ardbraccan limestone that is darker than the original Portland stone. Sadly, most of Gandon’s original interior that was destroyed was impossible to replace, but the building is still one of the city’s favourites.

Custom Hose & Liffey - reflected beauty

Custom Hose & Liffey – reflected beauty

 

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