The Magnificent Mansions of Tullamore. By Fergal MacCabe. A contribution to the Tullamore 400th series, no. 6

Today, the most enduring reminders of the economic prosperity of Tullamore in the mid to late eighteenth century are the commodious stone town houses built by its prominent and successful citizens. Seven in particular are notable, all but one of which line High Street, the entry to the town from the south and also the approach road to the seat of the local landowner, Lord Tullamore.

Though one has been demolished and one significantly altered, the remaining  ‘palazzi’  today represent a unique architectural feature of the town and all are included on the Register of Protected Structures. Several display the distinguishing features of the finest Georgian townhouses of the period, being set back from the street behind railings and with central imposing door cases reached by a flight of steps. Though displaying differences in design, the plot widths of each mansion are remarkably similar, probably reflecting the leasing policy of Lord Tullamore.

The House of Nicholas Crawford (above) 1740, subsequently the Charleville Estate Office, later Kilroy’s and now Mr Price. The house of Colonel Thomas Crowe (below) – two storey before a third floor constructed soon after 1900.

Architecturally, the most important of all is the house of the Superintendent of the Military Barracks, Nicholas Crawford. Erected sometime between 1730 and 1740 this villa style dwelling is the finest example of 18th. c. architecture in Tullamore. Crawford must surely have been a man of considerable means and artistic sophistication to erect such an elegant structure whose fine piano nobile is its distinguishing feature.

Its architect is unknown, but the similarity in proportions, details and design with those of the south front of Belvedere House twenty miles away on the shores of Lough Ennell and which was built around the same time, is notable and attribution to its architect Richard Castle is not unreasonable and requires further research.

Born David Riccardo in Kassell in Germany, Richard Castle (1690-1751) came to Ireland in 1728 as an assistant to the greatest architect of the day, Sir Edward Lovett Pierce. He went on to replace Pierce in that role and amongst his most notable works are Carton House, Russborough House and Leinster House, now the home of Dáil Eireann.

The High Street elevation of Barrackmaster Crawford’s house and the garden front facade of Belvedere are quite similar, both being five bay stone structures with projecting end bays, a half basement and a piano nobile approached by a stone staircase, the main difference being that the Tullamore building has a visible hipped roof supported on a fine carved stone cornice whereas Belvedere is finished with a simpler running cornice. Arguably, Crawford’s house is the better design.

Barrackmaster Crawfords – now Mr Price in High Street. Based on a view taken in 1958-9 before the new shopfront.

The Crawford House in 2014. It has now been toned down to a grey colour.

Both buildings utilise the same unusual feature of matching Venetian windows surmounted by a demi-lunette or Diocletian window on the projecting bays. Pre 1959 photographs show the building set back to match the building line of its neighbours on High Street and with a sweeping staircase rising to a well-designed Gibbsian door case. This is topped by a pediment over a pulvinated frieze which is more elaborate than that at Belvedere.

The possible Belvedere connection has been commented on by the eminent architectural historian Dr John O’Connell and its possible attribution to Castle has been endorsed by Andrew Tierney in his comprehensive overview of the architecture of Leinster.[1]

The building is no longer in active use and given its age, its future must now be in doubt. It should be the subject of a more intensive appraisal based on a full architectural survey which would establish the extent of the original structure and its condition, with a view to arresting any further deterioration and ideally its restoration and occupation.

Its attribution to Castle should be explored further but whether it is by Castle or not, this is a building of architectural importance which is an integral part of the urban heritage of the town and its future must be assured.

Unfortunately, its original design was marred by the erection in 1959, just prior to the introduction of planning legislation, of a single storey shop front which not only obscured the lower part of the facade and its entry steps but advanced to the back of the footpath thereby interrupting the building line on the eastern side of High Street which had been established on either side by buildings of the same period.

This was executed in a mock Georgian style of four squashed arch openings with a flat fascia over and bore no architectural or functional relationship in design, scale or materials to the 1730 building behind. It is of no intrinsic architectural merit and the manner in which it compromises the historic building and transgresses the building line of the street, would be unthinkable today.

No longer used as a shop entry, it presents a dead frontage along a stretch of High Street which will soon be enlivened by the opening of the Community Arts centre opposite. Its removal would reveal the original frontage of the important building behind and substantially enhance the civic character of High Street. Refurbishment to accommodate a prestigious public use such as a county museum would be particularly appropriate.

 ‘The Round House’

In the first professional survey of the architectural heritage of the town[2], William Garner writes:

‘The Round House’ and flanking buildings were built together and may possibly date from as early as 1720.Originally there was a five-bay house in the centre flanked by two, three bay houses. However, two bays from the central house are now added to the three-bay house at the north end. This end house is now of five-bays and has a cemented facade and 19c. glazing bars. Nevertheless, it still retains the heavy cornice and a round-headed, architraved door case which probably dates from the late 18c.

The Round House

The Round House has a deep bow with a painted rough-cast facade, a heavy cornice and good glazing bars in the windows. The bow has a very fine Gibbsian doorcase with large blocks of limestone, a lintel and a blank slab of limestone instead of a fanlight. The central window of the first floor is slightly wider than those on either side, thus giving the bow a very good proportion of wall to window.’

This unusual semi-circular bow feature and fine door case is to be found in several houses in Banagher Co. Offaly also, and suggests a common architectural hand. Further research is required.

The House of Colonel Thomas Crowe 1750

This prominent seven-bay three storey house with a three-storey breakfront is located on High Street and close to O’Connor Square.

