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Five generations on, a family plans sensitive facelift for Irish Town property

17 Irish Town Bldg 13-03-2018 (Photo John Bugeja)

Plans have been filed for the refurbishment and extension of an Irish Town building whose history can be traced back two centuries – and perhaps even further.

The proposed works at 17 Irish Town will restore some characteristics of the building that were lost decades ago and will refresh existing features such as green wooden shutters.

The house has been in the Seruya family since the beginning of the 1900s when it was purchased by Moses S Seruya, the great, great grandfather of Sophie Garbarino, one of the applicants and fifth-generation family member.

The exact date of the original construction is unknown but is estimated to be around 1820, although one section of it sits on Moorish foundations.

“What I can tell you is because we did a major refurbishment in the part of the building that is up against the arcade, it sits on Moorish foundations” said James Garbarino, Sophie’s father who also lives in this family home.

“There is an old water system and when you look at the structure, the wall and the mortar, it’s that sort of reddish colour [typical of the Moorish period].”

“So it must have been part of old citadel, obviously being so close to the city walls.”

“In fact when we put a lift pit in there we actually found some cannonballs. It just shows you that it must have been quite near the front and was probably destroyed in some sort of bombardment at one point.”

The building has a commercial history too, typical of many properties in Irish Town that were used as warehouses and bases for traders.

The building at 17 Irish Town was used as a tobacco factory for 25 to 30 years, until the border was closed.

When Mr Garbarino came over to Gibraltar in 1985, the factory still stood and he took photographs of some of the machines that were located on the ground floor. Some of those features will be retained and used to illustrate the property’s history.

“At the time when I saw these [the machines] I spoke to the museum because I couldn’t store them and I wanted to see if they had the capacity to handle it. But, they had no space either and unfortunately many were scrapped,” he said.

However, one machine still stands today and the family will preserve it.

“At the back of the ground floor there is a tobacco press of a type that was adapted from presses that were used to get olive oil,” he said.

“One of the things we are going to do is that, in the future, it will form part of the back of the corner shop and I have told them I am not removing it. I told them I am cleaning it up and that it will be visible for anybody who walks in there, eventually.”

Mr Garbarino explained that there were many tobacco factories around Irish Town and above Chatham Counterguard, where the names of the brands of tobacco that used to be made there are still visible.

The property was extensively refurbished in 1992 and converted into three family homes. Mr Garbarino and his family live in one section, his brother in law and his family in another, The third home was occupied by his in-laws before they passed away.

During the 1992 refurbishment, a tower atop the property was removed. This is now one element of the old design that the family is planning to bring back.

“We tried to save the roof but the timber trusses were all gone, the whole thing could collapse,” he said.

“What we did manage to do is take all the old tiles and I then purchased more old tiles so that we could keep that old Arab style. This was hugely important for us,” he added.

The family wants to adapt the interior of the property before the next generation moves in.

But while the project seeks to highlight heritage features, it also takes a modern approach to issues such as energy efficiency, with plans to replace windows and shutters with like-for-like wooden windows fitted with double glazing.

The façade will be re-rendered and some of the old features on the ground floor will be re-introduced. Part of the exterior, for example, will be clad in natural stone, which will facilitate regular cleaning and accommodate insulation.

“The only modification we are going to do is to reintroduce the tower element, but extend it a little in order to make it viable as an additional home,” said Mr Garbarino.

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