Dr. Aisling Durkan explores Barlow House, Drogheda, which has known many periods of adaptive reuse, all the while retaining its distinctive early eighteenth-century character, and which, as it approaches its tercentenary, has been reinvented again as a venue of Droichead Arts Centre
Barlow House, West Street, Drogheda, is an important example of an early eighteenth-century Irish townhouse and was assessed as a site of national significance by An Foras Forbartha in 1986 and again, almost twenty years later, by the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage in 2005 (fig. 1). The house was originally built for, and today takes its name from Alderman James Barlow (d. 1759), a prosperous merchant and local politician, but it went on to have many guises: the home of Thomas Carty (d. 1872) who was the first Catholic mayor of the town (1842-4; 1856-8); a barrack for the Royal Irish Constabulary and, after Independence, a station for An Garda Síochána. It is now the home of Droichead Arts Centre and a sympathetic restoration has seen its rooms repurposed as artist studios and rehearsal rooms. It is this legacy of adaptive reuse that has seen Barlow House survive largely intact, a testament not only to the status and taste of its original builder, but more importantly to the skill of the Irish craftsmen and tradesmen whose efforts continue to enrich the built environment of Drogheda to this day.
Little is known about the early life of Alderman James Barlow except that he was a grandson of Sir James Barlow, one-time Lord Mayor of Dublin (1714-5), and that he was a graduate of Trinity College Dublin. How he made his fortune is uncertain but he must have accumulated considerable wealth as the house he built for himself was substantial in size, and articulate in design, particularly for one of such an early date in a provincial town. Work on the house began shortly after Henry married Althemia Leigh (d. 1797) in 1732 and was finished by 1738 when an adjoining coach house and stables were built on a plot of land leased from Drogheda Corporation. So conspicuous was the house on completion that it was featured as one of the ten architectural vignettes Joseph Ravell used to illustrate the margins of his MAP of the TOWN and Suburbs of DROGHEDA (October 1749) (fig. 2). Also included on the map are The South End of Alden. Leighs House and The Front of Lord Chief Justice Singletons House and these are of interest as they belonged to John Leigh (d. 1733) and Henry Singleton (d. 1759) who were, respectively, the father and maternal uncle of Althemia.
Barlow House measures approximately 50 feet wide, its double pile plan 40 feet deep, and it has often been compared to 9 Henrietta Street in Dublin whose street frontage is slightly larger at 60 feet (fig. 3). 9 Henrietta Street is generally accepted as the work of Edward Lovett Pearce (d. 1733) adapting the façade of 30 Old Burlington Street, London, designed (1720) by Richard Boyle Burlington (1694-1753) and Colen Campbell (1676-1729) for the sixth Earl of Mountrath. Barlow House and 9 Henrietta Street both stand three storeys high over basements, are five windows wide, and make extensive use of red brick in their construction. But 9 Henrietta Street is more typically Palladian, the rustication of the ground floor, the Scamozzian Ionic doorcase with its vigorous Gibbsian-like blocking, and the arched central piano nobile window decorated with Ionic pilasters and a miniature balustrade, all lending it a gravitas that is lacking in its cousin in Drogheda. 9 Henrietta Street has a robust, precisely proportioned façade, one recently described by Melanie Hayes as ‘an exceptional example of control and composition’, but Barlow House is less mannered and boasts a lively interplay of ornamentation which give it a distinctive and charming character. For example, the doorcase is Gibbsian but it is a much simpler design, with no suggestion of an order, and its pediment is superimposed on the stringcourse above (fig. 4). The central piano nobile window is given a segmental pediment and a scrolled architrave whose consoles are in line with the apex of the pediment below (fig. 5).
The façade is further enlivened by three stringcourses and the first is on a line with the base of the doorcase and creates the baseline of the building. Two plain stringcourses mark the transition from the ground floor to the piano nobile and give emphasis to the principal floor. The shallower of the two almost marks the halfway point of the façade, but not quite, as there are nineteen finely cut limestone quoins below and twenty-five above. An ogee-detailed cornice, again finely carved from a silvery limestone, supports the parapet which is divided into five by short piers. The parapet had a practical purpose, minimising the risk of a fire spreading to the roof behind it, but it also contributed significantly to the Palladian aesthetic of the composition, screening the roof and the chimney stacks so that, just as it is depicted in Ravell’s vignette, the house reads as a beautifully-proportioned cube. Barlow House is seen rising above its neighbours in View of Drogheda from Millmount (1754) by Gabriele Ricciardelli (fl. 1743-82) but, while we can see that the roof is slated, the clarity of detail is lacking and it is difficult to decipher whether it is hipped or pitched. All evidence of the original roof was lost when a replacement flat roof was installed by the Office of Public Works in 1961.
The windows also show evidence of alteration. The windows are slender and evenly spaced, a hallmark of early modern Classical houses, but it is possible that those on the ground floor have been raised ever so slightly as their heads are not quite in line with the head of the door. The windows on the piano nobile appear to retain their original proportions but, internally, the splayed reveals and shutter boxes are evidence that they were altered in the Regency period to allow more light to fill the rooms. A quick glance at Ravell’s vignette confirms that the windows on the uppermost floor were also altered and, where there were originally courses of brick work in between, the sill of the central window now sits directly on top of the pediment of the piano nobile window below. The windows were refitted with casements when Barlow House was repurposed as a Garda Síochána station but reproduction hornless timber sashes have recently been installed to restore some of the eighteenth-century character of the composition.
