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Campaigners try to save Dublin's 'oldest theatre' as Georgian House to become office complex

A campaign to save Lord Amiens Theatre in Aldborough House may come too late after An Bord Pleanála granted permission.

Aldborough House is in the north inner city
Aldborough House is in the north inner city

SOME ACTIVISTS ARE campaigning to save a Georgian-era theatre in Dublin but it may come too late, after decisions from Dublin City Council and An Bord Pleanála to grant permission to a new office complex.

Permission was granted, with conditions, last year by the council for the renovation and part-demolition of Aldborough House on Portland Row in Dublin 1 despite concerns raised by a number of groups, including An Taisce and the Irish Georgian Society.

The now-empty Georgian House was one of the last built in the 18th century, and was completed in the 1790s.

From that time, the spacious building housed a private theatre called Lord Amiens Theatre, and it is the oldest purpose-built theatre in the country, activist Brice Stratford from Friends of Aldborough House told TheJournal.ie.

He said that other theatres such as Smock Alley have history tracing back longer, the Lord Amiens Theatre’s buildings are older than the 19th-century church building that was converted into Smock Alley. In a statement to the TheJournal.ie, however, a spokesperson for Smock Alley Theatre said that it was “purpose built in 1662″, and that “over 90% of the building is the original”.

“The actual structure itself is unchanged,” Stratford said. “It’s exactly as it was used and intended to be. We don’t see why it can’t be restored. It’s an important structure.”

Proposals

Architects and planners for Reliance Investments submitted that the development would facilitate the restoration of the house as well as the construction of 100,000 sq ft of office space in two five-storey office blocks on either side of the house.

The plans include the “demolition of ancillary structures, including former theatre, security hut and boundary wall” while conserving and restoring the exterior and interior for as use as the main entrance and offices.

Plans for Aldborough House The house on Portland Row Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

In its observations to Dublin City Council, the Dublin Civic Trust submitted that it opposed in the “strongest terms” to the proposed demolition of the theatre.

It would be a “shameful waste of primary historic fabric”, it said.

The trust added: “We submit that the former theatre building… retains the substantial volume and physical materiality of the 18th century building. This forms an integral component of the setting and original purpose of the mansion.”

The Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht also objected to the demolition of the theatre in its submission.

It said: “The department concerned at the proposal to demolish the theatre building which is a protected structure.

It is recommended that the structure be retained and incorporated into the redevelopment of the site.

Recommend an approval of the application, with conditions, a planner for Dublin City Council said: “Aldborough House is a culturally significant site to the north city and its recovery and reuse is overdue and will lead to the regeneration of a prominent site.

Furthermore, the proposed development will deliver a quantum of quality commercial office space with the potential to provide significant employment to the north inner city and further aid the regeneration of the area.
The development as a whole will generate significant commercial activity and will allow for the provision of a more generous public realm onto Portland Row.

Planning appeal

In its appeal to An Bord Pleanála, An Taisce said that the repair of the derelict Aldborough House is an “urgent need”, as is securing the building’s future. It said that the proposal fails to adhere the requirement to protect existing city landmarks and their prominence.

“Revision should provide for full retention of the theatre pavillion wing,” it added. Both An Taisce and the Irish Georgian Society submitted that the plans must allow the building to remain prominent on the street, and not obscured by the office blocks.

In its decision, however, An Bord Pleanála chose to grant planning permission with a number of conditions.

This included the omission of proposed mezzanines from the plan, and a number of specific measures to ensure the conservation of elements of the overall building.

Furthermore, it said that the planning authority must certify that the restoration works have been completed to satisfaction before any new tenants can move into Aldborough House.

At no stage do the directions or order from An Bord Pleanála recommend any amendments to the plans to demolish the theatre.

It may be late in the day now, but Stratford is hopeful a solution can be found that can save the theatre in some form.

He said that, ideally, it would remain in place but would much rather it was transported brick by brick to another location so that its historical significance can be maintained.

“I’m a realist, I know money talks,” he said. “To be honest, one of the compromises we’re willing to make is if it had to be destroyed, at least could it be removed so that it could be restored and removed at a later date.

It’s unnecessary to reduce something historical like this to rubble and dust.

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Sean Murray

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