The New Building
‘Let us see that our buildings are beautiful, as beautiful as we can make them, and with a beauty that tells of our time.’
By the end of the nineteenth century the research and teaching facilities of the Royal College of Science for Ireland (RCScI) in its St Stephen’s Green premises were no longer adequate. Constant complaints from the college’s council about the severe overcrowding in the building led to the establishment of a government committee to assess the accommodation requirements for the college. The committee’s conclusions, published in 1899, were that the existing buildings were not suitable, that a new college building would be required and that a central Dublin site ‘contiguous to the museum buildings’ would be most appropriate. The site the committee suggested was one extending from Merrion Street to Kildare Street. The proposed location did not change, but by the following year the general layout had been revised to include accommodation for new government offices. The revised layout of the proposed RCScI complex had a wide frontage on Merrion Street with the college building itself set back within a quadrangle – an important consideration, as the vibration from traffic in a busy city street might interfere with the adjustment of delicate scientific instruments.
£225,000 was allocated for the new college, and in March 1904 the London architect Aston Webb and the Irishman Thomas Manly Deane were appointed joint architects. Both men had experience in designing public buildings. Webb had designed the Royal College of Science and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (and was later to re-design the principal facade of Buckingham Palace) and Deane had partnered his father as architect for the National Library and National Museum in Dublin.
There were some local objections to the proposed demolition of a row of Georgian houses in Merrion Street, but even more public concern that the architects, surveyors and builders should be Irish and that the materials used for the building should be sourced in Ireland. Representations were made to the administration in Dublin Castle, to government departments and by the Irish MPs in the Westminster parliament. The Belfast building firm of McLaughlin and Harvey successfully tendered for the construction contract. Two surveying firms, one based in London and one in Dublin, were appointed as joint surveyors for the building, and one London and one Dublin firm were employed as electrical consultants. With the exception of the Portland stone used for the facade and the Sicilian marble paving for the corridors, Irish brick and stone were used for the building.
King Edward VII laid the foundation stone for the new college building on 28 April 1904, at a cost to the building project of £1,176-5-1, and Webb and Deane submitted their plans for the new complex in 1906. Five years later, at a final cost of more than £250,000, the new RCScI building was completed and ready for occupation. It occupied the western and part of the northern and southern sides of a quadrangle, the remaining sides of which were to be government offices. The exterior of the college was in the ‘Edwardian baroque’ style; the intention of the architects was to continue the classical tradition of Dublin’s eighteenth-century public buildings. The imposing front facade was surmounted by a dome, under which was a clock ‘the four faces of which can be seen from distant parts of the city’. Oliver Sheppard and Albert Power provided the sculptures, with the main entrance flanked by statues of the great Irish scientists Robert Boyle and William Rowan Hamilton and overlooked by a figure representing Science. Within the building there were four storeys of lecture theatres and laboratories with all the most up-to-date apparatus for scientific experiments (at an estimated cost of £15,000). Electricity was to be used for light, there were elevators, and although many of the rooms were furnished with fireplaces there was also a central heating system.
Behind the main entrance hall was a large lecture theatre with seating for 200 people. On the south side of the building a chemistry laboratory extended through two storeys. There were other laboratories for electrical engineering, chemistry, botany, zoology, geology, agricultural chemistry, agricultural botany and bacteriology and various engineering workshops. Behind the new building an additional block included a laboratory for mechanical engineering. Under the dome were the students’ common room and smoking room and the library, intended not only for the staff and students of the college, but also for members of the public with an interest in science.
With great pomp and ceremony the new home of the Royal College of Science for Ireland was opened on the afternoon of Saturday 8 July 1911 before an audience of over 1,000 people. King George V, who with his wife, Queen Mary, was on a state visit to Ireland following his coronation as King of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions and Emperor of India, performed the opening ceremony.
Under the direction of the Ulster King of Arms, Nevile Wilkinson, the ceremony was arranged with great care and detail. A reception pavilion capable of seating over 1,000 guests was erected in front of the new college building. When the royal party arrived they were met by the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Augustine Birrell, while the band of the Irish Guards played ‘God Save the King’. Government officials and professors of the college were then presented to the king and queen.
One of the architects, Thomas Deane, was presented to the king, who ‘conferred on him the honour of Knighthood’. George V then announced his intention to confer a similar honour on Professor Walter Hartley, dean of faculty, who was unable to be present owing to illness. A bouquet of roses and a frame containing photographs of the foundation stone were presented to the queen by daughters of the builders. A builder’s mallet made of Irish bog oak mounted on gold was presented to the king on behalf of the contractor and of the workmen who had been employed on the building.
To a flourish of trumpets the king formally declared the Royal College of Science for Ireland open, the gold key used for the purpose being presented to him by the Board of Works. The royal party then made a tour of the ground floor of the building, and on their departure were ‘enthusiastically cheered by the crowds on the roof of the College’. The formal grand opening lasted just over thirty minutes and cost £1,080-16-2. The Irish Board of Works tried to avoid footing the bill of £555 for the reception pavilion – eventually the British Treasury paid this part of the cost.