The Casino at Marino, Dublin

Published in Gems of Architecture, Issue 6 (November/December 2013), Volume 21

From the outside the Casino appears to be a single-room temple when in fact it contains sixteen rooms over three floors.

From the outside the Casino appears to be a single-room temple when in fact it contains sixteen rooms over three floors.

The Casino at Marino, north Dublin, is one of the finest garden temples in Europe. It was built in the 1760s in the grounds of Marino House, a hunting lodge inherited by James Caulfield (1728–99), first earl of Charlemont. Caulfield was a major patron of the arts and spent nine years on a Grand Tour of Europe; unusually for the time, his travels brought him as far as Asia Minor. On his return, he demonstrated his love for classical architecture by commissioning the Casino as a pleasure house on his estate.

Caulfield met his architect, Sir William Chambers (1723–96), on his travels. Instead of visiting Ireland, Chambers sent drawings and instructions over from London. These were executed by Simon Vierpyl (c. 1725–1810), sculptor and stonecutter. The Casino was built in neo-classical style. Caulfield attempted to evoke the ancient buildings he had seen on tour instead of the Renaissance interpretations of them that he had seen in much of contemporary Georgian architecture.

From above, the Casino is shaped like a Greek cross, and in elevation it is designed as a Greek temple. It sits on a podium, with steps leading up to a door on the north side. A lion sits on each corner of the podium: these were originally designed as fountains but this was never implemented. The design features large ornamental urns, ox-head designs and statues of the Roman gods Apollo, Bacchus, Ceres and Venus.

The architectural historian John Harris described the Casino as ‘the perfect expression of Chambers’ creative ability in small-scale design’. He hides features such as chimneys and rainwater pipes to preserve the aesthetic; the urns on the roof act as chimneys, while rainwater runs down through the columns into the basement. These techniques were subsequently adopted by his student James Gandon (1742–1823) in his design for the Custom House (1781–91).
The Casino appears to be a single-room temple when in fact it contains sixteen rooms over three floors. The subtle use of scale reinforces this illusion. For instance, the door case is almost the full height of the building, but only part of it opens, and there appear to be a few tall windows, but most are subdivided between rooms and one does not admit light.

The vestibule with semi-circular apse and floor of rare timbers. (All images: National Monuments Service)

The vestibule with semi-circular apse and floor of rare timbers.
(All images: National Monuments Service)

The sixteen rooms are small but very well proportioned to avoid a sense of overcrowding. Entering, the visitor first sees the vestibule, which appears large and welcoming despite its relatively small size. This effect is achieved by extending the space into a semicircular apse, from which the three principal rooms lead off. The decorative highlight of the room is its floor, an intricate example of symmetry made out of a variety of exotic timbers.

The centre door leads to the saloon, hung with shimmering blue silk. Samples of the original fabric were found during earlier conservation works. Doors on either side are disguised as wall sections. On the left is a small study, called the Zodiac Room owing to its hemispherical dome decorated with the symbols of the zodiac; on the right is a rectangular room, the China Closet, with a geometric inlaid floor and decorative plasterwork. Upstairs, the main room is the State Bedroom, where Caulfield would have received guests. The room is extremely ornate, with Ionic columns of gold and white, and bright turquoise walls featuring the Greek key pattern.

The Casino took twenty years to complete. After Caulfield’s death it fell into disuse. In the 1930s the National Monuments Act specifically allowed the Office of Public Works to take it into state care. At that point theft and dry rot had affected the building badly, but since then it has been restored and is open to the public, allowing everyone to appreciate this whimsical garden ornament for the fascinating example of scale and architectural trickery that it is. HI

Nicola Reilly is a student at University College Dublin, studying geography, planning and environmental policy. Series based on the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage’s ‘building of the month’, www.buildingsofireland.ie.

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