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Country Houses Hotels

The Carriage Rooms + Montalto Ballynahinch Down

Building It Up

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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.

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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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Categories
Town Houses

Keizersgracht + Museum van Loon

Double Dutch

A myriad of canals provides Amsterdam with such a quantity of mirrors that narcissism becomes inevitable. Reflected every moment by thousands of square metres of rippling silver amalgam, it’s as if the city is constantly being filmed by its water. Consequently each canalside building lends the impression of existing as an egotist solely preoccupied by its appearance. And each canal’s own vanity is to reflect the lights dangling under the bridge arches. They, in turn, appear as shimmering pearl necklaces.

Last winter, a heavy veil of snow hung over the city. Along Keizersgracht, one of the three original canals, cars morphed into white mounds and overhead wires dripped with crystals of ice. Snow on snow on snow. Assuming you’ve recycled your Moët & Chandon bottles at De Appel Arts Centre, tackled the Rijksmuseum, skipped the queue at the Stedelijk Extension and ruminated at the Van Gogh, something of altogether more domestic proportions yet distilling elements of all three is 672 Keizersgracht. Enter Museum van Loon.

Furniture fans will get a Louis the Hooey eyeful; antiques lovers can ogle at porcelain collections spanning three centuries; while integrated contemporary art featuring the likes of light boxes by Danielle van Ark and photographs of Juliette Lewis add an experimental twist to the mix.

“The van Loon family has frozen the house exactly as it was when it opened in 1973,” announces the surprisingly youthful Museum Director and Curator, Tonko Grever. Well that puts paid to any John Fowler type debate over which period should take prominence. “As a result priceless pieces sit next to modern miscellanea. It’s still considered unusual in Amsterdam to open your house to the public,” reveals Tonko. “Maurits van Loon was the last surviving male of the family.” He died in 2005 aged 83. The first van Loons to live here were Willem and his wife Thora. His ancestor, another Willem, was one of the founders of the Dutch East India Company.

“The former butler’s son called by the house a while back,” says Tonko. “He couldn’t believe Mr van Loon just lived in an apartment on the top two floors. I reminded him that a private pad in this part of town, away from the neon nightmare that is Damrak, is still quite a status symbol! Plus it’s pretty big by modern standards.” A handful of staff runs the house now in place of 10 to 15 servants.

Narrow dizzyingly steep vertigo inducing stairs are an all too common feature of Amsterdam houses. Not here. Dr Abraham van Hagen, newly married to the metaphorically monikered Catharina Trip, an American heiress, proved he’d a flair for fabulousness when he redecorated the house in 1752 with enviable élan. Under van Hagen’s  watchful eye, the visual candy men of the day let rip on the interiors. V HAGEN is worked into the first flight of brass and iron balustrades in the spacious staircase hall and TRIP (no puns please) on the second flight. “Museum van Loon is essentially the bones of a 17th century house dressed up in 18th century gear,” Tonko comments.

The house was built in 1672 as one of a pair of symmetrical properties. Rows of windows mirror the canal through a glass darkly across a ‘flat style’ façade. The straight entablatures and cornices of this austere branch of neoclassicism replaced the jaunty twists and turns of Dutch gables from the late 18th century onwards. The architect was Adriaan Dortsman, the John O’Connell of his day; the client, a Flemish merchant named Jeremiah van Raey; the first tenant, Rembrant’s sidekick Ferdinand Bol. “The houses occupy four plots. But Dortsman struck a deal with the authorities and got four for the price of three,” relates Tonko.

A formal garden, entered via the French doors of the garden room, is an oasis of calm away from the busy bustle of the city. It was designed by Eugénie André in 1998 who was inspired by the geometric plan drawn by Jacobus Bosch on his 1679 map of Keizersgracht. When Lavender’s Blue were there, the garden was wrapped in a thick blanket of snow. Shrubs were transmogrified into white blobs and snow on snow lay heavy on the carriage house roof. Tonko notes, “It’s a different picture in summer. The garden is used as a venue for intimate opera concerts. Last June, it was one of 25 canal gardens open to the public as part of the City on the Water tourism drive.”

During renovations the foundations were underpinned with 64 new pilings. “This provided an ideal opportunity to drop the floor level of the kitchen by 20 centimetres because the basement levels were so low,” explains Tonko. Even so, they still are. “The room was then reconstructed using photos from an old servant’s album. One photo from around 1900 shows Leida the cook’s cat perched on a bench. It’s funny – the kitchen was placed at the opposite end of the house from the raised ground floor dining room. Impractical or what?”

On the first floor, surprisingly (the house is deeper than it’s wide), there are only four bedrooms. “Maurits van Loon recalled screens dividing up the bedrooms for privacy. The children had to share rooms with their siblings,” Tonko tells us. “My favourite room is the Sheep Room. You’d have no problem falling asleep there. Just count the sheep!” He’s referring to the strikingly patterned wallpaper which depicts sheep running amok amidst foliage and flowers. It was printed in Nîmes on 18th century woodblocks. Tiny square projections accommodating powder rooms flank the rear elevation.

An ostentatious Polonaise bed – the Regency type that left behind the clean lines of Georgian sobriety and tipsily headed down the helter skelter of Victorian floridity – dominates the Master Bedroom. “When the house is closed to the public, Maurits van Loon and his guests used to stay in the state rooms. Look!” points Tonko. “To the left of the bed is a modern phone. But the formality of the past is present too. A fake door next to the real bedroom door contains extra panels to align it with the fireplace.” Actually there are jib doors galore in the house concealing a rabbit warren of bookshelves, cupboards and even a staircase.

Lila Acheson Wallace, co founder of Reader’s Digest, once quipped, “A painting is like a man. If you can live without it, then there isn’t much point having it.” Since the van Loons bought this sybaritic stretch of Keizersgracht in 1884, they have managed to accumulate 150 portraits, mostly of themselves. Jan Miense Molenaer, the 17th century’s answer to Mario Testino, painted a symbolic van Loon family portrait called The Four Ages or The Five Senses which hangs in the Red Drawing Room. Who could blame them for being vaingloriously proud to have lived here for generations?