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Building of the Month - October 2014

Roches Stores, Saint Patrick's Street, Cork, County Cork

Roches Stores, Cork 01 - Representative View

Figure 1: Roches Stores, now Debenhams, Saint Patrick's Street, Cork.  The burning of Cork in December, 1920, and the compensation that followed provided for a programme of reconstruction that gave the city's main thoroughfare an unprecedentedly grand air.  Roches Stores, designed by Chillingworth & Levie and the largest of the rebuilt sites, is distinguised by its extended glazed shopfront, Classical breakfront and copper-covered dome.  Photograph by Shannon Images

The fire that engulfed nearly five acres of Cork on the night of 11-12 December, 1920, left a trail of debris and ruin in the city.  Amidst the turmoil of the years of 1921 and 1923 Saint Patrick's Street traders sought, and successfully achieved, compensation for the loss of their premises and stock.  Chief amongst that group was William Roche (d. 1939) who had developed his business from a small warehouse premises on 29-32 Merchant Street in 1900 to take over the London House at 15 Saint Patrick's Street at the time of the War of Independence (1919-21).

The reconstruction of Saint Patrick's Street included eight large shops that were rebuilt between 1924 and 1928 with all of the main architectural firms in the city involved.  The reconstruction was not developed according to a single master plan, but the designs for each shop had to be approved by the Corporation; a project to redesign the junction of Saint Patrick's Street and Winthrop Street was included in the new building line.

Roches Stores, Cork 02 - Sketch of Front Elevation (1924)

Figure 2: A sketch of the front elevation from the Chillingworth & Levie Collection at Cork City and County Archives.  Discrepancies between the sketch and the finished building include what appear to be gabled or pedimented camber-headed window openings on the upper floors; the shallow triangular pediment over the entrance which gave way to a dentilated open bed pediment; and the saucer dome on panelled base which was built as a chamfered rectangular dome.  © Cork City and County Archives, ref.: ARC1/537

Roches Stores (1924-5), designed by Chillingworth & Levie of 11 South Mall, was the largest of the new shops, the premises amalgamating the plots of four buildings destroyed in the burning of Cork (figs. 1-2).  In addition to its commercial space, the new building housed government offices in its upper floors.  The front elevation is nine bays wide with a pedimented central breakfront and two canted half-bays at either end.  Chillingworth & Levie used a generic Classical style based upon a palatial elevation comprising a ground floor, two tiers of upper floors and an attic storey.  The elevation is centred on a pedimented niche decorated with a collection of loose Classical references, typical of the transitional period before historical styles gave way to the Modern Movement and common for this type of commercial architecture.  The outstanding feature of the building is its copper-covered dome (fig. 3).

Roches Stores, Cork 03 - Dome

Figure 3: A view of the copper-covered dome that has become a landmark on the Cork City skyline.  Although taken over by the Debenhams group in 2006, raised lettering perpetuates the memory of Roches Stores.  Photograph by Shannon Images

The general influence of the designs of Harrods (1905-12) and Selfridge & Co. (1909) in London may be seen in the vertical divisions of the elevation and the dome, respectively.  A single shopfront, originally divided by brass mullions, also reflected the impact of the great London department stores and featured in other reconstructions in Saint Patrick's Street.  Inside the shop, a central light well was used for better lighting and for the display of goods.

The aspirations of the proprietor are seen not only in the scale of the building and its dome, but also in the sourcing of shop fittings from some of the best British shop fitting firms of the day (fig. 4).  These included Frederick Sage & Co., London, for iron grilles and marble tiling; Walter McFarlane and Co., Glasgow, for steel windows (both firms had supplied fittings for the construction of Harrods); and the Marble & Mosaic Co. Ltd., London, for "imperator" terrazzo flooring.  The collection held by the Cork City and County Archives includes specifications from these companies and many other details that highlight the level of craftsmanship that was involved in pre-World War II department store building.  These were finished largely in brass, bronze, cast-iron and hardwoods before the advent of plastics.

Of the eight shops rebuilt, only Roches Stores and Alex Grant & Co. (1923) by J.F. McMullen & Son were completed in plaster.  The other shops used limestone with Henry Hill's Cash & Co. (1924-5) being the most notable example.  Chillingworth & Levie also designed O'Regan & Co. (1921) at 26 Saint Patrick's Street; 33-34 Saint Patrick's Street; and the Winthrop Arcade (1924-6).  The firm came into prominence after the completion of the Beamish and Crawford Brewery Offices in 1920.  In 1941, the firm returned to complete an air raid shelter in the building.

While the burning of Cork was a hugely traumatic event which resulted in significant economic hardship, the ensuing reconstruction of much of Saint Patrick's Street gave a facelift to the city's main thoroughfare.  It was an opportunity to smarten up some of Cork's finest stores and created a legacy of retail architecture from the early part of the twentieth century.  For Roches Stores it consolidated a growing business which was to expand and thrive until 2006 when it was taken over by the Debenhams group.


Roches Stores, Cork 04 - Detail of Porch

Figure 1: A drawing from the Chillingworth & Levie Collection titled "Roches Stores Detail of Porch" showing proposals for the doors emblazoned with the Roches Stores monogram, the floor paved with "plain 14 [inch] tiles" and the ceiling with its oval centrepiece.  © Cork City and County Archives, ref.: ARC1/468

Louise M. Harrington is an architectural and landscape historian and recently curated the Chillingworth & Levie: 20th Century Architecture in Cork Exhibition at Cork City and County Archives.  Visit www.louisemharrington.com.  The Chillingworth & Levie: 20th Century Architecture in Cork Exhibition may be viewed online at www.corkarchives.ie

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