RUSSBOROUGH HOUSE TO REOPEN THIS MARCH AFTER WEST WING FIRE
Issued 18th February 2010
Russborough is to reopen for guided tours on Sunday 14th March 2010.
Following the fire in the west wing of Russborough late on Sunday 7 February a detailed assessment of the damage has now been made. The west wing is an important part of the impressive symmetrical composition that makes Russborough one of the finest Palladian houses in Europe. A range of stables with brick vaulting and granite columns, supporting fodder stores above, occupies the west end of the wing, while a suite of habitable rooms is located in the east part which connects back to the main central block of the house with a curved link and colonnade. The habitable rooms on the ground floor contain fine quality plasterwork, joinery and chimney pieces, although later in date and modest when compared with the interiors of the main house. The entire west wing was extensively renovated in the late 1970s by Sir Alfred and Lady Beit for their personal use as a private apartment. It was around this time that the Beits donated Russborough to the Alfred Beit Foundation, which holds the property in trust for the benefit of the Irish Nation. Within the suite of rooms at the east end of the wing Sir Alfred and Lady Beit created their own living and dining rooms on the ground floor with bedrooms above, while the former stables and fodder stores were converted into kitchens, staff rooms and guest rooms. The wing was used by the Beits as their Irish home, until the death of Sir Alfred in 1994 and later by Lady Beit until her death in 2005, since when it has remained empty.
Before the fire, work was in progress to renovate the wing to provide unique holiday accommodation, which it is intended should be managed by the Irish Landmark Trust. All of the contents of the wing had been removed and the doors, staircases and chimney pieces protected by the contractor with heavy plastic sheeting. The cause of the fire is not yet fully understood, but the forensic engineers investigating the incident agree that it was accidental and that it probably started in the roof space at the west end of the wing, above the brick vaulting of the former stables. Approximately 80% of the roof, which was fully repaired in two phases between 2005 and 2008 has been lost, together with most of the plasterboard ceilings and partitions on the first floor, from the 1970s remodelling. The brick vaulting and dividing wall between the former stables and the habitable rooms restricted the spread of the fire so that all of the ground floor rooms remain virtually intact. Remarkably, given the intensity of the fire, the external walls, windows and carved stone urns have all survived fully intact, as have all of the historic joinery, decorative plasterwork and chimney pieces. The roof and first floor ceilings will have to be completely replaced together with many of the internal plaster wall linings and floorboards on the first floor. However, all of the period joinery on this level, including several items of purpose designed, fitted furniture installed by the Beits in the 1950s, have survived.
The Alfred Beit Foundation would like to commend the Wicklow and Kildare fire services for fighting the fire so effectively and containing it within the more robust and less precious parts of the building. The curved colonnaded link was not affected and the main house, which had recently been upgraded with a programme of fire separation and compartmentalisation was never at risk. Following this fire safety upgrade in 2007, partly funded by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, the architects and fire safety consultant to the Alfred Beit Foundation, arranged an emergency training exercise with the Wicklow Fire Services and the Russborough security staff. During this exercise the local Blessington Brigade visited Russborough with their fire engine, a full fire fighting crew and the assistant chief county fire officer. The team was given an extensive tour of the house, and presented with the history and significance of Russborough, its fire safety plan and the recently completed fire safety upgrades. The fire fighting reservoir tank was also checked and its hose couplings tested. This disaster planning exercise proved its value during the events of last Sunday night.
While the repair costs will be considerable, they are likely to be less than was first feared. Apart from the roof carpentry almost no historic fabric of significance has been lost, and that which has – timber, plaster, slate and lead, is eminently replaceable. The salvage, protection and repair strategy is already underway to ensure that nothing further is lost and that the wing can be repaired to its original state as soon as possible.
The on-site forensic investigations have now been completed and further analysis continues off site. This means that the emergency protection and clearing up works can commence and plans for this are at an advanced stage. Russborough is currently closed to the public for its winter break and it is hoped that all of the public parts of both house and demesne, will be able to open to the public for the 2010 season, on Sunday 14 March 2010, as originally planned. Russborough will subsequently be open every Sunday and Bank holiday in March and April 2010 and then every day from 1st May to 30th September 2010 inclusive. See www.russborough.ie for additional information.