There aren't too many hotels you can turn into a private residence, and to successfully make it work as a home. But, Cork’s famed Arbutus Lodge is probably one of the few that can make that transition.
Why? Well, because it started out its life as a private home, albeit a fairly large one, slotted onto a hillside perch, more or less starting the hillside stretch of mansions making up the the Italianate-christened Montenotte, 200 metres from St Luke’s Cross, and its church.
It’s in a prime position: elevated, south-facing, within a walk of the city centre, local shops, schools and services, while its genuine panorama of views include a rapidly evolving city and riverscape and docklands, with talks of 16-26 and 34-storey towers which may be set to pop into its ambit, and sizeable new developments already in train at Kent Station, at Horgans’ Quay and Penrose Quay.
(Coming more immediately into view, under its remaining 0.34 acre grounds, are the upper levels of a row of high-end townhouses being built due south, and east, of Arbutus Lodge, some 16 in all, likely to go to market in September at prices in the high €600ks/early €700k: see further details below).
Like its river-lining quays further below, Arbutus Lodge’s origins go back to the hey-day of Cork’s maritime wealth, shipping and trading. Might its next owners fit that mould also?
Now after 200 years of Georgian roots, and some 60 years of transitioning back and forth in size and use and status, the wheel appears to be turning full circle, as it comes up for sale, in very good overall order, after an estimated €1m spend on its refurbishment, carrying a guide price of €1.35m, quoted by estate agent Michael O’Donovan of Savills’ Cork offices.
Over more than two centuries, it has waxed and waned, before finding its niche and stellar reputation as an hotel in the 1960s. It traded as such for nearly 40 years, up to 1999, earning Michelin stars, and Egon Ronay garlands and many other awards for its then owners the Ryan family, at its very height.
It’s now exactly 20 years since that Ryan family chapter closed, at a time when it had up to 20 bedrooms, most of them in a mid-to late-1900s added-on wing, and it traded at its peak at a time of a virtual triumvirate of Cork Michelin starred eateries, and corporate/IDA-wooing wallets, comprising the Arbutus Lodge, Cliffords and Ballymaloe, with Balylickey House way down west also getting a star (it’s only in 2019 that Cork has risen back up to have three Michelin-starred restaurants.)
For a brief while, in new ownership after the ‘99 sale, the Arbutus Lodge continued to trade as an hotel and function venue while owned by the Carmody family. They sold it on, around 2003/2004, when it was purchased for about €1.5 million (or, €1.8m all-in, as reported at the time, along with a neighbouring mid 1990s property Belmont House) by IT entrepreneur and property developer Sean Keohane of Grangefield Investments.
He had bought up several of Cork’s more classic and elegant 19th and even 18th century homes, including one on the Mardyke, and another on the brow of now-suburban Skehard Road called Ravenscourt, amongst others.
Through the rest of the 2000s, the Arbutus Lodge and its grounds (plus those of the amalgamated and later demolished Belmont House) was the focus of several different planning applications, varying from houses to apartments, some of them heading down to Grattan Hill, most of them vociferously objected to by locals.
Along the way also, the Arbutus’ ‘60s bedroom block was removed, bringing the main Georgian residence back to a ‘mere’ five bedrooms status as it currently stands.
Also in that period, the house’s core was invested in; it got new wiring and plumbing in 2008/2009, and was crowned off by an impressive new slate roof in 2017.
For several relatively recent years, it was let as a private, corporate-grade home to members of the Kang family, originally from China, who had bought the Fota Island Resort in 2013, and subsequently they also acquired the Kingsley Hotel at the city’s other end, by the Lee Fields. It’s just a small footnote in the former Arbutus Lodge’s hotel history to observe that its most recent occupancy was as a five-bed home, by a family who had c 130 bedrooms apiece in each of those Cork hospitality hotel purchases, as well as owning a string of lodges to rent at the Fota Island Resort!
The Price Register shows the Arbutus Lodge as having sold for €1 million in 2018, which is probably about the time its current consortium owners (who must have bought off-market) began work on a new homes development in its original lower grounds of the hotel, and on the grounds of the former Belmont House.
Named after the Arbutus Tree, some of which specimens graced its 20th century exceptional gardens (now all departed, sadly more of this anon), there was a house first built on this Montenotte/St Luke’s sandstone hill site in the so-called North Liberties in the 1700s for a miller and property owner, Thomas Beale.
Whatever house was on the site at that time, sold in 1804 to a master cooper, David Howe, of the Cork Butter Exchange, at a time when butter from Cork went almost to the known corners of the earth, from India to Australia, as the world’s largest exporter of butter. It’s thus likely Mr Howe has some means (and the Carmody family who had bought in 1999 record in their history the Arbutus that it had fetched £354 in 1804.)
Later owners included a Charles Joseph Cantillon, Mayor of Cork in the 1870s, the first chairman of the Gresham Hotel Ltd, who remodelled and extended Arbutus Lodge, adding an extra wing and a ballroom.
