Woodhill House is like the throne of merchant princes

WOODHILL HOUSE, and its wooded grounds a couple of miles from Cork city at Tivoli, is steeped in Irish and local Munster mercantile, artistic and political history, over several centuries.

Woodhill House is like the throne of merchant princes

Lovers Walk, Cork City

€2.4 million

Sq m 550 (5,900 sq ft)

Bedrooms: 6

Bathrooms: 5

Best Feature: Historic site

There have been a series of houses on this rare, classical Cork villa site setting, from an early Elizabethan home to a neoclassical 18th century mansion. Today, it’s occupied by a large, classically-inspired private family home, new to market this week with Sheila O’Flynn and Ann O’Mahony of Sherry FitzGerald, who guide at €2.4 million and who say it’s one of the city’s very best residences.

The current 5,900 sq ft six bed house replaces the demolished Woodhill House, which had been home to generations of the Penrose family and built by ‘merchant prince’ par excellence Cooper Penrose in the 1770s. That villa mansion Woodhill House became a noted cultural and artistic hub, with its own art and sculpture galleries, library and as a gathering spot and sanctuary for writers, artists, and republican radicals.

Woodhill House is where Robert Emmet’s lover Sarah Curran retreated to after love letters to her from Emmet were discovered, and after being ejected from her Rathfarnham Dublin home by her father James Philpott Curran: she took refuge in Woodhill from 1803 to 1805, after Emmet’s execution, and always retained an affection for the sanctuary it provided.

The house provided refuge to Lord Edward FitzGerald (for which Woodhill was later sacked by troops) and it was also the scene of a notorious abduction in 1797, when Penrose’s niece, heiress Mary Pike was abducted by Sir Henry Hayes of Mount Vernon, planning to marry her against her will.

The Woodhill House which witnessed and played a supporting role to all these stirring events at a time of political ferment was rated on a par with some of Cork’s finest family residences, amongst such peers as Coolmore, Dunkathel, and Mount Vernon. When built by Cooper Penrose, over a five year period in the 1770s, it replaced an earlier Elizabethan house on the same south-facing site, owned by his in-laws the Dennis family, also business associates of the Penroses, and work on its flanking wings intended as galleries continued into the early 1800s.

In its earliest days, its lands went down to the river Lee’s edge, where there were landing stages and storage yards for commerce. Noted Quakers and industrious (though some brethren frowned on Cooper’s lavish lifestyle) the Penrose family were involved in timber imports, exports, and fine glass manufacture in Waterford and in Cork, with craftworkers shuttling back and forth between the two cities.

Further generations of the Penrose family continued to be associated with Woodhill House, until the 1930s when the last of its occupants moved to England. A family story prophetically ran that Woodhill House would continue to stand as long a family member lived there. It was bought by an art dealer called Cecil Partridge, who stripped its interiors; it became derelict and was described as a ruin in later decades. It was dismantled in the 1980s.

A new Woodhill House — seen here now — was subsequently built on the grounds and approximate footprint in 1989 by Hegartys, to a classical design by Cork architect Gerald McCarthy of Green McCarthy Stansfeld, who picked up on several features of the demolished original.

Essentially a smaller house, though sizeable in modern terms at c 5,900 sq ft, it’s in a Georgian style, with symmetrical and balancing single storey wings, with round-headed windows, left and right of a central seven-bay block, on three acres of wholly private and secure grounds, towards the eastern end of Lovers Walk.

The house’s original octagonal gate lodge still exists by the former, formal carriage entrance on Trafalgar Hill, now in different ownership. Today’s Woodhill House and its grounds are entered through classical limestone pedimented pillars, dating to the 1820s, with an avenue sloping and curving down below high sandstone boundary walls and shrubbed beds to a flat plateau and parking area on which the current two-story home and Liscannor stone flagged terrace stands.

Despite it’s relative modernity, this Woodhill House has the heft and feel and quality of an older dwelling: the walls are thicker than seen in any new builds, so the painted Burmese teak sash windows — rising and falling on chains instead of cords, as in the old way with larger windows — manage to fit in shutter-like slender timber architrave cases inside their frames. Craftsmanship on a par with earlier centuries is evident, such as in the polished mahogany staircase, done by Ted Cahalane of PJ Hegartys, with polished brass stair-rods, leading up from the double-height entry hall to a gallery landing.

The hall also has a superb set of arched double doors and curved architraves in French-polished mahogany, leading to a formal dining room, in the very centre of the wide house where symmetry is paramount.

It’s a very warm house, say the owners and selling agent Sheila O’Flynn, given its very many south-facing principal rooms, and

top workmanship in the faithful making of the windows and doors, maintained to a high standard. Adding to the house’s relative impregnability is a discrete series of electrical roller shutters, concealed in recesses between the window frames and wall, giving security and more weather protection as needed.

