Subscriber OnlyDublin

Grafton Street’s story: How a downbeat country lane became an upmarket home for A-listers, hotels, Turkish baths and shops

Bewley’s, the streets most famous landmark, opened in 1926 with a ‘double-height Egyptian Revival mosaic pylon-style shopfront’

Grafton Street, one of Ireland’s most famous shopping streets and one of the busiest in Europe, once contained the elements of an entire city within its half a kilometre length.

There were the grand houses of the fashionable elite, hotels, Turkish baths, a cinema, schools, undertakers, restaurants and cafes, and of course shops. It wasn’t the current near-ubiquity of fashion retail, but an eclectic mix of musical instrument sellers, chandlers, booksellers, clockmakers, miniaturists, an enticing sounding “gallery of curiosities” and even more intriguingly a “fancy repository”. Over 300 years the street has accommodated everything from the mundane to the marvellous.

Grafton Street was officially named in 1708 for the FitzRoys, Dukes of Grafton, but as these things usually happen, it had evolved as a thoroughfare from a desire line long before.

In medieval Dublin the area was farmland, well outside the walls of the city. A country lane linked the grazing common of St Stephen’s Green with Hoggen Green, now College Green, then a Viking ceremonial site.

READ MORE

It remained a lane through fields owned by the Molesworths of Swords well into the 17th century, with Dublin Corporation conceding in 1671 that it was “so foule and out of repaire that persons cannot passe”. Two years later the lane appears on Bernard de Gomme’s map of the city as “Highway to St Stephen’s Green”, with now a number of houses – about eight, near the southern end.

Today v 1970s

However, it was the stamp of the FitzRoys that got things going. In 1712 the corporation was “encouraged” to find the money to develop Grafton Street as a “crown causeway”, only 30 years since it acknowledged the need for repairs, and development took off like a rocket. By the time John Roque published his 1756 map of Dublin, Grafton Street had been fully built out, and the A-listers had started to move in.

The Colley family, who later changed their name to Wellesley, were there by this time and within three generations had risen from barons to earls to marquises. Richard, Marquis of Wellesley, was born on Grafton Street in 1760. If he’s not quite ringing any bells, his younger brother Arthur might; he was better known as the Duke of Wellington.

The Iron Duke went to school on Grafton Street, in Whyte’s Academy, established in 1758 at number 75, now Bewley’s cafe. Other pupils included Thomas Moore and Robert Emmet.

Sir Thomas Vessy, Bishop of Ossory, was also living on this street by this time. Louis de Valle, manager of the Smock Alley was here as early as 1733, and classical scholar John Hawkey, opened a school in 1746 in Grafton-street, near Trinity. This prosperous residential community flourished throughout the 1700s.

The next major change for the street came in 1794 with the construction of Carlisle Bridge, now O’Connell Bridge. This new Liffey crossing made Grafton Street an important north-south thoroughfare bringing commercial investment, although shops had already arrived in the later decades of the 18th century, with, as Christine Casey notes in The Buildings of Ireland – Dublin, new apartments above complete with “diningroom, bedchamber and closet”.

It was this switch to mixed-use that possibly saved Grafton Street from the desolation that hit the northside when the peers and their entourage upped sticks back to London after parliament was abolished by the Act of Union in 1801.

“The northside got this huge hammer blow because it really was the centre of elite living and they were all off to Westminster. Grafton Street did, of course, have a scattering of peers, but largely, more well-off professional people, as opposed to those of apex of the elite”, says historian Arran Henderson, who runs the Dublin Decoded walking tours.

“You also had the advent of living-over-the-shop and I suspect a lot of these apartments would have been for second sons; somewhere to crash when you’re in town.”

You also had the advent of living-over-the-shop and I suspect a lot of these apartments would have been for second sons; somewhere to crash when you’re in town

—  Arran Henderson - historian

This burgeoning commercial character coincided with a building boom in the late 1700s, which resulted in the demolition or substantial alteration of Grafton Street’s Dutch Billy houses. These houses with their distinctive triangular gable fronts, taking their name from the new King William III, were popular in Dublin from the late 1600s until the mid-1700s. There are a few visible still around Dublin, others were hidden behind new flat Georgian facades. This is possibly the case with number 14 Grafton Street (now Sketchers), where the single, centred top floor window indicates it may originally have had that triangular shape.

“There was a huge building boom in Georgian Dublin in the 1760s through to the 1790s and Dutch Billies were considered really uncool, so you either altered your Billy to make sure it didn’t look like one any more, or if you had the money, you completely rebuilt,” Henderson says.

