Demolish or Preserve?  The dilemma for the future of the architectural  heritage of Tullamore and of many other Irish towns. By Fergal MacCabe

The Architectural Heritage of Tullamore

Our architectural heritage may be defined as those structures which by their very great beauty, important historical connotations or unique scientific value contribute to creating a memorable experience.

To be frank, the town centre of Tullamore  contains few buildings or spaces which meet these criteria but it does have its own distinct local qualities and is a decent if unpretentious town whose stock of late 18th and early 19th c. buildings are worthy of consideration.

Yet, over the past eighty years many fine buildings which contributed to the architectural heritage of Tullamore have been lost. The removal of the Tarleton House in 1936 radically changed the spatial character of O’Connor Square. The Grand Canal Hotel which closed the vista on the Daingean Road and the wonderful Tudor style castellated Mercy Convent were removed in the 1960s and early 1970s. The architectural quality of both the former Charleville Estate office by Richard Castle and the facade of D.E. William’s shop on Patrick Street by Michael Scott was compromised and the wonderful Modernist Ritz Cinema partially demolished. The landscaped setting of the County Hospital was built over.  Many original shop fronts were replaced.

 As Andrew Tierney has observed in his ‘Buildings of Leinster’ a lot of the original features of Protected Structures around the town have now been removed or insensitively altered.

The building behind the Mr Price facade in High Street, dating to about 1750. This picture in 1959

Promising Signs

To balance this gloomy picture, there have been several excellent restorations and reusages of individual important buildings. Tullamore Town Council bought and restored Acres Hall. The Bank of Ireland carried out admirable work to conserve the Goodbody Warehouse in O’Connor Square. William Grant and Company converted the former Bonded Warehouse at Bury Quay to a Visitor Centre. The former St Columba’s School was sensitively restored as the De Montfort apartments.

Other encouraging signs include the well-executed restorations for residential purposes of historic buildings on High Street and Store Street by enthusiastic householders as well as the sensitive infilling of the site of the former pub on Harbour Street by five terraced houses. The soon to be opened conversion of the former Kilroy’s shop on High Street as a new Arts and Performance Centre, will hopefully act as a catalyst for similar projects and a restored of Acres Folly will add to the amenity of the Lloyd Town Park.

The bonded warehouse of 1897 from a watercolour by Fergal MacCabe

Current Conservation Policy

The 1979 Tullamore Town Plan listed five buildings for preservation. Today, there are two hundred and six of which one hundred and fifty are located in the historic centre of Tullamore ie. the area bounded by the Grand Canal on the north, the railway line on the south, St Catherine’s Church on the east and Marian Place on the west and has listed these for protection in its Development Plan.

Designating an individual building as a Protected Structure places stringent obligations on the owner and occupier to conserve every single element, internal as well as external. No changes whatsoever can be made without obtaining consent, which may require the submission of lengthy and costly Heritage Impact Statements. The burden of maintenance falls on the unfortunate owners, but grants are meagre and access to them costly and frustrating. Those with an interest in historic or beautiful buildings will willingly take on the work and costs of restoration, but for many it may be beyond their means or abilities.

As the Government seeks to revive town centres and in particular to encourage people to come back and live in them, this inflexible approach towards architectural conservation may be a disincentive. While the conservation and renewal of really important structures such as the Courthouse or the Market House is imperative, the extent to which such restrictions, coupled with the application of strict fire and access regulations, help or hinder urban living for ordinary people is now under review.

An Alternative Approach

If the principal concern is to maintain the essential civic character of important streets and spaces, then designation as Architectural Conservation Areas (ACAs) may be a more appropriate device. 

 ACAs are defined as:

‘A place, area, group of structures,taking account of building lines and heights, that is of special architectural,historical, archaeological,artistic,cultural, scientific,social or technical interest or that contributes to the appreciation of a Protected Structure’.

Reasonable alterations or additions of individual buildings are encouraged, though subject to a less onerous consent process. Successive Tullamore Town Plans have promised to introduce ACAs but have failed to do so. Were they to be introduced, a less restrictive view might then be taken of internal changes or extensions which would correspondingly encourage investment and adaptation to more contemporary uses.

Which Streets and Spaces?

