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:

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