Shops and pubs designed by Michael Scott in the 1940s for D.E. Williams. By Fergal MacCabe

At a time of economic stringency, the architect Michael Scott delivered several elegant retail buildings for a prominent midlands business family. These were executed in a Modernist style and incorporated natural materials in an innovative fashion.

D.E. Williams

In a recent Offaly History blog, Michael Byrne described the expansionary retail strategy of the notable Offaly commercial firm of D. E. Williams in installing high quality shops and pubs in virtually every town and village across the county in the period 1884-1921.

This courageous approach had not deserted the go ahead commercial family when during the Second World War, then modestly referred to as ‘The Emergency’, they ambitiously embarked on the redevelopment of their most prominent retail outlets in Dublin, Athlone and Birr and and most importantly, delivered a flagship shop and public bar in Patrick Street in Tullamore. To implement their progressive strategy they turned to Michael Scott.

Michael Scott

Considered the most important Irish architect of the 20th c.(and along with Tullamore born Yvonne Farrell, one of only three Irish designers to receive the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects), Scott (1905-1989) is noted today for his exercises in the Modernist or International style, particularly the 1950s Dublin Busáras and the Irish Pavilion at the 1936 World’s Fair in New York.

In a conversation with the writer in the 1970s, Scott revealed that he had Offaly connections in the Brady family of Kilcormac, with whom he often stayed when on local site visits particularly of his work on the County Hospital in Tullamore, the Technical School in Clonaslee and the housing scheme for Offaly County Council at The Hill in Banagher. He was also a personal friend of the Williams family and had designed the originally thatched ‘Shepherds Wood’  in Screggan in the 1940s as a wedding present to Desmond and Brenda Williams. 

In 1937 he had been commissioned along with Norman Good to design the County Hospital in Tullamore, still regarded as a high point of Irish Modernist architecture in that period and as a consequence, his local reputation was high.

The Williams Store, Tullamore, Michael Scott, 1942. Courtesy Offaly History

Clonaslee Stone

In his design for the County Hospital Scott pioneered an innovative design language in which the principal feature was roughly dressed  local Ballyduff limestone emphasised and surrounded by strong horizontal plaster bands which constrained and unified the composition. In other works, particularly those for the Williams family, he turned to sandstone from the foot of the nearby Slieve Bloom hills and quarried  in Clonaslee or Rosenallis.

Sandstone is a friable material and not generally considered suitable for substantial load bearing construction. While capable of being worked in detail, it weathers easily and is rarely found in prominent examples of native Irish architecture; a notable exception being Cormac’s Chapel on the Rock of Cashel. Nevertheless, like Howth stone, it has an attractive yellowish colouring and an interesting surface, particularly when roughly finished. Scott’s approach was to lay it on a horizontal bias which mimicked its natural state.

This use of roughly finished sandstone echoes the  1930s Taliesin East house of Frank Lloyd Wright and was to be used by his Irish acolytes, Andy Devane in his own house in Howth and Sean Kenny’s in his 1950s house for the O’Doherty family on Victoria Road in Derry. The architect Frank Gibney most notably evoked the Taliesin aesthetic in his ‘Sutton South’ home of 1948. 

Patrick Street, Tullamore

In the early 1940s, D.E. Williams decided to revamp their principal pub/grocery premises on Patrick Street Tullamore and to improve their Athlone and Birr premises as well as opening a new licensed premises on Dame Street in Dublin. 

Though there had been a Williams shop on Patrick Street for many years it occupied two mundane 19th c. buildings and could not compare in magnificence and grandeur to the great early 20th c. emporia of the Egan and Scally families on Bridge Street and Colmcille Street. It is not impossible therefore that the radical redesign of their Patrick Street store by the Williams family was intended to leapfrog their principal shop into a more prestigious league of architecture and outdo their rivals.

In 1941-42 Scott redeveloped and fronted the two previously linked properties which were two and three stories high, with a single nine bay three storey building.The  new premises (illus.)  provided a generous shop and pub on the ground floor with company offices above and a vehicular entrance to the storage yards behind.

The seven centre bays were grouped together and partly faced with Clonaslee stone.The remainder of the facade was finished in nap plaster. The composition was united by three continuous horizontal projecting string courses and surmounted by the company’s emblem. The rusticated ground floor sandstone facing extended upwards on either side of the central windows.Two generous projecting shop windows were placed on either side of the entrance giving a sense of symmetry and solidity. A unique feature was the circular display window dressed with radiating sandstone. The shop sign which said ‘D.E. Williams Ltd’ was in a Modernist font and the individual metal letters rested on the horizontal band proud of the stone facade.

The ground floor shop was an open and generous space fitted out to the highest standard. It was certainly the smartest place to carry out grocery shopping in Tullamore in the 1950s.

