One of the owners of historic Vernon Mount House in Cork, which was completely destroyed in a suspected arson attack, said he is “gutted” at the loss of the property but believes it can be saved.
Quantity surveyor Olaf Maxwell issued a statement to the Irish Examiner yesterday saying he was satisfied recent works he arranged at the listed, but near-derelict, Georgian villa had “fully protected” it against random vandalism.
But despite the extensive fire damage, he believes demolition would be completely unnecessary.
“I do not see a need at this time for the demolition of what remains of one of Cork’s greatest landmarks,” he said.
Gardaí believe a gang of teenagers set a fire inside the 18th century property before the alarm was raised at around 9.40pm on Sunday.
It took more than 30 firefighters almost 10 hours to bring the blaze under control.
The building has been completely gutted, and its ornate internal structures, and renowned ceiling and wall paintings by Nathaniel Grogan, have been destroyed.
Engineers inspected the building on Monday and declared it unsafe to enter, sparking fears of demolition.
Mr Maxwell confirmed Vernon Mount House and its grounds were purchased in 1997 by VM Development Company Ltd, whose ownership is shared between Massilla Ltd, of which US investor Jonathan Moss was a director and Mr Maxwell is company secretary.
In 2006, the house ownership was transferred to Vernon Mount House Restoration Ltd (VMRL), with the same beneficial ownership as VM Development. The grounds are still owned by VM Development.
Mr Maxwell said Mr Moss is neither a personal nor sole owner of Vernon Mount House.
Mr Maxwell also said that when the house came on the market in 1997, he spotted an opportunity to provide for its long-term management and that Mr Moss’s financial management and professional skills in conservation and construction provided a solid platform to achieve this.
Following extensive discussions with Cork County Council for a hotel development, a planning application was lodged.
“The pre-planning discussions were very positive and enthusiastic but the application was refused after outside interventions.
“Subsequent efforts were made to arrive at a redesign that would be acceptable,” said Mr Maxwell.
“To facilitate proposals going forward, the house and grounds were separated, with the ownership of the house transferred into a separate company (VMRL) in 2006.
“In the period up to 2006, extensive maintenance was carried out at the house by Massilla Ltd, with roof works approved by the council being carried out. The house was in in good standing with contracted outside security in place and secured for a restoration in due course.”
Mr Maxwell said he also engaged in extensive discussions with the council and National Roads Authority consultants, Arup, during the Kinsale Rd flyover works to provide access to Vernon Mount in anticipation of future renovations that would open up the house to public use.
Further talks led to plans for a public route from Grange Rd, through the grounds, and a bridge across the N40 dual carriageway and into Cork City.
“Even in 2009/2010, there were discussions with a proposed joint venture partner. These viable proposals were presented to Mr Moss for consideration,” said Mr Maxwell.
“At all times, the council were involved in the discussions and proposals.
“In fairness to the council they were working within many planning and legal constraints yet the outcome from our point of view was very positive and we were happy with the outcome.
“Sadly for all the financial events of the time stalled progress. The present outlook now on the horizon means these proposals are more likely to see the light of day.”
Mr Maxwell said his office has been working on these recently with a view to entering further discussions with the council.
However, he said that neither VM Development nor VMRL have received any correspondence from An Taisce, or other heritage bodies, about the house.
An Taisce did write to Mr Moss at an address in California last month asking him to consider donating the house and grounds to the State.
Mr Maxwell said he is open to having “meaningful discussions” with the council, An Taisce, and the Grange Frankfield Partnership to discuss what happens next.
Meanwhile, Cork County Council confirmed that while it did consider a CPO of Vernon Mount House, it was ruled out on cost grounds.
“This decision was taken in the context of available council resources and overall service delivery responsibilities of the council in difficult economic circumstances,” said a spokesman.
“Although the house is privately owned, the council’s strategy at the beginning of the decade was to secure the house by carrying out works to the roof in order to limit damage to the interior of the house.
“The council awaits the outcome of the ongoing Garda investigation.”
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