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Architects Architecture Country Houses People

Emo Court Laois + James Gandon

Let Them Eat Hake

“They all knew each other, or about each other,” suggests Mark Girouard in his chapter “A Country House Childhood” in Town and Country, 1982. He’s referring to the Anglo Irish. That was even the case in the 19th century. “The owner of Ballyfin saw his neighbour’s property Emo Court and wanted that,” confirms award winning architect John O’Connell who runs an international Grade 1 Conservation Practice based in Dublin. No surprises there, for Emo Court is an architectural masterpiece. It’s one of the Big Houses of Ireland, the size of a terrace of Dublin townhouses. A copper dome on the middle of the roof lends it a municipal air. Its architect, London born James Gandon (he would move to Ireland when he was 40), designed some of Dublin’s great public buildings: his Custom House and The Four Courts still grace the banks of the River Liffey. James Gandon didn’t just inspire Ballyfin. Attempts have been made to emulate his Dublin Custom House at least twice: Doolin + Butler’s 1912 University College Dublin and Jones + Kelly’s 1935 Cork City Hall.

“It’s a railway station in disguise!” John jests. “The volume of the library is Rome come to Laois. The interior is like being inside a very public building.” In the late 18th century landowner John Dawson, 1st Earl of Portarlington, was running in the same social circle as James Gandon. In 1790 he commissioned the architect, who had trained under Sir William Chambers, to design a country house on his estate. John notes, “The Earl was a great sponsor of Gandon.” The construction of the house continued after the death of both client and architect. The 2nd Earl engaged London architect Louis Vulliamy alongside Dublin architects Arthur and John Williamson. Elevation and profile ink and watercolour drawings by the Williamsons dated 1822 survive in the Irish Architectural Archive. The 3rd Earl commissioned Dublin architect William Caldbeck to complete the house. Despite these multiple hands at work across eight decades, Emo Court resonates complete neoclassical perfection. On a grey rainy day its copper dome still shines bright as a green beacon of good taste.

At one time, only The Phoenix Park in Dublin was a larger enclosed estate in Ireland than the 4,450 hectares of Emo Court. In 1920 the 6th Earl sold Emo Court to the Irish Land Commission who in turn sold it on to the Jesuits along with 100 hectares. Almost half a century later, the splendidly monikered  Major Cholmeley Dering Cholmeley-Harrison, an English financier, snapped it up for £42,000. He enlisted the London architect Sir Albert Richardson to restore the house. In 1994, the Major presented Emo Court to President Mary Robinson who received it on behalf of the Irish nation.

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Architecture Country Houses People Town Houses

The Cootes + Mountrath Laois

Puntsland

It’s one of the most architecturally interesting towns in Ireland. Nearby is the early Georgian Roundwood House. Contemporary architect John O’Connell says, “Roundwood is so intact. It’s like a doll’s house.” There’s a reddish terracotta rendered multi pointy gabled three storey with attics house in the centre of the town partially concealed behind a cobweb of telegraph wires on Patrick Street overlooking the River Whitehorse. It looks late 17th century or at youngest early 18th century. “That is where the Cootes, the local landowners, used to live,” John explains, “before they came into money and moved to Ballyfin.” Mountrath has that beautiful planned look to it: three identical villas grace the Abbeyleix road and another three jazz up the Portlaoise road. The Earls of Mountrath, family name Coote, made sure of that. The first historic monument to hit you if you are idling time pre Ballyfin is St Peter’s Church, the stone walled beacon of Protestantism. It’s an early 19th century cruciform. Samuel Lewis records in his 1837 Topographical Dictionary of Ireland that the Earl of Mountrath donated the site in circa 1796 and the church was consecrated in 1801, before being enlarged 31 years later.

Samuel Lewis describes the town as follows, “This place, called also Moynrath, or the ‘fort in the bog’, became, in the beginning of the 17th century, the property of Sir Charles Coote, who, although the surrounding country was then in a wild state and overspread with woods, laid the foundation of the present town. In 1628, Sir Charles obtained for the inhabitants a grant of two weekly markets and two fairs, and established a very extensive linen and fustian manufactory, which in the war of 1641, together with much of his other property here, was destroyed. His son Charles regained the castle and estate of Mountrath, with other large possessions, and at the Restoration was created Earl of Mountrath, which title, on the decease of Charles Henry, the 7th Earl, in 1802, became extinct. The present possessor is Sir Charles Henry Coote, Premier Baronet of Ireland. The town, which in 1831 contained 429 houses, is neatly built, and has been the seat of successive manufactures; iron was made and wrought here till the neighbouring woods were consumed for fuel, and on its decline the cotton manufacture was established; an extensive factory for spinning and weaving cotton is carried on by Mr Greenham, who employs 150 persons in the spinning mills, and about 500 in weaving calicoes at their own houses; the average quantity manufactured is from 200 to 250 pieces weekly. Stuff weaving is also carried on extensively; there is a large brewery and malting establishment, and an extensive oil mill; and the inhabitants carry on a very considerable country trade.”

