A Dawning of Clarity Upon Complexity
Braving Storm Ciara, on a blustery photogenic winter’s day, architect John O’Connell and his client Managing Director David Wilson lead a two-to-two private tour of Montalto Estate: The Big House; The Carriage Rooms; and the most recent addition, The Courtyard. It’s an extraordinary tale of the meeting of minds, the combining of talents, a quest for the best and the gradual unveiling and implementation of an ambitious informed vision that has transformed one of the great estates of Ulster into an enlightening major attraction celebrating old and new architecture, art and landscape, history and modernity. And the serving of rather good scones in the café.
Philip Smith has just completed the latest book in the architectural series of the counties of Ulster started by the late Sir Charles Brett. Buildings of South County Down includes Montalto House: “Adding a storey to a house by raising the roof is a relatively common occurrence that can be found on dwellings of all sizes throughout the county and beyond. But the reverse, the creation of an additional floor by lowering the ground level, is a much rarer phenomenon. This, however, is what happened at Montalto, the original mid 18th century mansion assuming its present three storey appearance in 1837, when then owner David Stewart Ker ‘caused to be excavated round the foundation and under the house, thus forming an under-storey which is supported by numerous arches and pillars’. Ker did a quite successful job, and although the relative lack of front ground floor fenestration and a plinth appears somewhat unusual, it is not jarring, and without knowledge of the building’s history one would be hard pressed to discern the subterranean origin of this part of the house.”
The author continues, “Based on the internal detailing, Brett has suggested that William Vitruvius Morrison may have had a hand in the scheme, but evidence recently uncovered by Kevin Mulligan indicates the house remodelling was at least in part the work of Newtownards builder architect Charles Campbell, whose son Charles in September 1849 ‘came by his death in consequence of a fall which he received from a scaffold whilst pinning a wall at Montalto House.’”
Rewind a few decades and Mark Bence-Jones’ threshold work A Guide to Irish Country Houses describes Montalto House as follows, “A large and dignified three storey house of late Georgian aspect; which, in fact was built mid 18th century as a two storey house by Sir John Rawdon, 1st Earl of Moira; who probably brought the stuccodore who was working for him at Moira House in Dublin to execute the ceiling here; for the ceiling which survives in the room known as the Lady’s Sitting Room is pre 1765 and of the very highest quality, closely resembling the work of Robert West; with birds, grapes, roses and arabesques in high relief. There is also a triple niche of plasterwork at one end of the room; though the central relief of a fox riding in a curricle drawn by a cock is much less sophisticated that the rest of the plasterwork and was probably done by a local man.”
Some more: “In the 1837 ground floor there is an imposing entrance hall, with eight paired Doric columns, flanked by a library and a dining room. A double staircase leads up to the piano nobile, where there is a long gallery running the full width of the house, which may have been the original entrance hall. Also on the piano nobile is the sitting room with the splendid 18th century plasterwork. Montalto was bought circa 1910 by the 5th Earl of Clanwilliam, whose bride refused to live at Gill Hall, the family seat a few miles to the west, because of the ghosts there. In 1952, the ballroom and a service wing at the back were demolished.”
Books aside, back on the tour, David Wilson considers, “You need to stay on top of your game in business. Montalto House was our family home – we still live on the estate. It’s personal. You have to maintain the vision all the time.” John O’Connell explains, “The baseless Doric columns of the entrance hall draw the exterior in – they are also an external feature of the porch. The order is derived from the Temple of Neptune at Paestum. Due to the ground floor originally being a basement it is very subservient to the grandeur upstairs. There are a lot of structural arches supporting ceilings.” A watercolour of the Temple of Neptune over the entrance hall fireplace emphasises the archaeological connection.
Upstairs, John’s in mid flow: “And now we enter a corridor of great grace and elegance.” The walls are lined, like all the internal spaces, with fine art, much of it Irish. David points to a Victorian photograph of the house: “It used to be three times as large as it is now!” The house is still pretty large by most people’s standards. Three enigmatic ladies in ankle length dresses guard the entrance door in the photograph. Upstairs, in the Lady’s Sitting Room which is brightly lit by the canted bay window over the porch, David relates, “the plasterwork reflects the original owners’ great interest in flora and fauna”. John highlights “the simple beauty of curtains and walls being the same colour”. Montalto House can be let as a whole for weddings and parties.
Onward and sideward – it’s a leisurely walk, at least when a storm isn’t brewing – to The Carriage Rooms. While John has restored Montalto House, finessing its architecture and interiors, The Carriage Rooms is an entirely new building attached to a converted and restored former mill. “In the 1830s the Ker family made a huge agricultural investment in Montalto,” states David. “They had the insight to turn it into a productive estate. The Kers built the mill and stables and powered water to create the lake.” White painted rendered walls distinguish John’s building from the rough stone older block. The Carriage Rooms are tucked in a fold in the landscape and are reached by a completely new avenue lined with plantation trees.
“I didn’t want to prettify this former industrial building,” records John. “It needed a certain robustness. The doors and windows have Crittall metal frames. Timbers frames would not be forceful enough. The stone cast staircase is a great achievement in engineering terms – and architectural terms too! The new upper floor balcony design was inspired by the architecture of the Naples School of Art. Horseshoe shaped insets soften the otherwise simple balustrade.” In contrast the orangery attached to the rear of The Carriage Rooms is a sophisticated symmetrical affair. “It’s where two worlds meet. This gives great validity to the composition,” John observes. Much of the furniture is bespoke: architect Anna Borodyn from John’s office designed a leaf patterned mobile copper bar. A formal garden lies beyond glazed double doors. The Carriage Rooms can be let as a whole for parties and weddings.
Justifiably lower key is the design of The Courtyard, a clachan like cluster of single and double storey buildings containing a café, shop and estate offices. It’s next to the 19th century stable yard. John’s practice partner Colin McCabe was the mastermind behind The Courtyard. Unpainted roughcast walls, casement rather than sash windows, polished concrete floors and most of all large glazed panels framed by functioning sliding shutters lend the complex an altogether different character to The Big House or even The Carriage Rooms. The Courtyard harks back to the Kers’ working estate era. “We wanted to create a sense of place using a magical simple vocabulary,” confirms John, “and not some bogus facsimile”. A catslide roof provides shelter for a barbeque. An unpretentious pergola extends the skeleton of the built form into the garden.
“We have over 10,000 visitors a month and employ 80 people,” beams David. The 160 hectares of gardens and woodlands have entered their prime. A new timber temple – a John O’Connell creation of course – overlooks the lake. Contemporary neoclassicism is alive and very well. The Beautiful. The Sublime. The Picturesque. As redefined for the 21st century. Montalto Estate hits the high note for cultural tourism in Ireland, even mid storm.