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Building of the Month - January 2012

Frank O'Connor House, 84 Douglas Street, Cork, County Cork

84 Douglas Street is one of a pair of terraced houses in the South Parish of Cork, one of the city's oldest suburbs.  There are many historic buildings in the area including Cork's oldest standing structure, the fifteenth-century Red Abbey tower; the South Presentation Convent complex; eighteenth-century terraces along George's Quay and White Street; and Saint Finbarr's Church, Dunbar Street, the city's oldest Catholic church.  It should have come as no surprise that small-scale domestic houses of similar age would have survived.

However, surprise was certainly my initial reaction when I first visited 84 Douglas Street in 2001.  The Council had been approached by the owner, Noreen Sutton, for assistance with reinstating the roof following a fire.  John Millar of Cork Civic Trust wrote in support of the application on the basis that it was the house in which the writer Frank O'Connor (1903-66), real name Michael O'Donovan, was born.  His birth certificate records his birth in 84 Douglas Street although the family was actually living in rented accommodation across the street.  This house was owned by his uncle, a shoemaker.

Frank O'Connor House 01 

Figure 1: A photograph of 84 Douglas Street, Cork, taken on 26th May 2003

From the features remaining it was estimated that the house dated from the early to mid eighteenth century; although smaller in scale, it was similar in age and architectural style to the four houses on Fenn's Quay.  It was most unusual for a modest urban building to survive in such an unaltered state: not only was the house associated with O'Connor, but it was of great interest as an example of almost intact mid eighteenth-century urban domestic architecture.

The house consisted of two rooms per floor with a corner fireplace in each room.  A return containing a kitchen and bathroom had been constructed in the small rear yard.  Original timber fire surrounds survived in both ground and first floor front rooms, as did tall panelled doors.  The rear rooms had simple sheeted doors, identified as being contemporary with the likely building date.  The original stairs had survived largely intact between ground and first floor, but due to fire damage had largely been lost between first floor and attic.  The floorboards were unusually wide, fourteen inches on average, and had survived on the first floor and to a certain extent in the attic.  The stone flags of the rear ground floor had partially survived, as had sections of cornicing in the front ground floor room.

The contractor retained the existing principal roof-timbers, inserted new rafters and re-slated using a natural stone slate.  The house was thus secured from further immediate deterioration and could begin to dry out.

Liz Meaney, the City Council Arts Officer, was made aware of the house and, conscious of the need for a permanent home for the Munster Literature Centre, put together a proposal that the Council would acquire the house.  It would be managed by the Munster Literature Centre as a base for themselves, but would also be open to members of the public.  Joe Gavin, City Manager, recognised the potential of the project and supported its acquisition.  It was acquired in Spring 2003 using the powers of the Derelict Sites Act to overcome title difficulties.  The objective was to complete the works in time for the celebration of the centenary of Frank O'Connor's birth on 17th September 2003.

As Conservation Officer, I wanted the project to act as a model for carrying out small-scale projects in a reasonable time and at moderate cost.  All too often there is a perception that such works are too time-consuming and inevitably cost so much that only government and local authorities can bear them.  Other City Council conservation projects, though highly successful in their own terms had only compounded that perception.  It was important to demonstrate that it didn't have to be so.  Furthermore, the whole South Parish, being located so close to the city centre and with its distinctive historic character, is an area undergoing much change and redevelopment.  A high quality refurbishment would demonstrate the nature and quality of the often overlooked modest domestic buildings so typical of the South Parish and of the city generally.

Frank O'Connor House 02 

Figure 2: A photograph of 84 Douglas Street, Cork, taken on 20th September 2003

No elevational features survive from the original building date; the oldest external doors and windows in the area are early nineteenth-century in style, even where the buildings are clearly older.  No photographs or drawings were found which might indicate the original form of the front elevation.  Therefore, following a survey and some investigation around the openings, it was decided to do a conjectural restoration based on surviving South Parish models for windows and the front door.

All concerned are happy with the result of the process: the way the interventions were discussed, the scope agreed, works specified and carried out.  I am happy that it is a model for working with old buildings like this one, demonstrating that it doesn't have to be overly complex or expensive when the people involved are well informed and clear about the aims.

Frank O'Connor House was officially opened by Mr. John O'Donoghue TD, Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, on the 22nd September 2003.  It contains information not only on Frank O'Connor but also on other Munster writers, both contemporary and past.  It provides a fitting and appropriate base for the activities of the Munster Literature Centre and can be visited during office hours.

Pat Ruane, Conservation Officer, Cork City Council

Project Team

Conservation Consultant Chris Southgate
Architect Paul Hudson, Hudson Associates
Contractor Alan Moroney, DAM Construction
Windows Jim Kelliher, Keltcraft
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