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Architects Architecture Country Houses Design Developers Town Houses

Lee Manor House + Garden Lewisham London

Banking on Success­­­­

Vitruvius’ desirable virtues of “firmness, commodity and delight” spring to mind. “There are so many moments of true quality within and outside this villa,” believes heritage architect John O’Connell. “An inspection of the exterior would suggest that there were once small wings. This is such a clever and compact plan. The vaulted lobby on the first floor is so accomplished and structurally brave. The first floor central room with its closets has a bed alcove.” Lee Manor House and its remaining three hectares of grounds form one of the thrills of southeast London. The house has been repurposed as a crèche, a library and a doctors’ surgery with reception rooms for hire. The garden is open to the public.

In the late 20th century a glass lift was inserted in the middle of the staircase hall. “I used to be disturbed when I saw alterations like this super lift, but now am more understanding,” remarks John. “But one is always encouraged to place the lift on the exterior of an historic building. The best example I know, apart from Montalto in County Down, is Palazzo Spinola di Pellicceria in Genoa. An astounding museum, and a must. Indeed Genoa is a city of palaces and many are accessible. This city is the Liverpool of Italy: rough in parts!” Another successful example is the Office of Public Works’ elegant full height glass and steel shaft abutting the rear of the Irish Architectural Archive on Merrion Square, Dublin.

Architectural historian Dr Roderick O’Donnell summarises, “Stylistically the Manor House is quite conservative – Taylorian rather than Chambersian.” Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner’s entry in their Buildings of England South London, 1983, reads: “The Manor House (Lee Public Library), probably built for Thomas Lucas in 1771 to 1772, by Richard Jupp, is an elegant five by three bay structure of brick on a rusticated stone basement, and with a stone entablature. Projecting taller three bay centre. Four column one storey porch, now glazed; a full height bow in the centre of the garden side. Inside, the original staircase was removed circa 1932, but the large staircase hall still has a screen of columns to the left, and on the landing above a smaller screen carrying groin vaults. Medallions with putti. Pretty plasterwork in other rooms, especially a ceiling of Adamish design in the ground floor room with the bow window.”

At the end of the 18th century the house and estate were sold to Francis Baring, director of the East India Company and founder of Baring’s Bank. The better known architect Sir Robert Taylor designed villas for several of the East India Company directors. “Lee Manor House is extremely well handled,” John remarks, “and exhibits a lovely, almost James Gandon, flow. Moving around, it has at least three lovely elevations. The brickwork is very accomplished but the basement rustication has been crudely handled of late. The original high execution elsewhere displays the architect’s ability to bring a design forward to fruition.”

Marcus Binney provides this summary in Sir Robert Taylor From Rococo to Neoclassicism, 1984, “Taylor’s major contribution to English architecture is his ingenious and original development of the Palladian villa. The first generation of Palladian villas in BritainChiswick, Mereworth and Stourhead are three leading examples – had all been based purposely very closely on Palladio’s designs. They were square or rectangular in plan with pedimented porticoes, and a one-three-one arrangement of windows on the principal elevations. Taylor broke with this format. First of all his villas (like his townhouses) were astylar: classical in proportion but without an order; that is, without columns or pilasters and with a simple cornice instead of a full entablature.” Lee Manor House does have Taylorian features such as the semi elliptical full height bay on the garden front but is missing others such as his trademark Venetian window. In that sense, Richard Jupp is even more conservative than Sir Robert Taylor.

Lee Manor House conforms to the House of Raphael formula: a basement carrying a piano nobile with a lower floor of bedrooms under the parapet. “This is very interesting as it sits within the gentleman’s villa format. Pray how did you find it?” enquires John. “Lee Manor House is a very fine villa. On the ground floor, I would expect the large apse or exedra to the saloon contains or contained a fireplace. It reminds me of the first floor back room of Taylor’s 4 Grafton Street in Mayfair. This large apse is of added interest, as it would be taken up by Robert Adam in the arresting hall at Osterley Park, Isleworth, and again by our hero James Wyatt for his first and most daring scheme at Abbey Leix, County Laois, and again at Portman House on Mayfair’s Portman Square. The latter is now a smart club.”

John continues, “Another villa that comes to mind is Asgill House, in Richmond, circa 1770, which is both fine and intact. This villa was restored with the advice of Donald Insall and can be seen from the railway line. One can even go back to Marble Hill House in Twickenham, and on to James Gibbs at the exquisite Petersham Lodge – a knockout villa – which is now the clubhouse for Richmond Park Golf Course. Petersham Lodge is really worth a visit too; even the ‘landscape’ and bevelled edged mirrors over the fireplace are still in position!”

“Finally, there is the equally arresting Parkstead House designed for the 2nd Earl of Bessborough by Sir William Chambers with its very heroic portico. Lord Bessborough was an Anglo Irish peer. This can be visited. Indeed there is a good publication by English Heritage on this very subject. The original wings have vanished but the garden front and saloon are intact. There is mention of the remains of a garden temple in the grounds.” Joan Alcock writes in Sir William Chambers and the Building of Parkstead House Roehampton, 1980, “The design of Parkstead is based on the Palladian villa.” John O’Connell postscripts, “Richard Jupp was chief architect to the East India Company. His successor was Henry Holland. Lee Manor House fits into a form that one can see emerge in the 1770s.”