Penneys Mary Street – Modernisation meets Conservation with Bennett Construction

The revamp of the Penneys Store in Mary Street, Dublin, is a triumph of both modernisation and conservation. While original features such as cornices, windows, roof-dome and roof lights have been preserved, the revamp has given the interior a more chic and modern image with greater use of natural light and bright, new, sleek contemporary fittings. 

The company’s chief execturive Paul Marchant says: “This refurbishment of Penneys Mary Street will set the stage for the next chapter in our original store’s history. We were delighted to have met our deadline to have the store complete just in time for Christmas 2012. Penneys Mary Street will now ensure that our loyal customers have a great shopping experience with more space, ease of navigation and stylish surroundings without compromising the building’s original splendour.”

Work was to a tight 38 week schedule over five phases, with the programme of works made all the tighter by the requirement for the store to remain operational while building works took place. The architect was Jack Coughlan Associates (JCA), a practice with strong specialisations in both retail and conservation, and the main contractor was Bennetts Construction Limited, with both firms having worked previously with Penneys on refurbishments and new builds.


The oldest part of Penneys Mary Street dates back to 1906, when it was originally constructed as the Todd Burns department store, described by a newspaper of the time as a ‘palatial Dublin warehouse’ – it’s principal frontage was more than 120ft long, facing onto Mary Street and the building ran for 300ft along Jervis St. That project cost in excess of £70,000 at the time and the architect was William Mitchell who was also responsible for the Hotel Metropole, which stood on O’Connell Street until it was destroyed in the 1916 Rising, and the Masonic Girls’ School in Ballsbridge, which is now Bewley’s Hotel.

Previously, a portion of the site contained the home of the Victorian historian JT Gilbert and a plaque on Mary Street commemorates this fact.  On Jervis Street, there is another plaque commemorating the fact that part of this section was  home to Ireland’s first commercial cinema, The Volta, which at the start of the 20th century was operated by the writer James Joyce.   Penneys opened their first store here in June 1969 and since then the retail group has grown to more than 250 Penneys and Primark outlets in eight different countries

Conservation architect Jack Coughlan, who designed the redevelopment, said: “The architecture of the Penneys building in Mary Street is well document on Archiseek, which notes that the passing eye shouldn’t miss its ‘glorious red brick with terracotta details, all capped with the beautiful bronze dome’.

“The great thing about working with Penneys is that they really value the building’s heritage – other companies might fight with the planners about the preservation of listed features, but Penneys see their value and actively works to get real quality out of the original features.

“The roof lanterns had been removed during previous works, which started in 2004, and they were kept in storage until they could be put back in place.

“The catalyst for this refurbishment was to restore the first floor stock area to retail. This floor, lit by the previously conserved roof lanterns, was originally traded as a retail floor in addition to the ground floor. In recent years it was used as a stock room.  In order to integrate this floor with the existing retail ground floor and lower ground floor, an atrium was introduced serving all three floors. This contains the new escalators and glass lifts and is located beneath one of the original lanterns. The atrium has restored the effect of daylight penetration from roof to the ground floor and returns a sense of the character of the original building.

“The largely intact detailing and finishes on decorative stanchions, their capitals, the beams and the lantern framework on the first floor have been retained and repaired where needed. As part of the conservation strategy, they are exposed as a background to which contemporary retail design can cohabit while at the same time the original building’s significance is evident.

“All external street elevations are retained and the existing windows conserved with those at first floor level as ‘live’ windows.”

With a total staff of 16, JCA employs seven architects, plus conservation specialists, architectural technicians and project managers. The practice has worked with Penneys on its Cork, Wilton and Tralee stores and also on Primark stores in Belgium and Germany.

Main Design & Build contractor, Bennett Construction Limited has also worked with Penneys frequently in the past.  The Project Manager on the job was David Smith and he described the Mary Street project as ‘relatively challenging’. “We were working in an environment where the retail store and stock areas remained live throughout all five phases of the project.  This was instilled in the mind-set of all those who worked on the project.  In many cases we were working in isolated pockets and behind hoarding within the store with no access for materials or plant during store trading hours.  This factor necessitated a considerable amount of night shifts and logistical co-ordination between shifts.  The works being carried out during the day had to be facilitated by setting up the area on the preceding night.”