Grafton Street was getting into its stride. The 1800s saw the arrival of some of the street’s most famous institutions. Brown Thomas set up shop in 1848 in numbers 16 and 17 (the opposite side of the street to where it now trades) eventually expanding from numbers 15 to 20. Two doors down, at numbers 12 and 13 – now Boots and half of the Skechers shop – the Royal Hotel arrived at about the same time.

On the opposite side of the road at number 91 a tailor, there since 1838, must have been watching with interest. John Wright Switzer made his move in 1859 with the imposing Commercial Hall building from numbers 91 to 93 Grafton Street. Switzer and Company later filled a block from 88 to 95, staying in business until the early 1990s when it closed and Brown Thomas moved across.

Weir’s jewellers came in 1869. Their premises, from numbers 96 to 99 Grafton, were substantially rebuilt in 1881, with numbers 97 to 99 rebuilt again in 1934 to accommodate the Maskora Turkish baths.

The early decades of the 20th century saw another flurry of activity. Initially with a Dutch Billy/Tudor-Bethan mash-up revival style that started just before the turn of the century, still visible in several gabled buildings, particularly at the southern end of the street. In 1911 architect Richard Caulfield Orpen, a brother of painter William Orpen, embraced this style with gusto delivering the Grafton Street Picture House at number 72, one of the first cinemas in the county, operating until 1973.

Today v 1939

Just three years after the cinema opened, there was another exciting arrival, with a branch of American department store Woolworths setting up a few doors down, eventually expanding from numbers 65 to 68, then demolishing the lot in the 1960s, to rebuild in its own house “style”, before shipping out in the 1980s.

Probably Grafton Street’s most famous establishment, Bewley’s, opened in 1926 with, the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage breathlessly says, a “double-height Egyptian Revival mosaic pylon-style shopfront”. To say this new building by Millar and Symes, on the site of the former Whyte’s school, cut a dash, doesn’t come close.

“It was directly inspired by the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen, which was on front pages all over the world and had a huge impact on everything: jewellery design, costume design, people were really gripped by it,” Henderson says.

“Those cultural and historical ripples, still seen on our streets, help you to understand what people were thinking at the time.”

In 1927, another bold arrival in the form of Mitchell’s Hotel, perhaps the last great building on the street, opened. It replaced Mitchell’s chocolatiers and tea rooms at numbers 9 to 11 and was built in a late Art Deco style “looking maybe a little bit fascistic” says Henderson, as it stares down Wicklow Street. It was, like Bewley’s, the height of sophistication.

“I suspect going for tea at Mitchell’s was a bit like the Westbury or the Shelbourne today.”

It’s now a McDonald’s fast food outlet.

McDonald’s opened in 1977 and others followed, with most of the established cafes and restaurants, except Bewley’s, replaced by fast-food restaurants over the 1980s and 1990s. Towards the end of the 1990s phone shops started to appear, and the city council finally decided it needed to act.

In 2006 it designated the street an Architectural Conservation Area (ACA). There were at the time 24 protected structures on the street (since increased to 29) but the conservation designation gives protections to all buildings. This means changes such as alterations to shopfronts require planning permission, to guard against increasingly garish interventions, or rubbishy pastiche attempts to evoke ‘ye olde Grafton Street’.

The council followed this with a Scheme of Special Planning Control for the street, restricting the use of buildings. Certain establishments would be refused planning permission, including fast-food outlets, amusement arcades, bookmakers, discount shops, phone shops and sex shops.

However, Graham Hickey, chief executive of the Dublin Civic Trust, says that these provisions have limited effect.

“These are excellent policies, but only come into play when there’s a planning application. If a development proposal comes in to the council, it will be assessed in accordance with the ACA or the planning controls. But if nobody goes for planning permission – and that’s been the case with most buildings on the street with long-standing legacy issues of poor presentation – neither of those two policy instruments are applicable,” he says.

Some recent planning applications have resulted in much improved shopfronts, but these remain the minority. A more direct intervention by the council to work with owners to achieve the vision it wants for the street is needed, Hickey says.

“Grafton Street holds a premium connotation in our collective imagination, but to be honest I think that really exists between the covers of a book,” he says.

“The reality on the ground is less romantic, the street certainly is not presented to its best advantage. These property owners, many of them on the scale of pension funds, in other European cities would be jostling to have the best presented building on the street. Sadly, Grafton Street is bargain-basement in its presentation.”

The council says it is seeking to “boost the attractiveness” of Grafton Street by “improving the quality of the public environment” as well examining its mix of uses. The special planning controls will be reviewed next year and the council says it will “work with all stakeholders to ensure that the street retains its national and international significance as a shopping destination”.