Hero who showed us exactly how to house the homeless
MOST people in Ireland have never heard of one of its greatest ever public servants. But we can be fairly sure everyone in the country has seen some of his incredible housing legacy. In his career as Dublin City Architect, Herbert Simms presided over the construction of 17,000 homes between 1932 and his untimely death in 1948. Within a year of becoming housing supremo he trebled the number of families housed by the city council. He built not just flat complexes in a necklace around the city centre, but he presided over housing estates such as Cabra, Crumlin and Ballyfermot.
For many – including my own family – his work meant the slums and tenements of the capital became a thing of the past and served as a reminder of the social role of public bodies. More than any single person in the last 100 years, Simms made a contribution to solving the then housing crisis unequalled by any public servant since.
He is in the news this week for two reasons. Firstly, his designs are so robust and enduring that seven of the flat complexes he built in Dublin, mainly around the city centre, are still standing and lived in.
Long after newer apartment blocks have come and gone, Simms’s distinctive designs – from Chancery Place beside the Four Courts to the many flat complexes around Pearse Street – are still standing and housing thousands. His designs were for communities. They were attractive with decorative brickwork and ledges. There were enclosed green spaces for children to play and communal areas for people to meet and chat.
The other reason is that the city council is now proposing to demolish some of these flat complexes because they believe it would be cheaper to build new homes than refurbish Simms’s work. But such is the prevalence of his work, their unique design and longevity that they are ‘protected structures’ of which there are relatively few in the capital. His distinctive designs dot the city centre, while his other public buildings including his bathing shelters in Clontarf, have outlasted many ‘modern’ structures.
Simms’s legacy at this stage is as important to the capital as the Georgian houses, many of which were recklessly demolished in the office block mania of the 1960s and 1970s. That mistake should not be repeated.
Born 120 years ago in London, Simms came to Ireland in the 1920s, rose to become City Architect by 1932 but died by suicide in 1948. His work rate, dedication and devotion to duty took its toll. In his final note, he wrote: ‘I cannot stand it any longer, my brain is too tired to work any more. It has not had a rest for 20 years except when I am in a heavy sleep. It is always on the go like a dynamo and still the work is being piled on me.’ He was only 50 years of age. Anyone who has met Brendan Kenny, the deputy chief executive of Dublin City Council, knows he is an honourable public servant working hard to sort out the housing and homelessness crisis. Yes, he is right to insist that the flats be dramatically refurbished for those living there. But he has been tasked with raising the notion of razing Simms’s flats. This should be taken off the agenda now.