Storming past the trompe l’oeiled reception and faux tented lobby, we take on in the tiered Céleste at The Lanesborough, a glazed roofed internal pavilion looking heavenwards. It’s Wedgwood blue now. A jasperware temple. Regency, just like the building. Last time round, the wildly eclectic gothiental Conservatory as it was then called was flamingo pink. Sometime in between, lurking here for four years was a greyish art decoesque intruder named Apsleys. The hotel has changed hands as well as hand painted wallpaper, but is still Middle Eastern owned. Once Rosewood managed, Oetker Collection has adopted it as an English half sister to Le Bristol Paris.
A careless magpie’s droppings of edible gold and silver leaf are liberally sprinkled across afternoon tea, even landing in the clotted Devonshire cream. We skip the lemon curd for strawberry preserve on the freshly baked scones (enveloped in pristine linen) but yearn for coloured sugar crystals (a dead cert at Marlfield House) to melt in the coffee. Although technically this is afternoon tea. Pastry chef Nicholas Rouzaud’scelestial array of hazelnut, caramel, chocolate and lemon meringue fantasies arrive. They quickly do a Lord Lucan.
In another quarter of a century a Victorian revival will be due. Brown will be the new black. Or at least the new greige. Expect heavy oak panelling, heavier drapes (again) and half a dead zoo’s worth of taxidermy in the revamped Céleste. It will be renamed Charlotte at The Lanesborough in honour of our newly married princess.
Savannah. The setting of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The events that unravelled around the intriguing characters of “The Book”, as locals refer to it, happened more than 30 years ago. But Savannah sure does still revel in larger than life people. In the heart of the Victorian District, which covers several squares of the city’s grid plan, sits the Gingerbread House. It’s the fretted spindled bracketed shuttered cookie cutter sweet as apple pie home of the marvellous musician Diana Rogers. One sultry Sunday morning, we arrived over to meet Diana in her kitchen. Exquisitely clad in oyster pink – summer hat, long silk gloves and real shell earrings to boot – she firstly entertained us with her witticisms, homemade sugared scones and a glass or three of bubbly. Diana herself sipped clear liquid out of a cocktail glass.
Her house is a collector’s paradise. Tables overflowed with vintage finds from clowns to toy frogs, glistening in the scorching sunlight streaming through the coloured sash windows. Diana was originally from Oklahoma. “All they do there is watch TV and go to church!” she howled with laughter. Rural life wasn’t for her. A classically trained pianist and singer, her wonderfully intoxicating voice, not to mention her superlative keyboard skills, meant she was an instant blues hit in New Orleans. Soon she even outgrew the Big Easy and packed her bags for the big time in the Big Apple. In New York she deftly launched herself on the music scene. Diana performed in all the top uptown hotels and downtown clubs: the Waldorf Astoria, Harry’s Bar, One Fifth Avenue, Windows on the World…
Hot in demand, Diana enjoyed a long engagement at Nino’s in New York throughout the Nineties. She played and sang at the Madison Arms in East Hampton during the summer months. Diana was flown across the Atlantic to perform at private parties in London and Cornwall. At the end of the century she released an album of hits featuring I Know Him So Well, La Vie en Rose and her own composition Middle Class Princess. In 2003 she decided it was time to embark on a new phase of her life so she packed her bags again and headed for the Deep South. For the price of her tiny Manhattan flat she picked up a five bedroom restored timber Victorian house with dripping bargeboards on the pink azalea lined East Gaston Street in Savannah. “I still return to New York every couple a’ months,” she drolled. “Last time I was there I ran up €2,000 on a hat. But it’s a real nice hat. Ya know my wardrobe takes up the whole top floor of the house.”
Diana has fully established herself as a firm fixture on Savannah’s music circuit. And social whirl. She’s performed in more than a dozen venues and can be heard in the basement piano bar of The Olde Pink House several nights a week. In fact that’s where we first came across her. Descending the stairs from the classy restaurant above, we heard Moon River in dulcet tones floating across the heavy evening air, laced with promise and romance. Fast forward 48 hours and there we were, in her home.
