Bewley’s Cafe on Grafton Street has been a Dublin institution ever since it opened almost 100 years ago.
Such is the public’s affection for the grand three-story period cafe that each threatened closure is met with an outpouring of nostalgic horror.
But now the building is facing an existential threat of a different kind over a plan to sell the six large stained glass windows in the main coffee hall in a dispute over rent.
Long considered the jewel in the coffee hall’s crown, they were designed in 1927 by Harry Clarke, who is regarded as one of Ireland’s leading symbolist artists and the country’s finest ever stained glass window artist.
The six windows illustrate the four orders of architecture showing Doric, Corinthian, Ionic and Composite columns adorned and topped by vases of flowers with two other decorative glassworks added to a second wall in a commission by the original Bewley-family owner.
The question as to whether they are windows or decorative panels, which can be removed altogether, is now at the centre of a high court battle – with the commercial tenants arguing that they are movable artworks, not windows.
RGRE, owned by Irish developer Johnny Ronan, and the building owners have rejected the argument and are in court seeking a declaration to give legal effect to their argument that the windows are an integral part of the structure that cannot be removed or sold separately.
The dispute appears to be one of the strangest to have emerged in the wake of the pandemic, which crushed many in the hospitality sector. But it has its roots in a longer-term issue in Ireland over “upward” rent reviews built into contracts between commercial tenants and landlords.
As a tenant, Bewley’s was required to pay €1.4m (£1.18m) a year, the result of a series of upward rent reviews, and last year asked for this to be reduced to €300,000 or 10% of sales if higher.
Bewley’s also proposed selling the windows, valued at €1m, to a parent company to cover some of the rent going forward, arguing the windows were not windows, but decorative panels and therefore “movable chattels”.
To protect the heritage, Bewley’s proposed that the parent company would then donate the windows to the state, enraging the owner further.
RGRE has rejected their arguments.
In court papers, Rory Williams, the chief executive of RGRE, said the company would “not dream” of removing the windows and insisted they were part of the structure of the premises. Bewley’s, he said, “cannot try to sell us what we already own”.
His company claimed that the “seemingly altruistic gesture” to sell and then donate the windows to the state would essentially leave the taxpayer out of pocket as donations of heritage items attract a tax credit of 80%.
RGRE is now seeking a court declaration that the Harry Clarke windows were part of the structure and cannot be removed, sold or donated to the state.
Over several days, witnesses were cross examined on hinges, brass hopper mechanisms, sashes and the question of whether Harry Clarke would have overseen the joinery work relating to the structures or not.
Expert witnesses were questioned about the weathering of the windows, about the smoke and odours, smells and air from a food area and the genesis of the stained glass artwork. Was it the case that clear glass was originally swapped for the Harry Clarke panels or were there originally two lawyers of windows?
At one stage, the barrister quipped that the case reminded him of a Christmas cracker joke: when is a window not a window? When it’s ajar. “In this case, it’s ‘when is a window not a window? When it’s an objet d’art’,” he said.
Mr Justice McDonald told the court he had not been in Bewley’s for 40 years but two weeks ago paid visit to help him make his assessment.
After closing submissions were made in the case on Wednesday, McDonald has reserved his judgement while he ponders whether Harry Clarke’s stained glass windows are windows or not.