In identifying  ACAs in Tullamore, several criteria might be considered:

  1. Location within the historic core.
  2. Having a distinct and discernible architectural and civic design quality.
  3. Containing a significant number of Protected Structures or buildings with historic resonances.
  4. Location on well frequented routes
  5. Being in a reasonably good state of repair and maintenance.

Undoubtedly O’Connor Square fulfils these criteria as does the largely intact 18th and 19th c. Cormac Street from Acres Hall to the Station and probably O’Moore Street also. There are several other important streets whose contribution is more difficult to assess and which highlight the difficulty of settling on a sensible conservation policy. Three particular streets exemplify all the dilemmas of preservation versus change.

The Methodist church and terrace in Church Street.

Church Street

Bookended by the 1788 County Infirmary and the 1889 Methodist Chapel, the southern side of Church Street from the Methodist Church to the County Infirmary is an impressive and coherent streetscape with its thirteen two and three storey terraced houses and their notable dressed stone door cases. This well-proportioned terrace was laid out by Francis Johnston in 1820 and includes five Protected Structures.

The northern side may not be as uniform in character but is a well-mannered architectural composition with several good vernacular buildings, all in a good state of repair.

Church Street therefore seems a prime candidate for designation as an ACA.

High Street Lower

The eastern side of High Street from O’Connor Square to Dr Wilson’s house of 1789 (Donal Farrelly Solicitors) contains some of the most architecturally important buildings in the town including Nicholas Crawford’s House of 1730 (Mr Price), whose design has been attributed to the great architect Richard Castle and also the remaining part of the former Art Deco Ritz Cinema. Though substantially altered at ground floor level by the insertion of shop fronts, Colonel Crowe’s house (lately Sambodinos) still retains its imposing door case. The sensitive restoration of the former Kilroy family home is notable.

The western side is dominated by Sandham Syme’s 1870s Bank of Ireland (Hoey and Denning Solicitors) and also contains the former Copper Pot public house of 1790 as well as the offices of Conway and Kearney of the same era with its unusual doorcase,all of which are Protected Structures.

The former Kilroy shop is presently being redeveloped to provide a new Community Arts Centre with access along a reopened Meath Lane to a new south facing public performance space.

This stretch of the street contains five Protected Structures, of which two, the Ritz Cinema and Nicholas Crawford’s house, have been significantly altered. The awkward looking remainder of the facade of the former might be remedied on foot of the imminent road connection to the Tanyard. The removal of the shopfront which mars the facade of the latter and the restoration of the entire building would be a very worthwhile and prestigious project.

Were these works to be carried out, designation as an ACA would be appropriate, otherwise it would not appear to make sense. 

The Colonel Crowe house dating to 1750 and greatly altered in the mid-1970s. To the right the Ritz Cinema.

Patrick Street

Possibly the most continuous and active shopping frontage in the town, the northern side of Patrick Street contains a notable Protected Structure, the former DEW building. Set back from the street frontage, this stone-built palazzo dates from the 1750s and is one of the most important buildings in the town.

Otherwise, the street is composed of buildings of various heights and styles, several possibly early to mid 18th. c. but which have been much compromised over the years by shopfronts and signage.

As many of the buildings back onto the former Tesco site which has been identified as a prime redevelopment opportunity, there is a case to be made for the wholesale  redevelopment of this side of the street within the context of an agreed plan and with a uniform elevational treatment regarding building heights and finishes. This approach would permit  the replacement over time of all or any with new buildings, apart from the one Protected Structure and would echo the redevelopment by Lord Charleville of the southern side of the street in 1786. Inclusion therefore, within an ACA would not be appropriate 

The market house of 1789 in O’Connor Square. To the right the war memorial of 1926

The Need for a Civic Survey

Tullamore has always been a vibrant town and cannot be frozen in time. If a building is to be statutorily protected, this should only be within the context of a policy which clearly sets out why this is necessary and how it is to be achieved.

The basis of such a policy should be a survey and analysis of the civic qualities of the town centre, not just the Protected Structures, which can then inform local stakeholders in deciding which streets and spaces require protection and enhancement and what steps, practical and financial, will be taken to achieve this.

Civic improvement and architectural preservation will play a large part in any integrated strategic vision to guide the future development of Tullamore, but no future funding programme should be conceived and imposed from on high without the local input and democratic consents which are the essential ingredients of any good plan.

Fergal MacCabe