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Fire Damages Watch-Listed Russborough House

I visited Russborough House, a 2010 Watch site, on March 22nd, following the news that a fire had severely damaged the west wing of the house. At the time of the fire, the west wing was in the process of being renovated internally for use as vacation apartments.

Arriving from Dublin on a blustery spring afternoon, I thought Russborough looked wonderfully dramatic framed by the Wicklow mountains beyond. The west wing was immediately apparent under a protective all-weather scaffold, a sad sight.

Niall Walsh, the site foreman, took me inside to see the damage. The majority of the ground floor had escaped extensive fire damage but was propped up throughout to guard against collapse as a result of water damage and the impact of material falling onto the floor above. In some areas, ceilings had fallen although it seemed most of this was 1970s fibreboard and cement plaster, not valuable historic material

As we ascended the stairs, we could see lines where filthy, oily water had run down the walls. Upstairs I could see that the majority of this floor and the roof had been destroyed by the fire. Walking around the parapet, I saw that the fire had been limited to the center of the roof, not burning within six feet of the walls, meaning that the masonry did not feel the full intensity of the blaze, a sometimes overlooked cause of long-term damage to stonework and thus a hopeful sign that much of it could be saved. The distinctive urns that decorated the parapet had also been spared and removed to a secure location until ready to be reinstalled. Although the structure of a building is often as important as the decorative finishes, the interior and roof of the west wing had been renovated in the 1970s and 1990s and so little valuable historic material had been lost.

Clearly this was a terrible event but it was not hard to feel that the situation could have been worse. The fire service did a good job at putting the fire out and must have benefited from the practice drills that had taken place at the house in years beforehand. Adequate disaster preparation and the rapid response by the Alfred Beit Foundation, the property manager,and architect, James Howley, who is overseeing the repair of the west wing, further ensured the best was made of a bad situation. However, the Alfred Beit Foundation had been intending to open the west wing for visitors during this summer and now a great deal of restoration work is required. This can only start after the building dries out, and that will take months.

Russborough was placed on the 2010 Watch because of the rare integrity of the house and its surrounding landscape and the threat that it faced by a lack of investment. This recent fire has only added to the burdens that the Alfred Beit Foundation has to contend with in efforts to ensure the sustainable long-term future of the house.

The main pavilion of the house remains open to the public and next year the west wing will open to guests who wish to stay on the property.