This Dublin Block Tells the Story of the City

He was particularly inspired by an American expatriate named Dennis Severs, who lived in a Georgian house in London around the corner from Fournier Street until his death 18 years ago and turned it into a private museum. The “museum” was, in fact, a kind of time capsule that Severs opened to the public once a month, transforming each floor into the living embodiment of an era from the house’s history. The tour concluded with, I vividly remember, a putrid attic meant to evoke occupation by the (absent) poor. In order to achieve the right effect, Severs peed in a chamber pot days in advance, leaving it to fester.

At his Henrietta Street house, up the stairs and past a faux Roman statue of a naked man — Emperor Hadrian’s young lover Antinous, who died under mysterious circumstances — Lumley has hung his clothes up to dry along a line tied to the banister in homage to Severs and his museum. “I haven’t gone the full Dennis hog,” he says, because his house isn’t open to the public, “but in terms of reflecting different periods, there’s certainly an influence here.”

THE FIRST THING Charles Duggan shows me in the tenement museum, which opens to the public this month, is the paint in the hallway. The paneling at the base of the walls is painted a color its residents used to call raddle red, after a pigment used in the agricultural industries. The upper part, called Reckitt’s blue, after the man who invented it, is a dreamy, chalky ultramarine. As heritage officer for Dublin City Council, Duggan, 45, was in part responsible for rescuing No. 14 from collapse. It had been a tenement since 1877, when a businessman named Thomas Vance bought and converted it. Unlike the migration pattern in other European cities, where people were drawn by the availability of labor, the rural Irish population was driven to Dublin — as well as the United States, Canada and other countries — by poverty and starvation after the Great Famine of the 1840s. Margaret Skinnider, a teacher turned sniper in the Easter Rising of 1916, wrote after seeing the poorest areas of Dublin (which included Henrietta Street) that she didn’t believe there was a worse place in the world: “The fallen houses look like corpses, the others like cripples leaning on crutches.” By 1911, 100 people lived inside this house, sharing two toilets between them. It ceased operating as a tenement only in 1979.

The Irish conservation specialists at Shaffrey Architects were commissioned in 2008 to completely restore the house in three phases over a 10-year period. Duggan proposed a “building as primary artifact,” he says; the museum would be not merely what it contained but the fabric of the home itself. As a result, the contemporary interventions are “very muted,” he adds. The great stairs, which have been reinstated, are not replicas of their former timber selves but a representation — in exactly the same measurements — in poured and polished concrete, with balusters in bronze. Alongside it, there’s an outline of the floor plan of a flat created in the 1870s that housed the Brannigans, a family of 13, in the 1940s. The house progresses through the centuries as you wander downward, like an empty, ghostly version of itself. Replicas of the possessions of Mrs. Dowling, who lived there during the mid-20th century, are arranged about the place: wartime soap, army coats crumpled atop the beds as blankets, along with her own abandoned dolls. “Almost every museum focuses on the history of the great victors,” Duggan says. “But this is one of the first museums in Ireland to embrace ordinary lives.”

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