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Donal Fallon: The incredible legacy of Herbert Simms, who helped transform Dublin

Donal Fallon describes the impact the Dublin Corporation architect Herbert Simms had on Dublin city.

Donal Fallon

DUBLIN, IN THE words of the great Ulster poet Louis MacNeice, consisted of ‘grey brick upon brick.’ The Georgian city still captivates of course, leaving to us a battle-scarred but still present list of defining buildings like Gandon’s Custom House and the Four Courts.

Increasingly, we are becoming more aware that our built heritage is not merely the fine Georgian buildings of centuries past, but is contained also in the twentieth century schools of Art Deco, Brutalism and more. Public housing, public libraries and even humble public amenities can also reveal much. At the heart of these everyday structures – built with citizens in mind – are stories that tell us much about the history of the city.

In recent years, there has been significant public interest in the story of Herbert Simms, Housing Architect to Dublin Corporation from 1932 until his untimely death in 1948. Undoubtedly, some of that interest is motivated by contemporary concerns and questions around housing. In his time, remarkable leaps forward were made – the population of Cabra increased from 5,326 in 1926 to 19,119 in 1936. Still, it was his fundamental belief that people could and should live in the city that makes Simms such an interesting subject.

A Londoner, Simms entered the service of Dublin Corporation at the age of twenty-seven, a veteran of the First World War who had served with the Royal Field Artillery. A scholarship received in the aftermath of the war allowed him to study architecture at Liverpool University, and he was appointed temporary architect to Dublin Corporation in February 1925. From the beginning of his employment with the Corporation, his focus was very much on working class housing, and in 1926 he was authorized to visit London, Liverpool and Manchester to investigate the latest trends in flat building there.

Simms was the first dedicated Housing Architect appointed by Dublin Corporation, a recognition of the scale of the housing crisis facing the city in the early 1930s.

‘War on the Slums’

In Dublin, the period in which Simms worked witnessed real political pressure for change in public housing. The Irish Press, essentially the newspaper of Fianna Fáil, called for ‘war on the slums’, though the paper routinely presented them as a product of British imperialism, noting that it was Britain that ‘left to the Free State its inheritance of slumdom.’ Others, more accurately, pointed the finger of blame at domestic landlords.

Cora Hughes, Goddaughter of Taoiseach Éamon de Valera and a housing activist in the city, contracted tuberculosis as a result of her activism amongst the city’s tenement poor, compiling reports on worsening housing conditions and organising rent-strikes. The Taoiseach would carry her coffin. The Republican Congress newspaper reported how “families of twelve were frequently found living in single rooms. In one house in Holles Street, 49 people are living”.

From all quarters came demands for new approaches to the housing crisis, but it was Dublin Corporation’s Housing Architect and his team who delivered new hope and housing.

Simms is primarily remembered today for his work in the city, but he was also responsible for the erection of new dwellings in the suburbs, including in Cabra and Crumlin.

Of course, rehousing people beyond the city in new suburbs brought its own challenges, and social alienation was very real; Brendan Behan would quip that there was no such thing as suburbia, only Siberia.

Behan’s mother Kathleen would recall that, “Crumlin was a desperate place when first we went there: no schools, no shops, nothing, except plenty of desolation… There was a spirit in Russell Street that you could hardly imagine in Crumlin”.

Simms recognised the need to provide for the needs of communities. Speaking in 1935, Simms outlined his belief that “you cannot re-house a population of 15,000 people, as in the Crumlin scheme, without providing for the other necessities and amenities of life”.

Art Deco Dublin: Simms Inner-City Flats

Many of the projects Simms oversaw are distinctive visually, having an instant familiarity from their Art Deco features. Emerging in the 1920s and 30s, Art Deco design – which emphasised modernism – would influence art, fashion, architecture and more. We see that influence in the beautiful curves and decorative features of Simms public housing schemes and amenities.

In Simms’ beautiful inner-city schemes we can see echoes of public housing in cities like Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Particularly interesting is the Chancery House scheme beside the Four Courts, completed by June 1935. Though comprising just 27 flats, it is considered a master class in public housing, and boasts a beautiful small garden, an important communal feature. Gardens and shared courtyards are frequent features of many of the inner-city housing schemes.

Simms told a Housing Inquiry that he firmly believed the homes he was constructing would outlast the slum dwellings they were replacing. To him, “flats should last at least 200 years… providing they were properly maintained”. There are also features unique to many of the schemes, such as the air raid shelters at Mary Aikenhead House, beside St James’s Hospital, which opened in war-time. Another facility, Avondale House on North Cumberland Street, included a Penny Dinners facility, vital for feeding the community of which it was part.

Not everything that has come to be associated with Simms is of his time. The invaluable More Than Concrete Blocks, a series examining Dublin’s 20th century built heritage, highlighted how the ever-popular wind shelters along Clontarf’s promenade date instead from the 1950s. Still, we see Simms work at Bull Island in the large bathing shelters that have survived through the decades.

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Features like them, and the recently demolished lifeguard shelter, are significant as they give us insights into Simms architectural designs beyond housing.

The Future of the Past

Buildings, of course, are not frozen in time. They age, deteriorate, and require attention and modernisation. Residents have raised very real concerns around Simms schemes like Pearse House and Markievicz House, something Factchecked by The Journal in 2018.

One councillor called for the schemes to be demolished and replaced with “decent modern accommodation”, while former Irish Times Environmental editor Frank McDonald insisted that “instead, they should be refurbished to modern standards, block by block”. Not everything of the past can be maintained into the future, but it is difficult to make the same arguments concerning the unique lifeguard shelter.

There was, unfortunately, no happy ending to the story of Herbert Simms. The retirement of the City Architect, Horace O’Rourke, in 1945 left a greatly increased workload for Simms, who found himself essentially occupying the office of both Housing and City Architect, at a time when purse strings were tight in the Emergency-era Dublin Corporation. Simms was certainly overworked, to such an extent that in September 1948 he took his own life.

His suicide note, reprinted in the Irish Press, described his intense exhaustion.

In a fine tribute shortly afterwards, the City Surveyor Ernest Taylor remembered him as a man who had done much for the poorest in Dublin:

By sheer hard work and conscientious devotion to duty, he has made a personal contribution towards the solution of Dublin’s housing problem, probably unequalled by anyone in our time… It is not given to many of us to achieve so much in the space of a short lifetime for the benefit of our fellow men.

Donal Fallon is presenter of the Three Castles Burning podcast and author of 14 Henrietta Street: From Tenement To Suburbia, available now from www.14henriettastreet.ie.

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Donal Fallon

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