However, the original building will  best be remembered for its very stylish rear public bar ‘The Murals’ which was fitted out in glowing natural timber veneer and red leather bar stools.

Scott was an enthusiastic proponent of contemporary art and was later to become the prime mover behind the Rosc exhibitions in the 1970s and 80s which introduced the Irish public to the most advanced ideas of the time. He had already commissioned the painter Frances Kelly to decorate the entrance hall of the County Hospital and was later to bring in the stained glass artist Evie Hone and the sculptor Laurence Campbell to adorn the chapel which he redesigned for the Jesuit order at their seminary at Tullabeg in Rahan.

‘The Murals’ took its name from the magnificent fresco in oils by the artist Sean O’Sullivan RHA who had a long standing relationship with the firm of DEW, providing charming pencil portraits of Irish personalities for their much sought after annual calendars.

O’Sullivan who made a speciality of depicting West of Ireland characters, devoted three sides of the long narrow bar to a continuous linear conception of a tipsy wedding in Connemara, but including his own friends and local characters such as Ker Brien of Pollagh, as the participants. The artist himself sits on the ground, sketch book in hand recording a scene of dancing, drinking and revelry. On the long run of figures behind the bar, Michael Scott was shown in a baineen jacket dancing with one of the pretty barmaids who had attracted him. It is likely that the attraction was reciprocated as Scott was an intensely charming personality.

The premises were redeveloped in the early 1980s, the Clonaslee stone removed, the ground floor subdivided and O’Sullivan’s murals hidden or removed.

Other Relevant Work

Athlone and Birr

The writer recollects the Athlone premises opposite the Cathedral and now ‘Maisies’ bar and restaurant, as having a Clonaslee stone facing also, but with the passage of time concedes that he may be mistaken and no contemporary photos or drawings are available. Scott had commissioned the well known artist Louis le Brocquy to provide a mural for the lounge possibly based on the Bronze Age hieroglyphs of the Clonfinlough stone at nearby Clonmacnoise, which in contrast to O’Sullivan’s joyous work in Tullamore, the writer distinctly recollects as being obscure and gloomy. The pub was redeveloped in the 1970s and the murals removed or covered up. 

In  ‘Michael Scott Architect in (casual) conversation with Dorothy Walker-Gandon Editions 1995’ Scott refers to carrying out work on a Williams premises in Birr, but no details are available and no obvious works remain.

53 Dame Street, Dublin

For D. E. Williams’s sole Dublin premises opened in August 1941 on a prominent central city site (illus.), Scott used a very different but innovative range of materials. A symmetrical and well proportioned street elevation incorporating matching entrance doors to the public bar and lounge bar was enclosed within a white plaster surround. An advanced central feature and its side panels were of polished teak, a material not found on any other shopfront in the city before or since.

The  shopfront was removed in the late 1960s in a total redevelopment which created the popular Italian restaurant ‘Nicos’, which in turn became ‘Bunsen’ some years ago. 

‘Ashleigh’ Charleville Road, Tullamore

In the 1960s Scott delivered a bungalow for Ms Florence Williams in which some of the features of the Patrick Street shop front details resurfaced. The design has a strong horizontal and low slung motif and consists of two staggered blocks united by a horizontal run of windows surmounting a panel of Clonaslee stone.

O’Dwyers, Lower Leeson Street

The pub formerly known as ‘Dwyers’ and now ‘Madigans’ at the Lower Leeson Street and St Stephen’s Green and well known to the students of nearby UCD,  shared precisely the same architectural features of Clonaslee stone and horizontal banding with the Tullamore and Edenderry premises and therefore may be attributed to Scott’s office. Much altered over the years, a small section of the original stonework is still visible.

O’Donoghue’s Bar, Edenderry

Though little is known of the date of the work or the identity of its designer, the similarity of materials, design and detailing of ‘O’Donoghue’s Bar’ Edenderry (illus.) with the Patrick Street premises, is remarkable and attribution to Scott is not unreasonable.

Located on the corner of Fair Green and Fr. Paul Murphy Street, an early 19thc, two storey terraced building with an unusual rounded corner contains the original pub. A simple single storey extension was added along Fr. Paul Murphy Street and united with the original building by a continuous concrete band finished below in Clonaslee stone. A new doorway is located centrally with two runs of windows on either side-one with six opes, the other of seven and both enclosed within projecting frames. A first floor window is provided centrally on the southern gable.

Whether by Scott or not, this simple but elegant structure is an important part of the architectural heritage of Offaly.

Today,’O’Donoghues’ is a well known and popular destination which deservedly thrives on its excellent ambience and service. 

Overview

These little known works of an architect better known for much grander projects, display his attention to detail, concern for high design standards and a sensitivity towards their urban settings in even the most modest commissions.

Unfortunately, apart from O’Donoghues where further research as to Scott’s direct involvement is required, all have now disappeared or been substantially altered.

3nd May 2022