Friday, March 25, 2016

Finding My Mews

Shortly after moving into a Georgian flat in Dublin, I looked up the word mews in the dictionary. From the ton of flashy Architectural Digest spreads I'd read, I knew it was a dwelling ripe for high spec conversion. But, growing up in Southern California, I didn't really understand what a mews was, or where it came from. (Ask me about pueblos and we're good...)

I wandered down the mews lanes on my evening walks exploring the neighborhood of Ballsbridge, and occasionally glimpsed the mews that were tucked behind protective screen walls. They were low structures, seemingly cozy, often with a glow in the internal court. Aside from learning the textbook definition of a mews house and where it was likely to grow, I was also beginning to grasp the taxonomy of roads, lanes and closes. By tracing back the development of a mews house, and the big house which it served, the naming of these byways proved fairly intuitive.

The carriage doors from the mews courtyard.

The mews was essentially the carriage house of a proper Georgian townhome. It backed onto an alley so that the horses could do their horse business and all the muck was tucked away from the right proper family living in the big house. The mews house consisted of humble living quarters above the ground floor where the horses were tended.

I jumped when I saw the Irish Architecture Foundation's posting about a tour of the Merrion Mews. It was for members only, but I begged a spot, and they were gracious enough to have me. It pays to be a historical architecture geek, and were I staying on in Dublin I'd most definitely become a member.

It turns out the Merrion Mews is one of the most historically intact Georgian properties in the entire city, and so it exemplifies what urban life was really like in 18th century Ireland. Guided by conservation architect Grainne Shaffrey, we entered the tour from the alley behind the mews. Grainne explained that from the rear lane and carriage courtyard, to the mews itself and its small garden, to the screen wall separating the mews garden from the formal 18th century garden of the big house, through the big house to its grand entry steps and iron railing, all the way to the sidewalk, each slice of the property is as it was in the 18th century. Imagine a very tall slice of many-layered cake that's fallen on its side, and you can begin to picture the site plan of a Georgian property.

View to the big house from the bedroom of the mews.

The Merrion Mews is now in the care of the Irish Landmark Trust, an organization whose mission is to put unique historical properties back into use. You can arrange a fantastic stay in a country lodge or a castle keep, a weatherbeaten lighthouse on the Irish coast or a city centre mews house. These are quirky properties: lines meander where walls meet ceiling and floors are likely to slope; the narrow stairs hug your hips, and door opening make you feel very tall; weathered conduit runs straight across the ceiling a scalloped Victorian light, and who knows about the plumbing that fills the amazing footed tub in the bath.

Working horse stall.

As Grainne pointed out from the floral-printed lounge at Merrion Mews, the best way to preserve a building is to keep it occupied. Serendipitously, the Garda, or Irish police, needed a city center spot for their mounted police, who are based all the way out in the Phoenix Park. They connected with the stable at Merrion Mews, and their horses now have a pit stop. One stable has a plywood shack slotted into it so the coppers can have a cuppa, too. Back in Georgian times, those animals would have been a valuable source of heating for the residents on the floors above.*

Getting a sense of the space of the mews, what it would be like to live and work there, was definitely a highlight of the tour. But absorbing little details that Grainne shared about the surfaces of the building, like the patchy coloring of the limewash on the main floor, or the pointing style and brick patterns on each facade, which turns out are quite unique to Dublin, completely fired the imagination. The entire skin of the building was a palimpsest.

Original lime wash.
Things that might go unnoticed or unwelcomed, like dark patches on the wall, were in fact historical markers of how the space was used. The room where horses would enter the building and be maintained before they were stalled was covered with a creamy sallow and white lime wash.  The uneven color of the plasterwork were signs of former residence, indicating, say, where a certificate might have been proudly displayed on a wall. The trust pointedly left nail heads and fasteners where they were found. Discoloration or surface variation might also be evident where a horse's nose or flank repeatedly rubbed. In the case of an exterior wall in the garden, a darker patch of brick and mortar belied the manure from the horses that would have piled up chest high.

The rear facade with visible restoration on the brick.
Grainne mentioned words like "wigging" and "tuck" in relation to the brickwork, and I spent an indulgent evening later that week reading an extensive pamphlet published by the Irish government about restoring and preserving your period brickwork. And was tempted to read on about preserving your thatch roof or old windows. Though I don't plan on owning my own period home any time soon, I am so pleased that conservation architects, equal parts designer and archaeologist, and organizations like the trust, keep this history alive for us. I will enjoy investigating a thousand fascinating details of Merrion Mews - until the next building tour!

The mews house kitchen, with its amazing apron sink and ceramic drainboards.

*It turns out that raw sheeps' wool was used as insulation in this house, its ability to take in and release moisture and stay warm making it an excellent choice for breathability. Nature!

When in Dublin, check out the IAF:

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For more about Grainne's architectural firm:

Thursday, March 3, 2016

6° of Sunlight, or How I Got Back to Los Angeles from Dublin.