“Come on through to the parlour,” Diana beckoned. The morning had melted into early afternoon. Keeping her gloves on – natch – she embarked on a one woman cabaret show, jauntily weaving her way through Cole Porter and George Gershwin before celebrating the present day with Andrew Lloyd Weber and John Kander. “Imelda Marcos’ daughter lives right next door,” revealed Diana. “And Jerry Spence, the hairdresser mentioned in The Book, is always calling round. ‘Honey you can find me on page 47!’ he hollers to everyone he ever meets!” Another neighbour, Patricia, arrived. “She was big in Washington!” confided Diana in a stage whisper. A medley of Johnny Mercer songs began. Outside, rain from the gunpowder grey sky beat down heavily on the veranda. But it didn’t dampen the decadent party spirit indoors.
Leopold, her grand tortoise shell cat, looked on attentively. “She guards the house!” exclaimed Diana. The cat got her name before her gender was determined at the vets. “My workman Mr Tiles is built like Tarzan! He was workin’ upstairs and I was away and he rang me sayin’, ‘Diana I can’t get down the stairs! You gotta help me. Your cat won’t let me past!’ He had to jump out the bedroom window and slide down the porch roof!” Late afternoon, we declined a lift from Diana in her Cadillac to Oglethorpe Mall. We air kissed our goodbyes. Diana’s phone rang. More guests arrived. The party was just getting into full swing. A competitive cacophony of church bells and thunder claps erupted but it went unnoticed, drowned out by the echo of laughter, clinking of glasses and Diana upping the tempo with All That Jazz.
Hard edged dockside architecture meets playful futuristic design. Nowhere is the status of a city and its wellbeing better reflected in its music than Berlin. The two are intertwined. Think the Weimar Republic and its jazz cafés. Of course the legend of a libertarian culture destroyed by fascism was propagated by the film Cabaret. Fast forward a century and post war Berlin’s inherent appeal was again its openness. It was an anomaly, an oasis of extremity created by the Cold War. Here, anything could happen.
David Bowie arrived in Berlin towards the end of the 70s. He became immersed in the German music of the period. It was saturated in absence, loss and distance. Bands such as Kraftwerk influenced his craft, his work. Bowie’s piece V 2 Schneider reverberates to the rhythm of an S Bahn train. He recorded two thirds of his Berlin Trilogy – Low and Heroes but not Lodger – at the city’s legendary Hansa Studios. As the curtain fell on communism and the 20th century, techno music would emerge, climaxing with the euphoric blaze that was Love Parade.
Which brings us to right here right now. nhow Berlin is iridescently present, a tangible addition to the waterscape, a representation of contemporary immediacy. Its roots materialise from the city’s relationship with music – more anon. With the hotel’s opening, a new layer of meaning is added to the decadence and disharmony of the not so distant past.
Positioned along the River Spree, the old line between the East and West, nhow Berlin is a fusion of Sergei Tchoban’s architecture and Karim Rashid’s design. Russian born Sergei’s creation is a cubist arrangement of boxes piled high, the top one perilously cantilevering over the others by a gravity defying 10 metres. The underside is clad in reflective steel. Sergei says he is seeking to “convey the image of a ‘crane house’”. Other planes are covered by an aluminium or brick skin punctured by square windows. It’s all about clean lines, perpendicular angles and understated colourways. Enter the tinted glass doors – white outside; pink inside – and a whole new world unfolds.
New Yorker Karim’s interiors celebrate the German capital’s zeitgeist. He employs a progressive language to describe his oeuvre. The terms ‘infostethic’, ‘blobject’ and ‘technorganic’ are given three dimensional form. Karim says, “My vision engages technology, visuals, textures, colours, as well as all the needs that are intrinsic to living in a simpler less cluttered but more sensual environment.” Strata of irregular lines, asymmetric shapes and psychedelic patterns constantly redefine the hotel experience. Here, anything can happen.
