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Montalto House + Estate Ballynahinch Down

A Dawning of Clarity Upon Complexity

Montalto Estate Ballynahinch Map © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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.

Montalto Estate Ballynahinch Lake © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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.”

Montalto Estate Ballynahinch © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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.’”

Montalto Estate Ballynahinch Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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.”

Montalto House Ballynahinch Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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.”

Montalto House Ballynahinch © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Montalto House Ballynahinch Facade © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Montalto House Ballynahinch Old Photograph © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Montalto House Ballynahinch Porch © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Montalto House Ballynahinch Bay Window © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Montalto House Ballynahinch Entrance Hall © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Montalto House Ballynahinch Dining Room © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Montalto House Ballynahinch Mirror © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Montalto House Ballynahinch © Curtain Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Montalto House Ballynahinch Chinese Room © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Montalto House Ballynahinch Niche © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Montalto House Ballynahinch Plasterwork © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Montalto House Ballynahinch Ceiling © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Carriage Rooms Montalto Estate Ballynahinch © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Carriage Rooms Montalto Estate Ballynahinch Conservatory © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Carriage Rooms Montalto Estate Ballynahinch Gable © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Carriage Rooms Montalto Estate Ballynahinch Bar © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Carriage Rooms Montalto Estate Ballynahinch Brickwork © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Carriage Rooms Montalto Estate Ballynahinch Windows © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Carriage Rooms Montalto Estate Ballynahinch Artwork © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Carriage Rooms Montalto Estate Ballynahinch Interior © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Carriage Rooms Montalto Estate Ballynahinch Chairs © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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.

The Stables Montalto Estate Ballynahinch © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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.

The Courtyard Montalto Estate Ballynahinch Pergola © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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.

The Courtyard Montalto House Ballynahinch © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“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.

The Courtyard Montalto Estate Ballynahinch Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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.

The Courtyard Montalto Estate Ballynahinch Cafe © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“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.

Montalto Estate Ballynahinch Cafe © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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The Carriage Rooms + Montalto Ballynahinch Down

Building It Up

1 Carriage Rooms Montalto copyright lvbmag.com

Developed by an early whim of nature, Montalto is imagined to mean ‘high hill’. A sloping driveway rises past brick huts, a hazily remembered transition of the estate’s occupation by American soldiers during the Second World War. A breath of golden haze hovers idly above the sweep of lawns and lake and gardens. Here and there clusters of oaks form delicate groves of shade.

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Ahead, beyond a car park sensitively planted with semi-mature trees, are The Carriage Rooms, a complete, quite perfect thing of beauty, flowing in an even line. This new-born riot of dreams evolved from the keen minds of the clients, Gordon and June Wilson, and the confident logical voice of the architect, John O’Connell. It all began with the 1850s mill, special in a building of special events. Three of the Wilsons’ offspring held their weddings in its unconverted splendour. An idea was born.

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Once it was a one stop shop serving the 11,000 hectare Montalto estate and adjacent town of Ballynahinch. A saw workshop occupied the undercroft with a threshing mill overhead. Now it is a one stop shop for wedding ceremonies, suppers and dancing. The beauty of things, lights and shadows, motions and faces, provide quick sensory impressions against the tapestry of charcoal grey cut stone and burnt red brick walls.

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Like Montalto House itself, the semi-basement level of the mill was excavated during conversion to increase penetration of natural light into the interior. As a result, the front arched window overlooks the chiselled wonder of rocks. “That view acts as a reminder to bridal parties that marriage should be built upon rock solid foundations!” jests David Anderson MVO OBE, manager of Montalto House. A wall has been constructed behind the outcrop to prevent glimmering parallels of light from vehicles in the car park roaring across the room.

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Brick piers and beams conceal air vents in the main space. To one side, a vaulted passageway leads to the crisp darkness of the plant room. The air vent above this streaked artery is exposed to create a more contemporary look. On the other side, a little vaulted bar is lit by a trio of lunette windows. The gradual gradient of a disabled access ramp doubles as a standing area. Candle niches are carved out of the walls.