For better or worse, I am now counting the weeks until I return to LA from my year in Dublin. So I dusted off my “must visit” list and refreshed it with the heritage sights close by the city centre. You know how you never go to Disneyland or Venice Beach except when out-of-towners visit? Same here.

En route to the Phoenix Park I passed the Sunlight Chambers, a building on the south side of the River Liffey whose brightly colored tile details have caught my eye for 12 months. I stopped and took a few snapshots of the pediment, friezes and cameos, and went on to have an incredible tour of Farmleigh House in the Park (more on that later).

I spent the rest of the weekend on a deep wiki dive into architecture, and remembered that evening to look up the Sunlight Chambers.

Photo: Valerie Thomas

The building is remarkable by Dublin standards, for its Italianate flare and its liberal use of color on the exterior, shocking to the overcast aesthetics of the city. It was built by a Liverpudlian* architect by the name of Edward Augustus Ould as the Dublin headquarters of the Lever Brothers. The Lever name rang a bell for me, and I suspect it may for many readers. They were the barons of the soap trade back in the 1880s, investing in a new technology that utilized vegetable oil instead of tallow (or animal fat) to make household soaps. (I had a stint working with fine soaps in my early twenties, and while I can attest that tallow makes an awfully rich lather, it’s a boon for the four-leggeds and vegan shoppers that technology moved on.)

Photo: Valerie Thomas

Reading about the Lever Brothers soon landed me on American soil. The US headquarters of the company is in New York City, and was also a notable architectural achievement. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, when it was built by Skidmore Owings Merrill in 1952 it was only the second glass curtain wall skyscraper. What is now a hallmark of every modern metropolis was then a new architectural phenomenon, the International style, and the building revolutionized the look of Park Ave. The SOM building at 390 Park Avenue in New York is known as Lever House and as luck would have it, the president of the Lever Bros at that time was architect-to-be Charles Luckman.

Photo: Chimay Bleu on Flickr

Somewhat tangential to architecture, but interesting to me and my soapy background: round about this time, the Lever Bros merged with a Dutch company called Margarine Unie, and became the Unilever megabrand. Pretty much every washing up liquid I’ve used in Europe is a unilever brand, made or acquired by. I thought it strange that margarine and soap companies merged, until realizing the vegetable oil connection and the original innovation the Lever Bros tapped into.

Anyhow, back to the architecture. Though I’m sure it had its detractors, the glass curtain wall skyscraper on Park Avenue was better received in its day than the Italianate Sunlight Chambers in Dublin. The latter was touted the ugliest building in Dublin, and its uniqueness amidst the somber Georgian neo-classicism sticks out even to the casual observer. Following Charles Luckman from New York, however, took me straight back to Los Angeles. Not just back to Los Angeles, but specifically, to 9200 Sunset. This landmark 1964 building is a stone’s throw from where I lived and worked before I came to Dublin. That building before it was chicly renovated and rebranded, was known as Luckman Plaza, and was part of Luckman’s illustrious architectural career after his tenure as president of Lever Bros.

Photo: Rodeo Realty

Considered the “gateway to Beverly Hills” Luckman Plaza is a later iteration of the glass curtain wall skyscraper comprising two buildings joined by a lobby. It stands out at the west end of the Sunset Strip, just before you burst into the bucolic stretch of Santa Monica Blvd that borders residential Beverly Hills. This building now houses the iconic private club Soho House, on the penthouse floor topping the 17 storey building. Luckman himself added the top floor.

The twin of the 9200 Sunset building at 9220 also happens to house a suite of offices where a few years back the Southern California Institute of Classical Architecture gave a series of lectures. I sat in that building listening to a brilliant talk about vernacular and historical buildings in Santa Barbara, Riverside and Los Angeles. My imagination was fired and my personal journey into classical architecture took solid shape.

Incidentally, the Lever Brothers also created something of a photo-Google campus, in the township in Merseyside, UK, which they rechristened Port Sunlight. The housing was adjacent the soap-making plant and each block was designed by a different architect. The whole development, circa 1900, as well as the way in which the buildings were crafted, was influenced by the ideas of the Arts & Crafts movements and could be considered one of the earliest ‘garden suburbs’. That, of course, brings us to the LA suburb of Pasadena, aka Bungalow Heaven, the ultimate expression of the Arts & Crafts movement in Southern California.

Photo: Lazenby43 on Flickr
And that is the whole story of exactly what made me stop to look more closely at the Sunlight Chambers. The irony of calling something in Dublin ‘sunlight’ aside, it’s amazing how close that corner of Parliament Street and Essex Quay really is to the relentlessly sunny stretches of Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. I can’t help but feel that the River Liffey has delivered me safely back home in Los Angeles.

*I can now tick "use Liverpudlian in a piece of writing" off my bucket list.