Take the reception desk. It’s a pink amorphous sculpture with inset lighting. Beyond lies an expanse of white space stretching to a glazed wall overlooking the river. A giant continuous profile of Mussolini made of gold lacquered fibreglass hovers over the bar. Piped music radiates across the ground floor by day; live gigs rock it by night. Art or seating? The luminous voluptuous organic and ergonomic sofas are both. The restaurant is segregated from the bar by sheer curtains lined with a radio wave digipop pattern.
The hot pink rooms of the East Tower take their cue from sunrise. Sky blue dominates the rooms of the West Tower. The rooms of the 10 storey Upper Tower are calming grey to counteract the vertigo inducing views. Televisions double as radio wave shaped mirrors. Floors are acoustic friendly laminate painted with the digipop pattern. Guests can rent a keyboard or guitar in their room.
Two recording studios on the eighth floor of the Upper Tower are run by the co directors of the Hansa Studios. An adjacent music lounge is equipped with the latest multimedia technology – and a pink jukebox. The lounge, conference rooms and even the roof terrace are all directly wired to the studios. This allows for impromptu recordings.
County Tyrone sure isn’t the most obvious location to come across an overblown Tudorbethan mansion. This half timbered affair would look more at home in the Surrey Hills. Southeast England, not northwest Ulster. A Cyclopean scaled forerunner to Stockbroker’s Tudor semi d’s. The landscaped gardens are an attempt to tame the wildness of this rainswept region. It’s not surprising, then, to learn the architect of Sion House was an Englishman.
The original early 19th century house, which would later be engulfed through rebuilding, was a much more typical country house of this region. It was a mildly Italianate three bay wide by three bay deep stone faced two storey house built in 1846 to the design of the illustrious Sir Charles Lanyon, a starchitect of his day. A 19th century John O’Connell. Less than four decades later, William Unsworth designed a replacement house. With gusto.
William Unsworth is famed for designing the first Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. Perhaps that’s where he developed his penchant for all things half timbered. He was mates with Sir Edwin Lutyens. Ned also knew his jettied projections from his mullioned multi diamond paned canted bay windows. William just happened to be the son-in-law of his client James Herdman. He was also brother-in-law of the celebrated Missionary of Morocco, Emma Herdman.
The Herdmans arrived in Ireland from Ayrshire in 1699. This Plantation family swiftly established itself as big time farmers. At the time of the first potato famine of 1835, the Herdman brothers James, John and George upped sticks to the sticks, moving from Belfast to the district of Seein in County Tyrone. Adopt a broad Ulster country accent and saying it aloud you can hear how Seein evolved into Sion. Those were the days when spelling – for those who could actually write – was idiosyncratic at best.
John Herdman had gone into partnership in 1833 with Thomas, Andrew and St Clair Mulholland who owned York Street Linen Mill in Belfast. The Herdman brothers brought this expertise to the development of a new spinning mill at Sion. Not content with just building a country house and mill, the Herdmans philanthropically added a model village, Ulster’s answer to New Lanark. Soon there was a shop, cricket club, fishing club and cottages fitted out with – ta dah! – newfangled gas as soon as it became available. William Unsworth also designed a gatehouse to frame the main entrance. Again, he discontinued the tradition of single storey demure vaguely neoclassical gatelodges. Instead a Hansel and Gretel version of the black and white three storey gatehouse of Stokesay Castle appeared.
“Sion House was my grandfather’s home. I lived there after the Second World War. It was such a busy house! As well as my relatives and Welsh nanny, there was a cook and four or five parlour maids. A dairy maid, washer maid and four under gardeners came during the day. The head gardener lived in the gatelodge. It was very self sufficient. In fact the whole of Sion Mills was like that. When we needed a plumber, he came from the mill.