“In order to mitigate any possible disruption to the retail operations, the in-store hoarding used had to be both soundproof and fire-proof.  In order to minimise the loss of valuable retail space, the partitions were constructed to allow the faces to be fitted with merchandising shelves and railings.  We developed a system to facilitate this even where the partitions were to be in place only for a period of days.  We would dedicate a night shift team to install the partitions allowing for fittings, signage and merchandising before the store opened for trading the following day. In essence, we were taking out the insides of a one-hundred-year-old building while maintaining its structural integrity.  We were taking out walls and replacing them with columns, taking out staircases, lifts and replacing them with a new atrium and a new escalator bank allowing connection between the basement and the new first floor trading level”.


“The first phase of the project – the Atrium – was the most difficult.  The existing foundations were replaced and the lift and escalator pits were formed below the water table.  This phase necessitated considerable temporary works, the use of a dewatering regime and specialist concrete.  This phase, and others, required mini piles to be driven at basement level.  The use of the pile-drivers inside the building provided further logistical challenges, but all went as planned and we are delighted with the job.”

“Getting materials in and out of the building was a major logistical operation.  Deliveries to the site were via Chapel Lane, a cul-de-sac off Parnell Street.  This street had to be kept clear for the store deliveries to Penneys and as an important fire escape for the adjacent Ilac Centre.  Considerable Engineering foresight had to be put into the construction of the new scenic lift to ensure that the lift components were sufficiently small to be carried into the building.  We also successfully installed the bank of escalators by lifting them in through the roof on the May Bank Holiday.”

“We dedicated specific teams to areas of work and there were no major incidents of lost time thanks to excellent planning and safety management.  Our team met with Penneys safety officer for 15 or 20 minutes every day to discuss any issues that needed particular attention and to plan for the next sequence of operations.  Bennett Construction Limited also used tried and tested subcontractors from our approved supply chain, whom we knew could deliver the project safety.”

As a result of the first floor conversion and internal store remodelling, Penneys Mary Street has an extra 21,500ft2 of retail space, giving the shop-floor a total area of 95,600ft2, making it the largest Penneys outlet in the country.

Thanks to the championing of conservation architecture by Bennett Construction Limited, and their use of modern materials where appropriate, the Penneys Mary Street building has a depth of quality that plainly states that this is a leading international retailer’s flagship store.

Premier Electrics, is one of the UK and Ireland’s leading electrical contractors, specialising in retail fit out, electrical fit out and maintenance. Premier Electrics were very pleased to have worked with Bennett Construction in the delivery of the Penneys flagship store at Mary Street working to the SDFM team.

Established in 1993  Premier is a multi-award winning provider of specialist electrical contracting which this year marks its 20th year in business.  Employing more than 140 people at its purpose-built premises near Bellaghy in mid-Ulster, Premier provides a comprehensive range of electrical installation and maintenance services to a formidable array of high-end clients across all of the UK and Ireland. The majority of Premier’s growth since inception has been demand-led and much of that can be attributed to a determination to provide its clients with a service that is second to none. Its position as one of the UK and Ireland’s market leaders can be attributed to a combination of a can-do attitude, exemplary customer service and absolute commitment to quality.

Premier’s client base includes many top brand names including retail giants, Primark / Penneys, Tesco, ASDA, M&S, Debenhams, the Virgin Group, BHS and the Arcadia Group

As well as providing quality-driven electrical installations that are always on time and within budget Premier offers Planned and Reactive Maintenance programmes throughout Ireland for companies in the retail, leisure, hospitality and office sectors.  It has enjoyed a long-standing relationship with Primark and Penneys over the last 15 years.

Premier is committed to continued investment in staff training, infrastructure and value engineering to ensure it stays at the forefront of this highly competitive industry. As a trusted partner Premier is committed to doing all it can to make sure all their clients’ electrical contracting and maintenance needs are met both now and in the future. You can access more information about Premier by visiting their website


Excavations for new lift pits and foundations were complicated due to the dig extending below the water table into the gravel stratum and the fact that an underground stream passes directly beneath the building. The solution adopted involved the installation of micro-piles for new foundations and the strengthening of existing, and pressure grouting of the surrounding ground to facilitate excavations below the groundwater table. Significant temporary works were required to facilitate the structural work, which involved close liaison between DBFL and the contractor’s engineer in the design process and during site works.