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Dublin: 14 °C Thursday 27 June, 2019
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'The walls talk' - Dublin city is getting a new tenement museum this summer

14 Henrietta Street will showcase the long and pockmarked history of Dublin’s tenements.

A corridor in the building.
A corridor in the building.
Image: John Ryan via 14 Henrietta Street

SEVENTEEN FAMILIES ONCE lived at Number 14, Henrietta Street in Dublin’s north inner city.

The old Georgian building was first converted into a tenement in the late-1800s. The large spacious rooms were partitioned into smaller ‘compact 3-roomed flats’.

These ‘flats’ commanded hefty rents at the time, and entire large families would all live in each one. In one case 13 family members lived in one flat in the building.

The 1901 and 1911 census records show 100 people living in the building.

There were two toilets between these 100 people to use. The building had no internal plumbing and there was just one water supply for tenants in the basement.

“Imagine living on the top floor and having to bring a basin of water up to wash clothes or do anything,” says Charles Duggan, heritage officer with Dublin City Council.

It would be no easy task.

The last families left the No 14 Henrietta Street in 1979, by then the building had fallen into disrepair.

“Effectively the tenement history ended at that point,” says Duggan.

12063639_1016655095045590_4424208104584768504_n 14 Henrietta Street in 1977 Source: 14 Henrietta Street via Facebook

Restoration

No 14 Henrietta Street is due to officially open this summer as a museum charting tenement life in Dublin.

The old four-storey Georgian building has a long and interesting history, and conservationists hope it will be the ideal location for an interactive museum experience charting Dublin’s past.

“The museum seeks to deepen the understanding of the history of urban life and housing in Ireland and more specifically in Dublin through people and memory,” says Duggan, who has been one of the key people behind the project.

Historical exhibitions, re-creations of individual flats, recorded testimonies and collected belongings of people who have lived in the building will all be used to paint of picture of tenement life in the building.

15541927_1346602248717538_5974808784763417127_n Over 200 new balusters had to be made for the back stairs during the restoration. Source: 14 Henrietta Street via Facebook

“Our collection is the building and the memories that are contained in it,” says Duggan.

The museum will also use No 14 as a jumping-off point to explore the social history of Dublin more broadly in the period covered.

Much of the original building still remains along with fittings and fixtures that have been added throughout the centuries. Things like the floorboards and the wallpaper tell the story of the building in different time periods.

12509373_1062704883773944_2667302854901983423_n Layers of paint on the walls built up over generations. Source: 14 Henrietta Street via Facebook

Charles points to one example of how lifting the original 18th century floorboards uncovered a wealth of historical objects.

“We lifted all of the original floorboards from the house as we had to do a huge amount of structural work to the floors themselves to make them safe for museum use.

And we found a huge number of objects that peopel had just discarded over time and that just fell between cracks of the floor.

A betting slip from the 40s, a Christmas raffle ticket from 1927, somebody’s old Maths homework, lots Guinness bottles and shoe polish are just some of the objects found which tell the story of the building.

It’s just incredible the amount of material we have just found accidentally under the floorboards.

Restoration 

The road to opening the museum has been a long and difficult one, with the building requiring years of painstaking work to bring it up to where it is not.

Following the last families moving out in the late-1970s, the building went into the disrepair.

12088597_1016651961712570_892449353022505623_n The rear of 13-15 Henrietta Street from Henrietta House grounds taken in 1979 Source: 14 Henrietta Street via Facebook

Due to the historical importance of the building and the street, Dublin City Council were prompted to put a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) on the building and acquired ownership of it in 2001.

From there, a conservation report was published for the entire Henrietta Street area due to its important historical and cultural heritage. Henrietta Street is known as one of the first Georgian Street in Dublin and possess a heritage and importance because of this.

Emergency works undertaken by Charles and his team involved completely dismantling the basement and rebuilding it, repairing the roof structure, cutting a repairing rot in the walls and more.

14610958_1278457438865353_8274170034212662287_n Works being carried out on the roof. Source: 14 Henrietta Street via Facebook

The design of the museum was undertaken by Shaffrey Associates and it is curated by Dr Ellen Rowley.

Charles says that the goal of this work has always been The purpose of this work has always been “to do as much as necessary and as little as possible” with the building.

The work has been documented via photographs and video and the work can be followed on the 14 Henrietta Street Facebook page.

“It’s a privilege to work on and when the museum opens that’s really just the beginning of our story,” says Charles.

“The hope is that people who do have connections to tenement life in Dublin will come forward and help inform us in how we develop further exhibitions down the line.

The walls talk, is term we’re using about the building, but they only talk so much.

Read: “The street was my playground”: A journey back to the tenement days

Read: How a Norwegian street musician crashed her van in The Liberties, bought a horse, and was embraced by the community

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About the author:

Cormac Fitzgerald

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