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“Everything is right, purposeful and has a practical use,” remarks David. “It’s all about delivery of the product. Storage is cleverly incorporated throughout to allow events to flow unhindered.” He confirms The Carriage Rooms are not just for weddings but are also aimed at the conference and performing and visual arts markets. “It’s all about creating an elegant lifestyle,” David adds. “We’re offering a very high end pre-finished product, right down to carefully chosen silver and glassware.”

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He continues, “Quality at every angle is what sets us apart. We have a tried, tested and trusted relationship with our recommended catering partner Yellow Door.” Guests can stay over in the gorgeous quarters of Montalto House, the former residence of the Wilsons. Their market research included jaunts to other top notch locations like Ballywalter Park, Belle Isle and Crom Castle. Grandson of Fred, the great FG Wilson, managing director David Wilson’s accountancy skills and venue manager Keith Reilly’s organisational acumen add to the equation equalling success. The Carriage Rooms have become a race apart. There are no plurals.

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Attached to the former mill is a smart new two storey rendered block portraying a pleasing preponderance of wall over window. A glazed door opens noiselessly into the magnificence of the entrance hall. Fresh and vigorous, this hall derives its resonance from its very articulateness. The yellow glow and blue shadows of an open fire flicker across its symmetrical features.

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The conference room links the entrance hall to the 1850s building. It is a radiantly imagined intervening parlour of politeness. The ceiling is formed of rows of brick and tile vaults. “You won’t find wall to wall Colefax and Fowler here!” jokes David. Instead is a robustly rural neoclassicism – brick cornices, carriage lamps, steel capped beams and granite fireplaces surrounding chamfered cast iron insets – perfecting a brilliant, permeating symbolism.

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The double height staircase hall adjoins the entrance hall. Cantilevered granite flights of stairs climb in radiance, overlooked by the translucent feminine languor of upper level Juliet balconies. Accessed off the staircase hall is a discretely placed lift lobby.

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The threshing mill is now the banqueting hall: somewhere to lunch on trout, avocado and a pint of Californian wine. “It has a great view from every window,” observes David. Several of the brick arches were reopened, the barn doors downgraded to shutters. The difference in levels becomes apparent in this room which is first floor to the front but opens onto the stable yard at ground level to the side. An arrangement of interior lights at the top makes a sort of floating fairyland. Under the high ceilings the situation seems so dignified.

16 Carriage Rooms Montalto copyright lvbmag.com

Lunching together en masses, warmed with liquor as the afternoon begins, floats airy, inconsequential chatter and high-pitched laughter, above all the banqueting hall is another reminder of John’s love of the symmetric. Short hallways on either side of the ground level elevation lead to neat single bay single storey singular pavilions of projecting perpendicularity. One links to the kitchens; the other to the bride’s bathroom.

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Symmetry, harmony and balance reach an apex on a central axis in the brick faced orangery where indoors meets outdoors. Below the parapet, pairs of French doors surmounted by fanlights fragmented by umbrella spike glazing bars open gracefully onto a terrace. The wealthy, happy sun glitters in transient gold through the thick windows of this magical, breathless room. A curious lightness permeates the rarefied air. This is a room where the solid, soft gold of the walls yields to the greenery of the exterior. It dazzles the eyes. “This is The Carriage Rooms’ architecture at its most formal,” notes David.

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Beyond lies the walled garden, fragrant with a host of flowers, a place for promenaders on a protracted circuit to digest sandwiches and sundaes eaten for lunch. The troubles of the day can arrange themselves in trim formation in this civilised setting. Annexed off it, crowded with planets and nebulance of cigarettes, is the smoking area, half enclosed by a symmetrical sweep of fencing. A narrow path that winds like a garter round the building descends towards the entrance front for a few more gorgeous moments.

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Subtle and intricate, The Carriage Rooms exude a confident charm. A white radiance is kindled that glows upon the air like a fragment of the morning star. It is a place for débutantes, rakes and filles de joie to accept the wealth of high finance and high extravagance. The Carriage Rooms are a venue to deliver extreme happiness in the awakening of flowing souls.

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