Painted a deep, classical red and with appropriate drapes and pelmets for comfortable entertaining, the carpeted dining room has two tall sash windows, flanking a central set of French doors to the south-facing terrace. Like most, if not all of the ground floor rooms, heating is via a source inset into the floor, with heat rising from brass grills running across the rooms, just in front of the windows.

It’s discrete, period-appropriate, and effective. Rooms continue east, and west, of this central core. Just to the city side, is a grand formal drawing room, with superb tall chimneypiece in white and mixed marbles (sourced from a French chateau) with polished brass trim, while ceiling plasterwork includes fine cornice work, and more simple central plaster tracery around a central light. The yellow walls have a dado, lighting sconces and deep pelmets over the windows and French doors, and there’s access to an orangerie-like sun-room with round headed sash windows, picking up on the window outlines of the original Woodhill House’s gallery wings.

French doors lead from both the drawing room and sun room to the west terrace, where a viewing balcony was created for River Lee views, down towards Páirc Ui Chaoimh and the verdant Marina.

Right now, as the property’s southern boundary trees are in full and encroaching leaf, the views are disappearing for the summer: a new owner will surely want to open them up, either by a bit of tree surgery and branch trimming, or by taking out selected trees. Landscape garden designer Brian Cross, who laid out terraced and tiered gardens here initially over a quarter of a century ago, says there’s scope to add additional formal gardens directly below the existing lawns and wooded area, before the balance of the grounds steps and drops to the cliff-face above the 19th century interloper, the Cork-Cobh/Midleton rail line which skirts the river Lee and Tivoli, passing by the elegant Woodhill Villas and other elegant late Georgian terraces for which Montenotte and Tivoli are noted.

Back up at Woodhill House proper, the sequence of south-facing principal rooms continues past the dining room to a kitchen/family dining room, with family room beyond again in a balancing wing to the sun room, and this main kitchen space has a double aspect, south, and east. The kitchen’s units are in a plain oak, with a large stone-topped island with sinks, housing a dishwasher and storage, and with a part brass feature rail.

Appliances and bespoke units are by Miele, and include several built-in ovens, microwave, and hob with BBQ grill, plus an integrated deep-fat frying, with a brass canopied extractor hood overhead. This all-encompassing family kitchen has a casual dining area, sun-soaked at breakfasts, and with yet another fireplace and seating area for casual evenings in.

All the house’s best rooms are to the front, for sun and aspect and garden and terrace views, while side halls lead across the northern facade to ‘lesser’ rooms, with two ground floor WCs, one more for family/staff use, near the laundry room and pantry by a side entrance. The other suite is closer to another family room/evening rooms/library/den with fireplace and, appropriately with a painting of the original Woodhill House on display.

Flooring throughout this back section, and through the main lofty hall (with four feature columns topped with plaster acanthus leaves), is in small parquet strips and squares, in light oak, while the kitchen is floored with Junkers narrow strip maple boards. All floors are immensely solid, with concrete slab used for the first floor construction in this two-storey build (the original Woodville House was two-storey over basement).

Decor and furnishings at all levels here is done in a manner sympathetic to a Georgian home, overseen by designer Daphne Daunt, with lights from Vaughans of London and top wallpapers a feature in the hall and upstairs. There are six first floor bedrooms, most doubles, two are en suite, yet none is overly large, as the first floor’s footprint is less than that below.

The master bedroom has three south-facing sash double glazed windows, with a full dressing room to one end, and a large en suite bathroom on the other, where a feature is the sheer size of the hot-tub sized jetted Jacuzzi bath, set into a weighty, opulent marble plinth and surround. It must weigh tonnes.

In absolute walk-in order, and with plans for a detached lofted garage/additional accommodation on the eastern side where a foundation already exists (with two original limestone columns from the old dwelling, waiting on new uses) Woodhill House comes to market on its three acres guided by Sherry FitzGerald’s Sheila O’Flynn at €2.4 million; that’s a price level just reached across in Douglas, where the 1920s Curraghbeg House on 1.5 acres at Woodview/Well Road has sold, having been bid well beyond its €1.85m guide.

Estate agents dealing with the upper end of Cork’s house market say there’s been a sudden surge of interest in purchases of multi-million euro homes after years of relative stagnation; in the city and suburbs local bidders are back strongly in the frame, giving Sterling-enriched UK bidders a good run for their money.

VERDICT: A faithful take on a Georgian home, this Woodhill House incarnation should stand for quite a few generations more to come, in a lofty Leeside setting favoured by Corkonians over centuries past.

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