Dublin Doors: their Stylistic Development and Conservation Requirements
In the typically pared back and understated facades of Dublin city’s domestic architecture, the doorcase and door provided the main opportunity to assert an architectural style and flair. The materials and design of a door made a strong statement about the status of a building and by its extension its owner. Today the condition and conservation of a door also says much about the current owner. This article will provide a stylistic overview of the development of Dublin’s historic doors and provide some general pointers on how best to look after this key feature of a period property.
Dublin doorcases feature on many of the city’s postcards, and for good reason, as Dublin is acknowledged to have some of the finest doorcases in the British Isles. Particularly celebrated are the Georgian doorcases of our city’s grand historic squares, such as Parnell, Mountjoy, Merrion and Fitzwilliam Square, and St. Stephen’s Green. However many houses, on the city’s more modest streets, have simple doorcases dating from the Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian periods, which should be appreciated and cared for too, as they present a fascinating history of building fashions.
Early To Mid-18th Century
The earliest of the city’s doorcases have been lost through alterations and demolitions. They were also commonly made of timber and rotted. Amongst the earliest to survive in a Dublin terraced house is doorcase at 66 Capel Street, which was built between 1716 and 1719 (Photo 1) but the design of which has its origins in the late seventeenth century when there was a fashion for doors with much taller and narrower proportions than later Palladian types. Originally, the door would have filled the full height of the opening. Subsequent fashions dictated a lowering of the door height that was compensated for by the insertion of an overlight within the door frame. The robust detailing of this doorcase of number 66, especially the broad curving consoles, are distinctly baroque in character. The type of doorcase found at 66 Capel Street was once common along the streets of Dublin but changing fashions mean few survive today. Sadly the original door of number 66 no longer survives. Early doors would have had flat panels with heavy bolection mouldings, but by the 1720s the use of raised and fielded panels had become common.
Mid-18th Century (Pallaidan Doorcases 1730s to 1770s)
Due to the influence of architects such as Sir Edward Lovett Pearce (c.1699 – 1733), Richard Castle (c.1690-1751), and the pattern books of James Gibbs (1682-1721) and others, master- builders from the 1730s onward adopted bold Palladian designs. Doorcases of this period can be distinguished by their frames of heavy cut stone. Two typical Dublin doorcase designs of the period can be found at 11 South Frederick Street and 4 Merrion Square.
The ‘block and start’ doorcase, which was developed as a variation of the Gibbsian surround, was another popular design of the period. The ‘block and start’ was usually found on more modest houses from the mid-18th century onwards, but its use lasted well into the early 19th century. The doorcase at number 11 South Frederick Street, which dates to circa 1756, adopts the ‘block and start’ design, with a simple stone architrave of blocks of rustication running around a semicircular headed opening and having a modest cornice separating the door from the fanlight.
The stone doorcase at 11 South Frederick Street is painted, as would have been the case originally, and with few exceptions the doorcases of the 1730 to 1800 period, whatever the material, were painted a Portland stone-colour. The principal purpose of this was to achieve uniformity, as the stone used in Dublin doorcases (usually locally sourced granite but sometimes native limestone and sandstone) was not always of the highest quality. Painting helped to protect the doorcase from weathering and concealed imperfections in the stone.
The doorcase of number 4 Merrion Square North dates to circa 1765 and has an open base pediment resting on deeply cut fluted console brackets with rusticated pilasters framing the doorway. Typical for the period, the fanlight is a perfect semi-circular design and would most probably originally have had a simple heavy timber fanlight of two spokes. Number 4 Merrion Square retains its original timber raised and fielded paneled door with six panels. As the 18th century progressed, raised and fielded paneled doors were designed with an increasing complexity of panel arrangement resulting in doors of eleven panels or more at the turn of the century.
Late 18th century (Neoclassical doorcases)
From the 1770s onwards the robust stone doorcases fell out of favour as the refined Neoclassical style came to predominate. The Neoclassical era brought with it a fashion for more delicate decoration, lighter detailing and airier interiors, giving rise to the frequent deployment of sidelights, which allowed a far greater amount of light into the entrance hall. The inclusion of sidelights in turn gave rise to enormous fanlights, which span the entire width of the front door opening. Concentrations of these elegant doorcases can be found in the ‘new’ districts such as Merrion Square, but also in longer established areas, where alterations to the doorcases were made to keep abreast with fashion.
