Heritage groups described the destruction of Cork’s Vernon Mount House — a unique architectural and artistic gem, a protected structure included in the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage, and on the World Monument Fund List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites — as a mindless act of vandalism.
“That this should happen at a time when prospects for the house had never been better, is particularly devastating,” leading local campaign group, Grange Frankfield Partnership (GFP), said.
Spokesman Ger Lehane said the GFP had spent the last seven years building a coalition of interested partners, including Cork County Council, An Taisce, and the Irish Georgian Society, as part of wider plans to develop a public park on the southside of the city with the restored house as a central focus.
Their efforts were bolstered by the custodians of the American “mother house” — The Mount Vernon Institute in Virginia, USA, which was the ancestral home of George Washington from which the Cork house got its name — who pledged support.
A high-level deputation from Washington’s Mount Vernon executive was due to visit the house in a matter of weeks.
But Mr Lehane said escalating incursions into the property vied with intensive efforts by campaigners and led to the seemingly inevitable.
The alarm was raised at around 9.40pm on Sunday. Six units of the city fire brigade, backed by a unit from Carrigaline, and a water tanker from Mallow, spent up to 10 hours battling the blaze.
The full extent of the devastation to the house became apparent at dawn yesterday. Its roof and internal floors are gone.
Its noted internal features have been destroyed. Engineers declared the building unsafe for internal forensic inspection yesterday fuelling fears that it may face demolition.
“All that now remains is the historical record and a memory of what might have been. A cultural asset of incredible richness has been brutally and senselessly destroyed,” said the GFP.
The Irish Georgian Society, which has been lobbying for its protection since the 1950s, said it once stood as possibly the finest surviving example in Ireland of a Georgian classical villa on the outskirts of a major city.
“Its significance was further enhanced by the presence in the house of exceptional neo-Classical paintings of mythological subjects by Cork artist, Nathaniel Grogan, which sadly are now gone,” said executive director Donough Cahill.
Cork County Council said it had pumped tens of thousands of euro into what is a privately-owned building to try and preserve it.
Acting county manager Declan Daly said in 2012, part of the roof was repaired at a cost of €106,000, funded by the local authority and the Department of Arts, Heritage, and Gaeltacht.
Storm damage to the roof in 2014 cost €63,100, of which €44,850 was paid by the department.
Mr Daly said earlier this month, following further reports of further damage by vandals, the council alerted the owner’s representative, Olaf Maxwell, who subsequently advised the council that repairs were carried out.
The council had also recently engaged consultants to conduct a further assessment of the house.
Cllr Mary Rose Desmond described it as “a very sad day for Cork” and for members of the GFP who had fought to upgrade the house.
“I don’t think the owners took enough measures to ensure proper security was there, otherwise this wouldn’t have happened. There should be stronger mechanisms nationally for the state to take over such houses,” she said.
“It’s a massive loss of an historic house which will be felt nationally,” said Cllr Eoghan Jeffers.
“I get extremely angry that it was a protected structure and wasn’t properly protected. We need to address the legislation,” said Cllr Marcia D’Alton.
The Mayor of County Cork, Cllr Seamus McGrath, said council officials would compile a follow-up report on what might be saved.
Mr Lehane said they will consult with the wider community on what can be done next, and confirmed they plan to continue with their biannual Vernon Mount public lecture series in Douglas on August 24, at which future options for the site will be explored.
The man who owns Vernon Mount ignored a suggestion made just three weeks agolast month that he donate the property to the State.
An Taisce wrote to Jonathan Moss on July 5, asking him to consider donating the property to Cork County Council. Ireland’s national trust suggested the move would, as well as being in the public interest, also resolve his own legal and financial involvement in the property in a way that would bring him “public credit”.
Mr Moss did not reply. Nor did he reply yesterday to questions from this newspaper.
Campaigners who have been trying to save Vernon Mount for years, and who have tried to engage with Mr Moss, and with his Cork-based agents, say this is typical of his attitude to the authorities here.
Mr Moss, who holds degrees in Engineering and Maths from Trinity College Dublin, is based in La Jolla, California. According to online biographies, his first major venture was a computer services company, founded in 1983 with just two staff, which he built into one of the largest independent computer services companies in Ireland before selling it as part of an orchestrated management buyout in 1997.
The biographies say he has, over the years, created and participated in many successful ventures, from hi-tech software to low-tech manufacturing operations and the development of residential property sub-divisions.
Since 2010, he played a very active role with the Tech Coast Angels San Diego chapter, and today, he specialises in investing in hi-tech startups.
In its letter to Mr Moss, An Taisce pointed out the legal responsibilities under Section 58 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, whereby the owner of a protected building has a legal obligation to protect it from endangerment.
It suggested that the only appropriate use for the site would be to secure the house for suitable cultural and community use and make the grounds into a public park and public amenity, and offered to work with him on the handover.
Those who have tried to engage with Mr Moss in the past say it’s unlikely to happen.
Vernon Mount house, which dates from 1784, was designed by architect, Abraham Hargrave, for wealthy Cork merchant, Attiwell Hayes.
It was named after Mount Vernon, on the Potomac River, in Virginia, the home of the first president of the United States of America, George Washington.
Noted for its curved facade and bows on either side, for its elegant, sweeping staircase and for its columned lobby at first-floor level, its interior features included painted wall-and-ceiling decorations of classical figures by Cork artist, Nathaniel Grogan.
The property was passed on to Attiwell Haye’s son, Sir Henry Brown Hayes, who became notorious after he was said to have kidnapped a local heiress, Mary Pike, in July 1797, and to have brought her to Vernon Mount for a fake marriage, before she escaped.
The house and grounds passed through several owners, and survived the turbulent War of Independence and Civil War years, when many estate homes were burned.
It remained a family home until it was purchased, in 1959, by the Cork and Munster Motorcycle and Car Club, which used it as its headquarters and staged motocross racing on its grounds.
The house was bought in 1997 by VM Development Company Ltd, led by Jonathan Moss, and its condition deteriorated rapidly over the ensuing years, due to a combination of wood-rot, roof-damage, and vandalism.
Mr Moss’s group was refused planning permission, by Cork County Council, in the mid-2000s, to redevelop the house and to build houses and apartments on the site, and the property fell into further decline.
In 2008, it was placed on the World Monuments Fund’s list of the 100 most endangered sites.
The voluntary Grange Frankfield Partnership was formed in 2010 to campaign for the conservation and restoration of Vernon Mount, which, it was hoped, would form the centrepiece of an ambitious parkland.
Roof repairs were carried out by Cork County Council in 2012, with funding from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.
These upgrades involved the replacement of 60% of the roof and the repair of the rest.
There are now fears that the gutted structure may be demolished, after Sunday night’s fire.