The Italianate gardens were designed in 1909 by Inigo Triggs of Hampshire. Inigo was in partnership with William Unsworth and a friend of Gertrude Jekyll. I was recently asked to go along to Glenmakieran in Cultra which I’m quite sure is another Unsworth house. In 1955 a fire threatened to destroy Sion House. Such a huge house. Nevertheless my grandfather rebuilt all 50 rooms exactly as they were before. I remember the oak panelling in the dining room and linen wall covering in the drawing room.
In 1967 it took just one day for Ross’s to auction the house and its contents, even the books. The house went for only £5,000 and the contents £3,000. Fortunately Sion House is well documented. My grandfather wrote daily letters from 1934 to 1964 chronicling life in the house. At the moment I’m writing a book about my mother Maud Harriet Herdman MBE JP, a fascinating person.”
After much ado involving a collapsing clock tower and the first Compulsory Purchase Order of a Building at Risk in Northern Ireland, Hearth Preservation Trust restored the roadside stables block. It’s now a tearoom and education centre. But something is awry at Sion House. The gatehouse is boarded up; the river overgrown; the façade butchered; the lean-to fallen over. It’s as if the struggle to combat the barrenness of its far flung location has proved too much. The tall neo Elizabethan chimneystacks have been lopped off; the veranda has vanished like the lost ‘h’ from verandah. Worst of all, the back of the house looks like it’s been struck by a meteorite. There’s a gaping hole in the centre in its centre. A spiffingly watchable tragedy. Another Irish country house bites the dust. And then there were none. Less of a whodunit and more of a whodidn’tdoit. Ulster says so.
The Irish Builder flatteringly recorded the rebuilt Sion House in its December 1884 publication. Even then, the country house halcyon days had less than half a century to go. Sion House, besides being almost unique in style, was one of the last country houses to be built between the Gael and the Pale.
“Sion House, the residence of E T Herdman Esq, JP, which, for some time past, has been undergoing extensive alterations, is now completed, and as the building and grounds are singularly picturesque and pleasing, a short description of what is unquestionably one of the most unique and remarkable examples of domestic architecture in the North of Ireland, will be read with interest. The approach to the grounds is on the main road from Strabane to Baronscourt, about three miles from the latter place, and is entered through a delightfully quaint Old English gatehouse of striking originality, containing a porter’s residence and covered porch carried over the roadway.
Winding down the graceful sweep of the avenue, through the wooded grounds which appear to have been laid out with considerable judgment many years ago, we catch a glimpse of the house, reflected in the artificial ponds formed in the ravine that is crossed by a two arch stone bridge of quite medieval character.
As we approach the house, the general grouping of the house is most pleasing, and the full effects of the rich colouring of the red tiled roof is now apparent, diversified with quick pitched gables, quaint dormers, the beautifully moulded red brick chimneys, the skyline being covered by the Tyrone mountains and the village church in the distance. The style of the building is late Tudor of the half timber character, which, though it has been described as showing a singular and absurd heterogeneousness in detail, yet gives wonderful picturesqueness in general effect. The principle entrance is on the north side, through a verandah, supported on open carved brackets, in which is placed an old oak settle, elaborately carved and interlaced with natural foliage in bas-relief. On entering through an enclosed porch we are ushered into a spacious panelled hall, with its quaint old fashioned staircase, open fireplace, and wood chimneypiece, with overmantel extending to the height of the panelling.
The screens enclosing the entrance porch, as also that from the garden entrance to the southeast side, are filled in with lead lights, glazed with painted glass, and emblazoned with national and industrial emblems, monograms and coats of arms. The billiard room, which is in a semi-detached position, and entered from the east side of the hall, is very characteristic of the style of the building, having the principal roof timbers exposed, and forming the pitched ceiling into richly moulded panels. The walls are wainscoted to a height of five feet in richly moulded and panelled work. The fireplace is open, and lined with artistic glazed earthenware tiles of a deep green colour and waved surface, giving a pleasing variety of shadow, and is deeply recessed under a quaint panelled many centred architectural, freely treated, forming a most cosy chimney corner with luxurious settles on each side. On a raised hearth, laid with terra-metallic tiles in a most intricate pattern, are some of the finest examples of wrought iron dogs we have ever seen. There is also in this chimney nook a charming little window, placed so as to afford a view of the pleasure grounds. The reception rooms are on the south side. On entering the spacious drawing room we notice particularly the panelled arch across the further end, which forms a frame to the beautiful mullioned bay window, enriched with patterned lead glazing.