The doorcase of Clonmell House, No. 17 Harcourt Street, dates to 1778 and is one of the most impressive in the neoclassical style. The fashionable Ionic order is selected for the columns that flank the door and are echoed by respondent pilasters. The fluted frieze-cornice is decorated with paterae. The enormous fanlight is composed of two concentric circles separated by a central arch of intricate leaded work, which has the appearance of fluting. Thus the central arch appears to be a continuation of the frieze over the door. The inner arch contains a petal decorative motif, while the outer arch consists of a series of spearheads. The sidelights have leading arranged in a decorative geometric pattern of semicircles and diamond. Sidelights were only found in larger houses where the width of the entrance hall is sufficient to accommodate such a large opening. The door of Clonmel House has nine raised and fielded panels.
Another simpler example of the neoclassical style can be found at 40 North Great Georges Street, which dates to 1789. This neoclassical doorcase derives its character from the refinement in detailing and decoration inspired by the hugely influential Adam Brothers – the ‘Adam’ style being a phase of Neoclassicism, which was characterised by clarity of form and by refined, and low relief detail. The fanlights of this style, as seen at number 40 North Great Georges Street, are typically intricate and elegant displays of geometrical design, making use of composition (a type of plaster) or lead, both easily moulded to the desired pattern rather than timber which had been suitable for the earlier heavy spoke fanlights.
Early 19th century (Greek Revival Doorcase)
The beginning of the 19th century saw the fashion for Greek Revival reflected in Dublin’s doors. The Greek Revival was characterized by the adoption of archaeologically correct details from the architecture of Ancient Greece following the publication of a number of accurate surveys, notably Stuart and Revett’s The Antiquities of Athens (1762). The doorcase of number 35 Fitzwilliam Square (c.1825) is typical of the period with its baseless Greek Doric column and laurel wreaths in the frieze. The eight-spoke fanlight is quite stark representing the move away from embellishment typical during the Neoclassical period. The door of number 35 also reflects the early 19th century abandonment of heavy raised and fielded panelled doors in favour of flat panelled doors with bolection and flat band mouldings.
Mid To Late 19th Century
As the brick terraces of the city expanded out as far as the canals and into the suburbs during the early to mid-nineteenth century to meet demand for new middle class housing, doorcase design was increasingly scaled down to suit the more modest proportioned houses. The transition from ‘Georgian’ to ‘Victorian’ detailing was a gradual one. A style of doorcases used in houses of various scales around the city emerged from the 1830s and continued to be used into the late 19th century. It consisted of a timber doorcase set in a plain brick arch, normally with no side lights, the door flanked by panelled pilasters with carved scrolled brackets and a heavy cornice. The North and South Circular Roads areas have some fine terraces varying in date from the 1820s to the 1880s that present a good overview of the development of doorcase detailing.
The door of number 25 Heytesbury Street (Photo 7) is characteristic of this period, where panelled pilasters and foliate scrolled console brackets substitute for the engaged columned doorcase with capitals of the previous era. The panelled door has been greatly simplified and now comprises two narrow round-headed vertical panels running the full height of the door and separated by a fillet moulding. The teardrop fanlight is set within an elliptical arched opening. The elliptical shaped fanlight is also characteristic of the period, as it fitted better with the lower ceiling heights found in these more modest houses. Also typical of the more modest houses of this era is the use of timber rather than stone
From the mid-19th century onwards improvements in glass technology resulted in a new fashion for plain rather than decorative fanlights, as seen at 4 Victoria Street, circa 1865 (Photo 8) Current owners with such fanlights should not insert glazing bars into these plain Victorian fanlights where they were never intended. An attention to door furniture is also notable from the mid-19th century. 1840 saw the introduction of the prepaid postal stamp, prompting the regularised numbering of houses on a street and the introduction of letter boxes into front doors. Previously the practice was to collect a fee from the recipient so letterboxes were not in use. The Victorian fashion for polished brass door furniture, as opposed to the cast-iron (or brass painted black), which was used during the 18th century, meant that not only was their more door furniture but that it was also more prominent.
