Thursday, September 18, 2014

An Irish Neo-Classical Architectural Gem – The Casino at Merino

by Arthur Russell

The Casino at Merino (Dublin)
In 1759, James Caulfield, 1st Earl of Charlemont began building a pleasure house called ‘The Casino’ near his ancestral house on his estate overlooking Dublin Bay (Italian names such as Merino, Rialto, Portobello were given to areas of Dublin by their aristocratic owners to commemorate their "Grand Tours" of Europe).

What was constructed on the estate at Merino House is described as a Neo-classical Garden Temple and is a true architectural gem that attracts thousands of visitors to view the excellence of design and superb examples of 18th century workmanship.

The Earl was a member of the 18th century Dublin Parliament, and engaged and collaborated with the most notable architect of his day; Sir William Chambers; to design the building. The Scottish architect never actually viewed the finished result of his work for Charlemont, due to many commitments and building projects he was involved in all over the three kingdoms. Sir William later wrote in his book “The Treatise on Civil Architecture” (1791), that the ideas for the Casino on Earl Charlemont’s estate in Dublin were derived from an un-executed design for ‘one of the end pavilions of a considerable disposition made soon after my return from Italy for Harewood House.’

 The driving inspiration for the building of the Casino (which means small house); came from Caulfield’s nine year long “Grand Tour” of Europe where he immersed himself in classical art and the architecture of Rome, Florence, Greece, Egypt and other locations. He determined, on his return to Ireland, to recreate and adapt as necessary, some of the challenging concepts he had seen into a single building on his own estate. As the second city of the Empire, mid eighteenth century Dublin was in the middle of a remarkable building boom that saw whole streets of elegant houses transform the city into a remarkable showpiece of wealth and privilege for the ruling Ascendancy class. Much of what is called Georgian Dublin still survives to give the city its distinctive character.

James Caulfield
1st Earl of Charlemont
As an aristocrat and a senior legislator in the Irish Parliament, the Earl had the time and money to indulge in what it is certain, many of his contemporaries considered a seemingly frivolous and impractical pursuit as he set about building the Casino on his estate. Regardless of what they thought; what he achieved in the structure is truly impressive from an architectural perspective.

His objective for the Casino was to create a retreat where he could get away from the cares of both his constituents and his estate, and where he could meet and entertain his closest friends and colleagues. The structure was built at some distance from the main Marino House and was accessed by means of a tunnel which ran between them. This tunnel could be used by servants from the main house carrying food and drink to guests in the retreat.

While the big estate house, Merino House; is long gone; and most of the surrounding lands have been taken over by subsequent urban development arising from the spread of the city of Dublin into the surrounding countryside; ‘The Casino at Merino’ still stands at the centre of a beautiful public park which is still enjoyed and appreciated by local residents and visitors alike.

 From the outside, the Casino appears to consist of just one single apartment. At the base of the four corners are statues of recumbent lions facing outwards. The impression of a single apartment arises from the large windows that fill the centre walls on 3 sides, along with the large entrance paneled door, that on closer examination, camouflages an inset smaller door; on the 4th side. The intention is clearly to make the building appear to be very simple and small from the outside. From inside it is anything but. The structure, which took a decade and a half to complete, actually contains a total of 16 rooms, which seems unbelievable until one enters and explores the interior, which is arranged on 3 levels including a basement. The design makes clever use of available space and light. The overall footprint of the building covers fifty square feet to its outer columns, and is in the shape of a Grecian cross.

The panes of the large windows are subtly curved so that it is impossible to see from outside that there is more than one level inside the structure. Each large window actually lights two or more rooms in the interior of the building, and on two levels. The floors are covered with intricate designs of polished wooden parquet blocks; mostly derived from exotic places then being exploited by the British Navy as it spread its Imperial power throughout the world. Some of the hardwood timbers used in the Casino are no longer available as the related tree species have sadly since become extinct. The floor designs are based completely on the variety of natural woods available, and are both colourful and intricate. Some designs indicate the Earl’s attachment to Freemasonry.


Above - The big door with
inset smaller door
View from interior through
one of the big windows
One of the wooden parquet floors

Four of the columns on the corners of the building are hollow and have a length of chain running down their centres, which causes rainwater to run down and away from the building without causing any wetting or dampening to the interior. Almost two and a half centuries later, this simple mechanism still works perfectly.

Two Roman ornamental urns on top of external walls camouflage flue pipes coming from fireplaces in the building. These features were designed by James Gandon, the architect of many public buildings in Georgian Dublin including the Customs House and the former 18th century Irish Parliament building (now Bank of Ireland).

The interior décor features interesting designs with excellent examples of decorative plasterworks on walls and ceilings. The rooms include a library, rooms to display collected art objects, niches for Roman and Grecian statuary, a kitchen; upstairs, a State Bedroom as well as servants quarters. The Casino remains as Earl Charlemont’s determination to encapsulate in a single building all that he found perfect on his Grand Tour

 Subsequent history of Casino at Merino

Within a hundred years after completion, the building had fallen into neglect. In 1876 the Charlemont Estate itself was sold, and the nearby Merino House was demolished during the 1920's. The Casino building remained in a state of disrepair until 1930 when an Act of the newly independent Irish Parliament was passed to allow it to be taken into state ownership care. It has since been painstakingly restored by the Irish Office of Public Works (OPW) who continue to be responsible for its upkeep. It stands as a perfect example of architect William Chambers’ work and the cultural aspirations of the Irish ruling classes.

Today the building is a must see target for visitors to Dublin city, and is a favourite place for the performance of civil wedding ceremonies.

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Arthur Russell is the Author of Morgallion, a novel set in medieval Ireland during the Invasion of Ireland in 1314 by the Scottish army led by Edward deBruce, the last crowned King of Ireland. It tells the story of Cormac MacLochlainn, a young man from the Gaelic crannóg community of Moynagh and how he and his family endured and survived that turbulent period of history. Morgallion has been recently awarded the indieBRAG Medallion and is available in paperback and e-book form. More information available on website - www.morgallion.com

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