Proposed Conversion Of St Werburgh’s Church To Arts Venue

by Dermot Carmody

DCC Chief Executive, Owen Keegan presented a report to the July meeting of the South East Area Committee on the proposed works to convert the historic St Werburgh’s church for use principally as
an arts venue.

There has been a church on the site in Werburgh Street since 1178. The current building dates from 1719. In the eighteenth century it was the favoured parish church of the British Lord Lieutenant. Handel famously practiced on the organ in St Werburgh’s in preparation for the first performance of his Messiah in nearby Fishamble Street in 1742. Like many inner city Church of Ireland parishes, numbers have long since dwindled, with there being less than ten parishioners in the parish today. St Werburgh’s is under the auspices of the chapter of Christchurch Cathedral, who approached the council to explore the possibility of converting the building for changed use accessible to the wider community.

The report says that the City Council was approached by the Dean of Christchurch Cathedral, about the possibility of refurbishing the church and repurposing it as a tourist / culture / arts venue, opening it up to the public, while continuing to facilitate occasional religious services. The repurposed building would
be a destination for tourists and a venue for classical music concerts, small ensembles, solo artists, choirs, readings and similar performances. It says that there is a considerable shortage of suitable venues for such performances in the city. DCC would provide the required management through the Dublin City Council Culture Company.

Sketch of proposed new building to rear of St Werburghs (Image credit: DCC)

The council would undertake the proposed works to convert the building and the ongoing management of the venue on a 20 year licence from the Cathedral for a nominal fee of one euro. Limited free access would be granted to Christchurch Cathedral for services, choir performances etc. DCC would have an option to renew that licence for a further 20 years at its discretion. Mr. Keegan said that this licensing arrangement reflected the typical difficulties and lengthy timings associated with the disposal of such church properties.

Proposed works to the building are described as “modest”, and are mainly concerned with the conservation of the historic fabric of the church, with minor alterations and modifications of the internal layout. Where possible, any changes are designed to be reversible and are designed to minimise visual impacts on the historic interior of the church.

New facilities to service the needs of both audience and performers will be located in the adapted former Sexton’s House, and in a compact new building located on the site of a rear yard and low quality 20th century extensions, all at the east end. A glazed link building, below the great east window, and facing out into the graveyard, will provide a new entrance and gathering space.

Proposed structural interventions include, reinforcing the gallery balustrade, repairs to the aisle floor, reinforcing the roof structure, repairs and strengthening works to the chancel walls and east window, widening of door openings, strengthening of the gallery floor, underpinning work to foundations, repair
and relaying of the entrance steps and railings and laying new separate foul and surface water drainage. All structural works are designed to minimise disturbance of the archaeology, be largely invisible, and to retain the integrity of the historic structure.

In order to provide access for the mobility impaired, a new accessible pedestrian route is proposed from Castle Steps, which links Castle Street and Little Ship Street, east of the Church. The ramp section of this route will pass over the existing graveyard. No below-ground foundations, or penetrations, are proposed for the ramp, thereby minimising damage to archaeology beneath. This route will serve as the primary access route / entrance to St Werburgh’s, with access via the Werburgh Street entrance being reserved for ceremonial occasions. Mr. Keegan said that the front door of the church, facing onto Werburgh Street, would not be suitable as it would not be possible to provide full accessibility in the existing space onto the street.

The building of this new pedestrian entrance would necessitate breaking through the historic wall on one side of Castle Steps. It is accepted that this will require careful consideration and justification, supported by historical analysis, heritage impact assessment, conservation methodology, etc., along with sensitive design and detailing, all of which will be part of the Part 8 planning documentation.

The estimated total cost of the proposed works is €5m. The council has submitted an application to the Minister of Housing, Local Government and Heritage for Urban Regeneration and Development Fund (URFD) funding as part of the current review of URDF Call 2 projects. The report says that DCC is
satisfied that there is scope within the URDF allocation of €174m to part fund the St Werburgh’s project. The balance of the required funding (€1.25m) would be provided by DCC.

Responding to Mr. Keegan, Cllr Flynn welcomed the report but bemoaned the length of time taken by Christchurch Cathedral before coming forward with this kind of plan. Cllr Flynn said that in his opinion the building was “in a dangerous state.” He did however question the expertise of the DCC Culture Company in running a venue of the type proposed. He said there were other similar buildings in Dublin which would make better arts venues than this, and said that the securing of the building was the most important thing.

Cllr Claire O’Connor wondered if it was wise to proceed with the OPW confirming that they supported the work necessary to construct the new pedestrian entrance. Cllr Paddy McCartan said that St Werburgh’s is a hidden gem that is in a state of disrepair, and asked if it would be possible for councillors to visit the site including the graveyard. Cllr Pat Dunne welcomed the plans and agreed that venues of this sort are needed in the city. Cllr Danny Byrne wondered about cost and what would happen if the UDLF funding was not available. The lease should be signed after funding was in place, he said. Cllr Claire Byrne said it’s criminal the building has been vacant for so long. She pointed out the success of the Pepper Canister Church as a music building.

Mr Keegan suggested that giving a valid use to a building is an important part of saving it. He said the Part 8 application would not be advanced without the OPW’s agreement. He said there was not much cost in going ahead with Part 8 application. He reiterated that the space is not there on Werburgh Street to create universal access to the building. With regard to Cllr Flynn’s comments Mr Keegan defended Christchurch Cathedral, saying they had only assumed responsibility for St Werburgh’s in the last 18 months.