The late 19th century saw the further development of the suburbs, particularly to the south of the city and it was during this period that the recessed porch was developed, with arches of moulded or chamfered brick. On more elaborate houses such at 64 Northumberland Road, which was built in 1879 (Photo: 9), polished pink marble shafts and Venetian Gothic detailing can be found. The carved doorcases came to be replaced by arched openings with recessed porches, and the door forming part of a glazed screen. The doors of the late 19th century and Edwardian houses often incorporated attractive frosted and stained glass panels.
If you are fortunate enough to live in a period property that retains its original door you should take good care of it, as a replacement door, even when well executed in appropriate materials and design, cannot begin to replicate the texture and patina of an old door. Pre-1900 doors were usually made with mature Baltic or North American pine, which is of such good quality that it is rare to find an old door where removal and replacement on grounds of condition is really necessary. A skilled joiner can strengthen and re-condition an old door, splicing in new timber where necessary.
In the unlikely event of your old door being irreparable, or indeed if you wish to reinstate a timber door where the previous owner has inserted an inappropriate aluminium or uPVC door, or poor quality timber ‘off-the-peg’ door, your joiner should be able to make you a bespoke replica. But remember that if your building is a protected structure, or located in an architectural conservation area, replacing your original decayed door will require planning permission. Careful research should be conducted to ensure an accurate copy is made, measurements of the moulding details from your decayed original door should be taken, or in the case of an original door no longer surviving, measurements can be taken from a neighbouring house that retains its original door. It is advisable to select the best quality timber available to ensure the longevity of your door.
Pre-1900 doors were nearly always painted and the colours used tended to be dark, with dark browns and greens, blacks being most common. However from the last quarter of the 20th century Dublin’s historic doors began to be painted many different colours, with bright yellows and reds and blues and purples featuring. While the latter brighter colour selections are historically inaccurate, it is reversible, and indeed has now become a celebrated characteristic of the Dublin streetscape, as such, within reason, owners need not be too puritanical in their colour selection. However it is key that you do paint your door regularly, on average every three to five years, as this will protect the wood. Existing paintwork should be washed with a non-alkaline soap and sanded down with abrasive paper and new paint should have a full gloss finish.
As previously explained doorcases were also painted. In recent years a worrying trend has emerged where owners are removing the paint. This is inadvisable as it exposes defects in the stone and denudes the doorcases of the weathering protection that paint provides. The process of removing the paint can also cause damage, particular with neo-classical style doorcases, which may incorporate composition or plaster embellishments that can be unwittingly damaged or destroyed when removing paint from what is thought to be a doorcase constructed solely of timber or stone.
One of the most common causes of damage to doorcases of stone and timber is perished lead flashings to the top of a door, causing water penetration. This water ingress causes timber doorcases to rot and stone to spall, therefore be sure to check lead flashings annually and repair where necessary.
Remember ‘a stitch in times saves nine’, so be sure to conduct regular maintenance and where the need for significant conservation works are identified always seek the advice of a specialist craftsman. Taking care of your old door will ensure it is enjoyed by both you and future owners of your period property.
The stylistic appraisal contained in this article is drawn from the Historic Heart of Dublin’s Inventory Door Fact Sheets (1999) and the author wishes to thank Geraldine Walsh, CEO of the Dublin Civic Trust (www.dublincivictrust.ie), for allowing the information to be reproduced. Additional information is incorporated from Maurice Craig’s Dublin Doorways article, which appeared in ‘Ireland of the Welcomes’, Nov –Dec, 1972. The Dublin Civic Trust publication, Period Houses: Conservation Guidance Manual (2001) by Frank Keohane, provided the principal source for information on the conservation of doorcases and doors. A list of craftspeople capable of conserving your period property’s doorcase and door can be found on the Irish Georgian Society’s Traditional Building and Conservation Skills Register of Practitioners (www.igs.ie)
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