Thompsons Bakery was a major employer in Cork City. Thompson’s Bakery has been part of the character of Cork for generations. The business was founded in 1826, and as the the historic Thompson Bakery building moves into the next stage of its existence, it proudly retains its heritage while remaining a one-of-a-kind landmark facility just a few minutes’ walk from the heart of the city.
This intermarriage of a proud past and a future full of potential offers investors a chance to stake a foothold in Cork’s Victorian Quarter at the very beginning of the next phase of its development and growth.
The heart of this storied building, which occupies most of the upper third of MacCurtain Street, dates from the 19th century. It’s built and hewn from the native red sandstone which gives Cork its sporting colours, married to a profusion of red County Cork brick. Central to the structure are massive steel girders and uprights, carefully restored to their original state, which show the building’s unique heritage: straddling two periods of Cork’s history, it’s every bit as much the heir to the ancient craft of the stonemason as it is to the dynamism of the industrial revolution.
This aesthetic extended over the ensuing decades to MacCurtain Street’s other prestige structures, such as the 1890s Metropole Hotel, now called the Gresham Metropole, the Everyman Theatre (originally “The Cork Palace of Varieties”) and Isaac’s Hotel, formerly a tobacco warehouse. Currently, including the large team at Starwoods, who occupy the upper floors of this building, almost 1000 people are employed on MacCurtain Street, providing a lively, urbane, professional, active daytime atmosphere.
As the Thompson family expanded their thriving business in the 1960s, they chose to make a bold architectural statement as they dedicated the western portion of the building to the production of swiss roll. Their trademark product was so in demand across Munster that they eventually produced a mile of it every day.
Rather than seeking to emulate the elegant red brick and limestone facade of the original structure, the Thompsons staked their claim to the 20th and 21st centuries with a bold glass-and-steel based extension, intended to contrast with the aesthetic of the rest of MacCurtain Street. This departure from tradition, designed by Cork architects Frank Murphy and Ian White, was among the first buildings of its type in the city, and a bold statement about a new era of ‘form meeting function’. Among its unusual (for the time) features are the balconies on the top floor. Designed to give busy executives a chance to take a break and get a breath of fresh air, they were a new concept in Irish architecture in 1967.
The internal space is impressively open and airy, covering 29,000 square feet. Its layout reflects the property’s history as a thriving workplace, combining large open-plan areas with smaller rooms and storage facilities. It was the home of long production lines and a number of ovens, including an enormous 40-tonne main oven as well numerous smaller ‘draw plate’ ovens in the swiss roll factory. The remains of some of the draw plate ovens, including chimneys, can still be seen at the back of the open area. In some cases they extend into the rich, red bedrock of the city.
This building was unusual for its time … a glass walled structure placed on a traditional street front in a city which was largely traditional in character. It was a very courageous move for Thompsons and adds to the organic character of MacCurtain Street.
Frank Murphy Architects
Of particular interest is the early 20th-century red brick chimney stack, one of the defining features of the skyline in this part of Cork which, along with Thompson House’s unusual metal-casement windows, merits special mention in Ireland’s National Inventory of Architectural Heritage as being of “particular architectural and social interest.”
The 36-metre stack’s instantly recognisable profile has made it a mainstay in artistic depictions of Cork’s built heritage, with a special place in the affections of Leesiders.
Recent Cork City Council plans aim to protect and restore the original aesthetic of MacCurtain street, including widening of footpaths, prioritisation of pedestrians and cyclists, removal of signage and relic technology from facades, and the construction of a bridge connecting Patrick’s Quay at Harley Street (directly opposite the property) and Merchant’s Quay.
MacCurtain Street’s business owners and residents are dedicated to maintaining the area’s heritage and its sense of being a ‘community within a community’. They are exceptionally proud of the street’s historical significance and its ongoing reputation as a unique part of Cork’s story, working together to emphasise its charm, vitality and sense of connection with the past.
Tech professionals, food and drink specialists from all over the world, actors, musicians, bohemian dreamers and forward-thinking entrepreneurs rub shoulders daily in the street’s numerous trendy bars and its wide array of restaurants. This opportunity to become the stewards of one of the area’s largest, most distinctive and most well-known buildings, still simply called ‘The Bakery’ by residents of the city’s north side, is a chance to add your own chapter to the living history of an outstanding facility, and all it has contributed to the life of Cork.