A photograph by Robert French from the Lawrence Collection taken c. 1900 shows that it was originally two storeys with a pediment, not unlike that of the now demolished Thomas Wilson House in Charleville Square. The roof and pediment were removed sometime in the 1920s, when a third storey was built and the building converted to a hotel. Many of its original features have been lost and the ground floor has been converted to shops, but the elegant Gibbsian doorcase remains .

The House of George Ross 1760

The home of a local brewer, this handsome four bay mansion in fine cut limestone and with a strong cornice, survived the fire of 1785. Its proportions, combining an irregular and small -scale window rhythm with a somewhat oversized doorcase, are slightly less sophisticated than the other mansions of the same era but it is nonetheless, a most imposing building. It was for many years the headquarters of the notable local commercial firm, D.E. Williams whose name remains on the facade in elegant lettering based on the original font.

The house of Col Thomas Crowe (above) and that of George Ross (below)

The House of Thomas Acres 1780   Tullamore Municipal District Council Offices

Acres, who died in 1836, a year after the demise of  his patron, the first Earl of Charleville, was the town’s leading property developer and  responsible for the laying out of Cormac Street, O’Moore Street, Columcille Street and part of Chapel Lane. His residence enjoyed a prominent site at the junction of two principal entrances to the town.

Acres Hall, now the offices of Tullamore Municipal District Council, was restored in 1992 under the supervision of the Birr architect Eugene Garvey (who sadly died in the same year) and with conservation advice from Dr. John O’Connell. Regrettably, a quirky two storey gate lodge with simple side columns was removed during the restoration.

It differs from the other mansions of the town by not having a piano nobile and its entrance is a relatively modest front door approached across a broad lawn. Accordingly, unlike the other ‘palazzi’ of the town in this period, it gives the impression of being a country villa rather than a townhouse.

The visually prominent Acres Folly (1814), which emulates an Irish tower house and stands on the wooded hill which formed part of the gardens of the main house, is presently undergoing restoration by Offaly County Council.

The House of Dr Wilson 1789   Donal Farrelly Solicitors

Built by Revd. Dr.Thomas Wilson, Professor of Natural History at Trinity College, Dublin at a cost of £2,000, this clifflike stone mansion, because of its height and elevated location, is one of the most prominent structures in the town.

Its facade, whose windows have an interesting rhythm of fenestration which slows towards the centre, is set back from the street-line to emphasise its importance and this effect is increased by a slight batter. A fine Gibbsian doorcase, original lead rain-water hoppers and glazing bars add to its interest. A more assertive cornice would have improved the composition.

Moore Hall 1750(?)

Moore Hall (below), above that of Thomas Wilson

Moore Hall in Earl Street, the main road to the southeast and now Cormac Street, is a commodious and imposing mansion and would appear to date from the late 18th c. also. Its original facade was altered by the construction of an elaborate stone entrance bay in the Jacobean Mannerist style topped by stone finials with an impressive entry staircase and castellated wing walls.

Some sources date this later work to the mid 19th c. but the similarity of style and the ownership of the mansion by the local businessman Malachy Scally, particularly the details of the finials, may suggest the later hand of T.F. McNamara, who designed Scally’s magnificent emporium in Colmcille Street in 1912 and requires further research.

The Cottage’ 1810

The single storey building directly to the west of Moore Hall and known as ‘The Cottage,’ though not as grand as the other ’palazzi’, is worthy of mention also. This charming building whose architect is unknown, is a very important element of the architectural heritage of Tullamore. Having  been unoccupied for many years, it is today in very poor condition.

Set back to match the building line of the adjoining ‘Moore Hall’ and sharing a unified set of front railings, it is single storey at the front with two storeys at the rear. Its central entrance feature, approached by stone steps, is a strong Gothic arched doorway with a deep plain reveal, punctuated by beading and with two stained glass sidelights and a fan light over.

The two matching Wyatt windows on either side of the door are unique in Tullamore and date the house to the period 1799 to 1822 when the Window Tax applied. Designed to achieve maximum light without the undue expense of multiple windows, the well-known British architect James Wyatt introduced the form of a large central up and down sash window with matching sidelights. The mullions had to be less than a foot in width to evade the Tax and accordingly the pulleys had to be housed at the extremities of the window with a complicated arrangement to raise and lower the central section.

The House of Thomas Wilson  1750 (?) Demolished 1936

The Wilson house (now Farrelly), High Street

Built sometime before 1750 and taken down in 1936 to make way for the Vocational School, this substantial three storey seven bay, breakfront pedimented mansion which dominated Charleville Square both spatially and socially, was built as the home and business premises of the Quaker, Thomas Wilson who together with his partner Thomas Pim conducted a wool combing and tannery business at the rear, backing on to the river.

Bought by the Huguenot, Gideon Tabuteau in 1760, it was purchased in 1788 by Joseph Manly who operated a brewery and maltings. Later acquired by the Tarleton milling family, it was the traditional judge’s lodgings when courts were sitting. A pair of two storey flanking buildings on either side built around the same time, created a coherent and pleasing picture which spatially completed the eastern side of the square, but were demolished over the years also.

Should the opportunity arise in the future, a new building which would match or even exceed the scale of the adjoining three storey buildings on the other sides of the Square, would restore its sense of spatial enclosure which was lost by the demolition of the 18thc. house.

19 May 2022

[1] ‘The Buildings of Ireland-Central Leinster’ Andrew Tierney   Yale University Press 2019

[2]Tullamore Architectural Heritage’ An Foras Forbharta 1980