Renovating an old house takes a certain, insightful confidence. Go ‘period correct’ to the Imperial inch, and you can pickle the place in an uncomfortable aspic of pseudo-glamour.
Cobh, Cork €650,000
Size: 260 sq m (2,800 sq ft) plus 39 sq ft artist’s studio
Best Feature: Sympathetic renovation and potential of a luxurious studio outbuilding.
When Jan and painter Philip Gray bought Cobh’s No.1 Norwood Villas in 2004, it was structurally sound and already a very lovely place.
Jan was in the house regularly as a girl, and knew instinctively this was a fond acquaintance she would renew someday.
With her latent ability to take that architecture and interior design one remarkable step forward, the house still has its ancient manners.
But, frankly, it’s now gloriously chic, and is new to market with estate gent Johanna Murphy, guided at €650,000.
No.1 is a semi-detached, three bay two-storey residence built in the heady days of the British Admiralty’s presence in Queenstown.
Termed as one of an important ‘couplet’ (there are just four houses comprising the Villas) it reflects the assured grandeur of a society of buildings on Great Island.
Our National Survey of Architectural Heritage dates No.1 to c.1885. The exterior is typically High Victorian with touches of neo-gothic conspicuously styled up on a rise overlooking Monkstown on the near shore.
There’s a carefully considered rhythm here, palpable as you come up the ample drive flaring to the garden and the two principal entryways to the house.
The impressive façades with decorative bargeboards, hearty corner quoins and steeply pitched roofs are architecturally sounded out in a conservatory on the south west corner and in the signature two storey studio sited independently in a haze of Mediterranean style planting.
Many of the windows to the house have square heads with sharply pointed arch inserts, a handsome motif repeated intelligently in the later additions which are all fully compliant with the conservation office’s stiff requirements.
The studio, built on the footprint of an earlier outbuilding, adds not only aesthetic grace as part of the wider landscaping, but 390 of detached square footage, for anything from its current role as artist’s studio, to a Reiki clinic or even residential use.
Everywhere is that wrap-around view gifted by an outward curve of the estuary, a highly tinted maritime postcard.
There’s half an acre of fascinating gardens set out in close contours of lawn, levels of terrace, precipitous steps and diminutive sunny courtyards. Architectural salvage set underfoot in red brick, limestone and slate, marries vertically into walls and borders.
My eye was caught by a fabulous early 19th century yellow sandstone wall fountain, heaved home by the Grays from the UK. A reflecting pond is patrolled by aged goldfish, long as girl’s forearm, and connecting studio and house.
The family use the generous conservatory to enter No.1. Double height, it features a proper slate roof to mitigate temperature swings,a monochrome encaustic tile floor and a wall painted black in B&Q’s Vogue ‘black tie’ colour.
The décor of gently battered leather, pale painted furnishings, artwork and objects trouvé were inspired by travels in France and Italy, a theme that resonates gently throughout the house.
Cool contemporary colours bring this vintage gem demurely into our century.
The panelling installed on the original exterior wall is a seamless copy of the Victorian wainscoting in the hall and staircase, and tenderly taken around corners with the care of a cabinetmaker.
The kitchen/diner is a long 22x12’ space with 12’ high ceilings, original plank floors and a relaxed hushed afforded by two-foot thick walls on three sides.
The L-shaped kitchen is defined with a slender island with a second fridge. The Shaker units with thick black granite counters have been re-finished in a flat, bone white.
Lit by lancet windows to the west and south, the space is arranged to allow the cook to commune with the table with a turn of the head, the obvious seating area now set by a double window overlooking the southern reaches of the garden.
New white panelling, reaches to the ceiling, complimenting surviving shutters. A useful utility room is set off the conservatory taking hum- drum pressure off the kitchen.
Entering a rectangular downstairs hall, an ecclesiastically double-lancet window allows light from the south with the original front door to the right.
The ochre atmosphere with snowy wainscots combines with polished wood, and artful booty from all over the world. The sage green silk wall coverings were inspired by a stay at the 12th century St. Regis San Clemente Palace in Venice.
There are two large reception rooms leading off, both of square proportions with recesses to the sides of the fireplaces. Both feature original Italianate cornice decoration, plank floors, and ceiling roses.
The larger dining-room has a bay with French doors, flanked by windows and a fine white marble fireplace.
The sitting-room has a black marble fire surround, two light- catching grand windows and a quieter air. It carries equal elegance and surviving period features, and is treated by the family as their principal ‘everyday’ room.
Original connecting doors allow these spaces to be thrown together for greater gatherings, while a tiny WC nestles beneath the stairs.
On the carpeted half- landing is a main bathroom, and leading from an upstairs hall are five bedrooms, four of them doubles. You have to love bedrooms big enough for fainting couches and curio cabinets.
The master is on the south east corner with more, perfectly applied panelling, a double window trained out to sea, a vaulted ceiling with a characterful trompe l’oeil tenting, colonnades and decorative figures.
A joint work by Jan and Philip (renowned for his seascapes) it warms the room without pretension.
An en-suite with overhead rain shower is a touch of hotel-chic designed by the previous owners. Next is a charming south facing single, sized for a child or teenager and decorated to a Laura Ashley finish.
The third double was seized on by Jan and her daughter as a sumptuous dressing room, and hasfloor to ceiling cupboards, and a central draper’s table with faux marbled top.
It’s bold, it’s sophisticated, it’s shabby chateau and I loved it. Daughter Sarah’s bedroom is a comfortable double with a lifted ceiling and takes in a sylvan taste of the garden.
The fifth bedroom at 17x11’ is large enough for an alternative master, with a pleasing en-suite, and like all the bedrooms retains its original fireplace.
With Marvin windows where replacements were needed, a southerly aspect ingesting light day long, and modern gas condenser boiler, No.1 is a warm, hug of a house in its vintage splendour, and in move-in (or should I say sprint- in) condition.
VERDICT: Maintained, improved and structurally sound, No.1 is a perfect size for a still splendid period house near a unique heritage town.
Condition, location, and aesthetic flair all shake hands in one buy. The studio seals the deal, an ocean of light and perfect for a private or commercial venture in a one-of-a-kind setting.
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