From the recess of the bay a side doorway leads to a slightly elevated verandah, enclosed with balustrade, extending the full length of the south façade, and leading to the beautiful conservatory on the south side, with a short flight of steps giving access to the tennis lawns. The dining room is enclosed off this verandah by a handsome mullioned screen, having folding doors and patterned lead glazing similar to the drawing room bay. The walls of this room are panelled and moulded in English figured oak, enriched with carvings, the arrangement of the buffet being an especial feature, as it forms part of the room in a coved recess and designed with the panelling. The fireplace is open and lined with tiles, in two colours, of the same description as the billiard room, with chimneypiece and overmantel of carved oak, having bevelled mirrors, and arms carved in the most artistic manner in the centre panel. The mullioned screen masked by a gracefully carved arch, made in oak, and capped (as is also the panelling over the buffet and mantel) with a moulded cornice, supported with artistically carved brackets and richly dentilled bed mouldings. Here and in the drawing room the ceilings are of elaborate workmanship, enriched in fibrous plaster, with moulded ribs in strong relief, and massive cornices, with chastely enriched members. The floor, like those of the principal rooms and halls, is laid in solid oak parquetry.
The library and morning room are situated on the north side. These rooms are complete in arrangement for comfort, most of the required furniture and fittings being constructed with the building and in perfect character. The culinary departments are situated on the west side, on the same level with the principal rooms. They are of the most perfect and convenient description, containing every modern appliance for suitable working.
Here also the evidence of artistic design is to be observed, more especially on a wrought iron hood, constructed over the range for the purpose of carrying off the odour from the cooking, to flues provided for that purpose. The hood is a very intricate piece of wrought iron work, which, we learn, was manufactured at the engineering works of the Messrs Herdman and Co. The upper floors contain 16 spacious bedrooms and dressing rooms. Several of the bedrooms are obtained by the judicious pitching up the main roof, and obtaining light through the quaintly shaped dormers, which form so marked a feature on the roofline. There is a spacious basement extending under the entire area of the building, which contains the usual offices, and in which are placed two of Pitt’s patented apparatus, now so favourable known for warming and ventilating, by which warmed fresh air is conveyed to the various apartments and corridors.
One of the great features of the exterior elevations is the balconies, of which there are several, whence views of the varied scenery and charming surroundings can be obtained. There is also easy access to the leads of the roof, from which more extended views of the beautiful and romantic valleys of the Foyle and Mourne, together with the picturesquely grouped plantations of the Baronscourt demesne, and the far-famed mountains of Barnesmore, Betsy Bell, and Mary Gray, can be seen in the distance. From this point a magnificent bird’s eye view can be obtained of the village of Sion and of the palatial buildings which form the flax spinning mills and offices of the Messrs Herdman and Co, which we are pleased to observe are so rapidly extending their lines and improving under the enlightened policy of the spirited owners.
The gardens and grounds are laid out in terraces, with low red brick walls, in character with the house, which give great effect when viewed from the several levels. It is noticeable throughout the perfectness and richness of all the detail, which has been carried out with great care, from special designs. The architect has succeeded in giving an individuality and picturesqueness of outline, due proportion of its parts and beauty of the whole, to the buildings and grounds, which have not been heretofore obtained in this part of the country.
The execution of the work throughout was entrusted (without competition) to Mr J Ballantine, builder, of this city, who has carried it out in a style of workmanship maintaining his high reputation as a builder, and reflecting credit on the skilled tradesmen associated with him in the work. The entire building, gate entrance, bridge, grounds, fittings, and principal furniture have been carried out according to the designs, and under the superintendence of Mr W F Unsworth, FRIBA.”