And, later owners included a Sir Daniel and Lady Ellen O’ Sullivan, whose son Major Charles O’Sullivan was the father of actress Maureen O’Sullivan, and grandfather of actress Mia Farrow.
Subsequent Cork family surnames associated with this manageable mansion were Dwyers, and Kearneys, up to 1961 when it was bought by Sean Ryan and family, who maintained the exceptional, prize-winning gardens, dotting them with contemporary works of sculpture (the art inside had been pretty impressive also!)
Even now, the Ryan line remains a byword for good food in Cork: son Michael Ryan, with his wife Patsy, are co-owners of Isaacs Restaurant on MacCurtain Street, while brother Declan set up the highly successful Arbutus Bakery. That’s a partial, and potted, and utterly ‘Cork’, history: what now of its future?
Launching the 6,000 sq ft, upgraded over-basement detached building with its long, southern facade and canted bay windows, and exemplary city-scanning setting and heritage, Savills’ Mr O’Donovan describes the Arbutus Lodge as a Cork icon, an “unmistakable landmark Cork timepiece, steeped in Cork history. It come to the market in remarkably good fettle, in search of its next owner.”
While its sheltering front entrance portico, with arch and columns, and three-bay front faces west toward the city and St Luke’s Cross on a road bend, and set mid-ship between two ground level bay windows, the longer and more imposing facade is on the southern elevation, where its full three-storey status is best glimpsed, as well as its later-added ballroom, in a three-storey canted bay addition to the original house’s four-bay south facade. That eastern end bay, now effectively buttressing the property’s boundary on the Montenotte end, opens into the lower ground level’s open and bright spaces, previously a function room for the ‘old’ Arbutus Lodge.
Close on one-third of the c 6,000 sq ft is down here, as an adjunct to more ‘normal’ and already generous daytime accommodation and to the house’s five first floor bedrooms, four of which are en suite. This lower level, with windows to the south, is ideal for games, gym, home office, entertainment etc, and is also home to the building’s updated plant, with pressurised water system, twin gas boilers for the four-zoned gas heating, etc.
On the top-most level, meanwhile, is a very large en suite master bedroom, with possibly the house’s best retained views from its various windows. Sandwiched between, at mid/entry level, this bay is a bright feature of what’s now a very large and high-ceilinged kitchen, with granite topped island, and superb side-set fireplace, covered by an ornate plasterwork arch and flanked either side by ornate plaster tops on marble pillars.
The tone of quality, and fine period architectural detailing, is set from entering the 42’ long hall, with oak-block parquet floor, wallpapered walls, internal columns and arch, ceiling roses, cornicing and friezes, deep doorcases and many original doors.
To the right of this hall are two interconnected reception rooms, a front drawing room and a lounge, each with decorative plasterwork and quality wood floors, as well as very fine fireplaces, now fitted with gas insert fire. Original sliding ‘pocket’ doors allow the rooms to be separated, or joined, as use at any particular time might suggest.
Then, as if there weren’t sufficient space, they feed into the even higher-ceilinged kitchen/breakfast room, about 32’ deep and nearly 20’ wide, and ancillary rooms include a small study, back hall, and a front sitting room.
Whoever now buys, and occupies, will be getting a whole lot of house, with impressive period-appropriate rooms of scale, large hall and as-large landing, with an impressive staircase connecting, watched over by restrained stained glass windows depicting roses or, Arbutus strawberries, even?
Other ‘lesser’ windows are modern replacement double glazed sashes, helping to secure a D1 BER for Arbutus Lodge, and evidence of how up to €1m may have been spent getting it back close to rights, ready for another century or two of domestic hospitality, and there’s only very small things left to address within the building ‘envelope.’
What’s disappointing right now in its current state is loss of the original gardens, with its mature weeping ash, rhodos, camellias, birches, limes, rockeries, and, yes, arbutus trees. It’s pretty much all been shorn back and now there’s 0.37 of a bland acre to be reimagined and recreated.
Thankfully, the original limestone pillars with the name lettered on them are still in place and the sightlines outside for getting in and out safely have been improved after slight road realignment between the Arbutus Lodge, and the Montenotte Hotel:he latter, in its the current ownership, has taken a giant stride forward in terms of comfort, design, and exceptional outdoors spaces including gardens and terraces.
Some of the thought that went into the Montenotte Hotel over the past three years mightn’t go astray in terms of restoring some exterior grace and purpose to the Arbutus Lodge’s grounds, truncated because of the separate,pending development called Arbutus Montenotte (why ignore the obvious selling points and kudos of address, when naming a new, high-end development?)
That scheme, when complete will impinge on some of the views, and the privacy, for the ‘real deal’ Arbutus, especially from two of the main reception rooms.
But, from nearly all of the first floor, or from the kitchen/breakfast room’s bay window, there’s no mistaking the Lee and city’s progress eastwards, the Pure Cork setting, and the pure Cork heritage of this original Georgian, offered at a price effectively twice that of the new townhouse neighbours snuggling up to its skirts.
As ‘posh’ as it gets, and more Cork than drisheen.