The author of Barlow House is not known and, as no building records for the house survive, the name of the architect is likely to remain a mystery. Idiosyncratic details, signature motifs, tried and tested plans shared by more than one house, would, in the normal course of events, help in attributing a design but Barlow House has no known comparison and even its ground floor plan is unique (fig. 6). The central entrance hall is accessed directly from the street. Two reception rooms are located on the right hand side with one overlooking the street and another originally overlooking parterred gardens to the rear; a third reception room is located directly behind the entrance hall. A service staircase occupies the left hand side, rising the full height of the house, with small rooms at the front and back completing the plan.
The most impressive feature of the interior of Barlow House is its staircase which, unusually, is centrally placed on the left hand side of the entrance hall and, wholly cantilevered, gives the impression that it is “floating” (fig. 7). Floating staircases are typically the preserve of large country houses with Imperial types branching off at the halfway point and rising to galleries or landings on either side. However, the staircase at Barlow House rises in one direction only, much like the staircases of smaller country houses or large urban townhouses. This hybrid quality has not been discovered anywhere else with the possible exception of the bishop’s palace in Waterford where the staircase is not wholly cantilevered or “floating” (fig. 8).
We do not know if the staircase at Barlow House was crafted in situ or if it was crafted in Dublin and simply assembled on site. The staircase is exquisitely detailed – the tread ends feature elaborate acanthus leaf scrolls; the triplet balusters are deeply fluted; the newels are fashioned as miniature Corinthian columns; the swan neck handrails are delicately carved with low-relief floral and foliage patterns – and it is very possible that the level craftsmanship required to carry out such an elaborate set piece had to be sourced from outside Drogheda.
The similarities with the staircase in Waterford point to a potential design source. The bishop’s palace was designed by Richard Castle (d. 1751) who was assisted by his clerk and measurer John Ensor (d. 1787). Castle is not known to have ever visited Drogheda but he has nevertheless been suggested as a potential architect of Barlow House based on stylistic grounds. Ensor, however, had a connection with Drogheda in that his brother George (d. 1803) is recorded as leasing a property in the town. Frustratingly, that was not until the 1770s, some thirty years after Barlow House was completed and, until such time as an earlier connection can be made, we can only speculate about Ensor’s hand in the design. What is beyond doubt is that Barlow commissioned a competent master joiner who was familiar with the bishop’s palace and its staircase.
The inclusion of Barlow House on Ravell’s map was presumably intended to convey a sense of the prosperity of Drogheda and to inspire other merchants to build similar properties in the town. The reality is that Barlow House had a minimal direct influence on its later neighbours with the possible exception of its Gibbsian doorcase which, over time, began to appear in streetscapes in increasingly abstracted and simplified forms. The scale of the house, its costly craftsmanship and finishes, was obviously beyond the means of most builders but recent developments have shown that it is never too late for Barlow House to inspire.
The restoration of Barlow House has given it a new lease of life for the twenty-first century and, managed and programmed by Droichead Arts Centre, it is being used to promote and support the work of artists in the north-east region. The arts centre is currently home to two visual artists, one theatre in residence, and provides hotspot space for another four artists to work from. The heritage-led adaptive reuse of Barlow House is an excellent example of how historic properties can be repurposed for innovative and practical endeavours whilst preserving and promoting a greater appreciation for our unique architectural heritage.
Dr. Aisling Durkan is a recent PhD graduate of History of Art and Architecture in Trinity College Dublin. Her thesis, “Regional splendour and mercantile ambition: the Drogheda town house in the eighteenth century”, focused on the predominantly mercantile domestic architecture of Drogheda, placing it in the wider context of eighteenth-century Ireland and Britain. She is contributing a chapter to Louth History and Society which will be titled “Domestic architecture in eighteenth-century Drogheda”. The book, edited by Annaleigh Margey, Conor Brady and Noel Ross with William Nolan as series editor, is due in 2022 and will be the twenty-ninth volume in the County History and Society series published by Geography Publications.
Aisling would like to thank Dr. Conor Lucey of the School of Art History and Cultural Policy, UCD, and Peter Guillery of the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, for their insights into the plan of Barlow House.
Casey, Christine, The Buildings of Ireland: Dublin (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005)
Casey, Christine and Rowan, Alastair, The Buildings of Ireland: North Leinster (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993)
Durkan, Aisling, “An eighteenth-century Irish provincial townhouse: the case of the Barlow House” (BA TCD, 2014)
Durkan, Aisling, “Regional Splendour and mercantile ambition: the Drogheda town house in the eighteenth century” (PhD TCD, 2020)
Garner, William, Drogheda: Architectural Heritage (Dublin: An Foras Forbartha, 1986)
Garry, James, “Townland Survey of County Louth: Moneymore (continued)” in Journal of the County Louth Archaeological and Historical Society Volume 24 Number 2 (Dundalk: County Louth Archaeological and History Society, 1998), pp.196-221
Hayes, Melanie, The Best Address in Town: Henrietta Street, Dublin and Its First Residents, 1720-80 (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2021)
Johnston-Liik, Edith Mary, History of the Irish Parliament 1692-1800: commons, constituencies and statutes (Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation, 2002)
Laffan, William, “Mitres and Mansions” in ed. Mulcahy, John, Irish Arts Review Volume 28 Number 3 (Dublin: Irish Arts Review, 2011), pp.106-11Back to Building of the Month Archive