The Conservatory

The impetus for this project was the refurbishment and extension of a villa type house in Monkstown in south County Dublin. The villa style is typical of Dublin’s Victorian suburbs. The style is typified by having the main reception rooms on the upper floor accessed by wide stone stairs to a fanlighted front door. The lower level contains bedrooms and service rooms at garden level. This house had been purchased by a young family attracted by the period details and the large back garden. The design of the house has been attributed to George Papworth a notable architect of the time and known to have designed a number of houses in Monkstown as well as the Quaker Meeting House. The thing that set this house apart from the typical Victorian house is an original Turner Conservatory attached.

History

Richard Turner was an iron founder and manufacturer of iron glasshouses. From Turner’s Hammersmith works in Ballsbridge, Dublin he produced new glasshouses for public institutions such as Kew Gardens in London, the Curvilinear Range in the National Botanic Gardens, Dublin and the Palm House in Belfast Botanical Gardens. He also produced conservatories for prestigious private homes probably the best know example being the conservatory at Ballyfin. The conservatory on this Dublin house is likely one of the smallest known by Turner and the connection with this project is most likely due to the first person to live in the house in 1838, Ninian Niven.

Ninian Niven was a Scottish Landscape gardener who was appointed Head Gardener to the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin in 1834. In 1838 Niven left his post with the Botanical Gardens to set up a nursery in in Monkstown and took a lease on the house in Richmond Hill. It’s not known when the conservatory was built but it is very likely to have been in the early 1840s.

Brief

Our involvement began in 2017. The new owners wanted to refurbish the house and extend to create a more family-friendly kitchen / living space at the garden level. The conservatory had been a significant attraction of the house but it was in a seriously poor state of repair. With any project the first thing to do was carry out a full measured survey of the house and garden, this was done by a specialist land surveyor. We decided to carry out a detailed survey of the conservatory ourselves, this would allow us to understand how it was constructed and really see the condition of the fabric. We also carried out a full photographic survey of the accessible parts.

Survey

While measuring and surveying the conservatory we were able to understand how it had been erected and this would inform how to dismantle it and refurbish it. The conservatory itself was sandwiched between the house to the east and a coach house to the west. The north elevation was a solid stone wall with a small gable of ironwork but to the south the elevation presented to the street was a narrow bow with tall slim panes of glass set in delicate iron frames. The whole conservatory was elevated on a rendered brick base bringing it level with the reception rooms of the house. The base contained a coal store with coal chute to one side. There may well have been a stove in the conservatory or the base, this would have been lit in winter or during a frost to protect the delicate tropical plants. There was no evidence of a stove apart from the coal store.

The conservatory was in a very poor state of repair. Whole sections of the roof had rusted away entirely, the movement caused by the rusting had caused the structure to sag and twist causing the glass to crack and break. Previous attempts at stabilisation or repair had resulted in further damage. A concrete structure had been poured around the iron panels and this itself was trapping water causing further deterioration. The original granite cill that the bow front sat on had split due to the mechanical action of the rusting iron.

While doing these surveys we also developed an understanding of how it was constructed and how Turner had engineered it. We found that the primary structural elements were the iron gutters. The gutters were fixed to the walls of the house and coachhouse at the sides and on narrow posts at the front. The roof then sat onto small brackets within the gutter. The wall panels were constructed separately and inserted between the posts. This all tallied with the desk research we were doing in parallel to this, we researched similar restoration projects such as the work by the OPW to the Curvilinear Range in Glasnevin and the work to Ballyfin where similar structural system had been employed. Around this time we also engaged with Bushy Park Ironworks, Bushy Park had been involved in the restoration of a number of Turner Conservatories and engaging with them at an early stage was invaluable.

Proposal

The works to the conservatory were to form part of a larger extension and refurbishment of the house. We were anxious that the conservatory not just become an afterthought but would be integral to the solution for the whole house. For that reason we proposed to place the new kitchen directly behind the conservatory at the back of the house. To bring south light into the kitchen we would ‘borrow’ it from the conservatory by making a large opening in the solid back wall of the conservatory. We would then place a spiral staircase within the plan of the conservatory to provide access directly to the kitchen. This would have dual benefits – the kitchen would benefit from south light despite having a northerly orientation and the conservatory would become a central focus of the house

We lodged a planning application for the new works and the restoration of the conservatory with the Planning Authority. In this case the application included a very detailed conservation report and a methodology report from Bushy Park Ironworks for the careful dismantling, restoring and reinstatement of the conservatory. The application was granted permission and after a competitive tender process the works were awarded to a Main Contractor with Bushy Park Ironworks nominated sub-contractors for the restoration of the conservatory.

Dismantling

The first task when dismantling the conservatory was to carefully deglaze it. Most of the glass was broken and cracked and very little of the glass was historic. A neighbour had remembered the last time the whole thing had been reglazed in the 1940s or 50s. The curved glass sections and been formed by being heated on site and laid over sand bags arranged to form the shape, the soft glass slumped down to form the correct curve.

Once the glass had all been removed at the roof sections were lifted off, all the pieces of iron were labelled and their location marked on the survey drawings. Once the roof had been removed and the weight taken off the gutter and posts it was time to remove the cast concrete base around the iron panels. The concrete was carefully cut and broken away in sections so as to minimise damage to the iron work. Once removed the remaining iron panels were dismantled and taken to Bushy Park Ironwork’s workshop for cleaning and repair

Site

It was found at this stage that the granite cill was in an even poorer condition than originally expected, the stones had completely split in two and needed replacing. We engaged McEvoy Stone to make replacements in matching Wicklow Granite. McEvoys surveyed the cills in-situ then brought the pieces to their workshop in Ballyknocken to make exact replicas.

Cleaning & Repair

In BushyPark Ironworks workshop the iron was shot blasted and protected with coats of zinc primer. Whole sections of iron had to be replaced due to corrosion. The gutter sections were made of cast iron so new sections could be recast using the good sections as a pattern for the moulds. The glazing bars were wrought iron so replacement sections would have to be forged from old wrought iron. This is a laborious task that involves heating and beating the red-hot iron in a die until it takes the desired shape.

Workshop assembly

On completion of repairs the whole conservatory was erected dry in the workshop. The iron was then painted and finished in Turner White. Turner white was the colour that was developed based on paint scrapings from previous restorations to Turner conservatories.

While this work was being carried out in the workshop the rest of the extension and refurbishment works were continuing and the base was being prepared for the return of the conservatory. The new granite cills were fitted and the walls rendered in traditional lime render. The original cills were returned to the site and have been used as steps within the garden – future archaeology for the next architect to discover in their investigations.

Site assembly and re-glazing

The conservatory was delivered back to site and very carefully erected. The re-glazing process was particularly slow and laborious as the curved roof sections had to be individually templated and then cut and curved off site for delivery and fitting. The entire process of dismantling the conservatory, repairing and erecting it back on site took 7 months.

Completion

The finished conservatory is now an integral part of the house, it provides sunlight to an otherwise dark kitchen and has become central to the circulation of the house, being used every day ensuring that it doesn’t fall back into a state of disrepair again.