Archival serendipity or an everyday tale of how material comes into an archives

At some point in the 1970s, a collector of agricultural machinery and habitual auction attendee purchased a job lot of old office furniture. Included was a plan chest for which the purchaser had no real use. However, being something of a hoarder, he retained the item and stored it in the loft of his shed. There it remained for several decades until the original purchaser’s son cleared the shed prior to its demolition.

At this point the chest was opened and its contents examined. What emerged was a random assortment of Ordnance Survey maps mixed in with which were some sets of architectural drawings. Prompted by his daughter, an historic buildings consultant, the owner contacted the Irish Architectural Archive and asked if we might be interested in the drawings. Naturally we said yes, and in August 2021 Dr Eve McAulay headed to Wicklow on a collection run. She returned with ten plastic dog-food bags full of the rolled-up contents of the chest.


Housing at Quill Street, Tralee, Co. Kerry, by Frank Gibney


The first bag to be examined contained a set of drawings by the architect and planner Frank Gibney, plans and details dated 1940 for a housing scheme at Quill Street, Tralee, for Tralee Urban District Council. Built as Marian Park, the scheme is distinguished, by ‘signature’ houses with pronounced gables which provide rhythm to the terraces, a very Gibney trope. The IAA holds a considerable archive of Gibney material including some drawings for housing for Tralee UDC, but not this particular scheme. It is always pleasing when new acquisitions dovetail so nicely with previously acquired material.


ffrench-Mullen House, Charlemont Street, Dublin, by Michael Scott


Detail of entrance, ffrench-Mullen House, Charlemont Street, Dublin, by Michael Scott


The second bag contained a set of hand-coloured dyeline copy drawings dated 1939 and 1940 for proposed flats at Charlemont Street Dublin by Michael Scott for the Charlemont Public Utility Society. Here, preserved in record, is ffrench-Mullen House, built from 1940 to 1941 at a cost of £740 per flat (of which there were thirteen) and demolished in 2014. Our excitement was mounting.


Aldborough House Scheme, Herbert Simms, Dublin Corporation Housing Architects Department


From the rest of the bags came further sets of dyeline copy drawings for various housing schemes of the late 1930s and early 1940s, all from Dublin Corporation’s Housing Architects Department. There are drawings for housing in Terenure, 1934-36; the Aldborough House flats (Killarney Street), 1934-35; the Hanover Street scheme, 1935-37; Harold’s Cross Road (Mount Drummond Square), 1936; Thorncastle Street, 1936; Townsend Street, 1936; Newfoundland Street, 1936-40; Marrowbone Lane, 1937; Usher Street, 1937; Rialto, 1937-38; and Crumlin North and South, 1937-40. There are also plans, sections and elevations for over thirty house types which could be included in any given housing scheme.


Herbert Simms


While the drawings are all copies, many are hand-coloured for presentation purposes and many are also signed by Herbert Simms, the Dublin Corporation housing architect and head of the Housing Architects Department. A hero of Irish housing, Simms was appointed to his post in 1932 and from then until his death by suicide due to overwork in 1948, his Department was responsible for some 17,000 new homes across the city.


Aldborough House Scheme, drawing detail showing signatures


Several of the drawings in the collection bear the stamp of the Department of Local Government and are countersigned by officials of that Department, in particular J.V. Owens and H.S. Moylan. This gives a clue as to their origins. They were issued to the Department as part of the funding approval process, carefully coloured to persuade the officials and their political bosses of the quality and worthiness of each scheme. Eventually, possibly as result of office renovations, the plan chest in which they were filed was designated for inclusion in a furniture disposal sale. Unlike other such filing cabinets and plan chests, it was not emptied before being sold. Perhaps it was locked and the key was lost. In any event, by sheer good luck the chest was acquired by someone who had both the disposition and the space to preserve it. The contents survived, to be recognised as potentially significant and donated to the IAA.


Townsend Street Scheme, Herbert Simms, Dublin Corporation Housing Architects Department


Type 4 House, Dublin Corporation Housing Architects Department


Herbert Simms’s family had allowed the IAA to digitise three of his photograph albums (from one of which the portrait above is taken), and we hold one or two copy drawings by him in other collections. Otherwise, he remained archivally elusive. Now, between the particular drawings for individual schemes and the general drawings for various house types, a high proportion of the homes designed by Simms are represented in the holdings of the IAA, a remarkable record of the remarkable output of a remarkable architect.