Tommy Barker reports on an upmarket apartment development in a former Cork city suburban convent.
Blackrock Village, Cork City €220,000-€445,000
Size: 770 sq ft–1,435 sq ft
Best Feature: Top drawer in top setting
IT’S EASY to reach for religious metaphors at Blackrock House, as apartments in his former historic convent building come to market.
As dramatic conversions go, it’s not far short of a crowning glory for the heart of venerable Blackrock village.
Heralding a move from the old convent about 15 years ago, the Ursuline Order in Cork built a new school alongside, showing continuity going back over centuries.
The Ursulines had set up a girls secondary school in Cork right back in 1771, after the Penal Laws, and is believed to be the oldest’ girls secondary school in Ireland.
The sisters had been resident in this large, once-rambling building since 1820, after it was built in the late 1700s and early 1800s for merchant Christopher Tuckey, back when it was known as Pleasant Fields, set amid Blackrock’s meadows.
They added the side wings, and the adjoining chapel with its Harry Clarke stained glass windows, and that chapel is still under conservation.
Now, after a restoration drama, and rechristened as Blackrock House, the impressive convent has been made over to 27 apartments that truly earn the ‘luxury’ title, with full deference to architectural detailing and grand proportions and vistas, as viewers from this afternoon and next Wednesday evening’s open viewing can attest.
Vacating the old convent, the remaining members of the Ursuline Order ‘traded down’ to a modern home in the grounds of the Georgian 19th convent in the early 2000s.
Remarkably it had stood throughout the 20th century on 32 acres in the core of one of the city’s oldest, chi-chi suburbs, around Blackrock harbour and among some of Cork’s most valuable period homes.
The convent building and lands sold once or twice more in the roller-coaster vagaries of the disturbed market, whilst hundreds of high-quality high-density new homes and apartments were delivered in the separate section scheme called Eden, ‘tho kept at a respectful distance from the imposing three-storey over lower ground level convent building, and its formal grounds and oratory.
Right back in the early 2000s when development and new school plans were first mooted by the religious order associated for centuries with founder Nano Nagle, City Hall planners rightly insisted that the convent be allowed ‘breathing space’ and that public access be given to the large green to the north of the convent, along its old tree-lined approach avenue, and that the south-garden and small sandstone oratory building among its hedge walks be respected.
Well, it may have taken rather longer than anticipated, but now all the various elements of that quite visionary plan are falling into place in Blackrock’s core.
Not only has the convent building conversion reached its full promise, but its long-anticipated launch this weekend with agents Trish Stokes and Cian O’Donoghue of Lisney coincides with major public realm and plaza works being done, after equally long years of expectation, by Cork City Council between Convent Avenue, and the pier.
It’s a happy communion of upgrades, and a just appreciation, of a city area that visually had rather gone down at heel in the 1990s.
Next to come in future funded phases will be pier and harbour upgrades, making use of the River Lee frontage and water aspect, Marina promenade improvements, a new public park at the Atlantic Pond and a new GAA stadium, currently under construction.
Already hugely popular with walkers, runners, weekend market aficionados and cafe society, Blackrock’s place in the sun seems about to dawn.
The man who got to put the finishing touches to the immaculately conceived plans for the conservation and conversion of the 35,000 sq ft convent structure is Dublin developer Michael Roden, of Merrion Property Services, who acquired it in a largely completed state only about two years ago.
He pays tribute to the original architects O’Mahony Pike who drew up the master plan for the convent and grounds in the early 2000s, designing the Eden development which was to have 550 units in all, as well delivering a wholly different and deferential product for the old convent itself.
Looking back on old newspaper files and plans for what’s now-titled Blackrock House is salutary, as to just how rigorous the initial vision for it has been, and how diligently it has been delivered, from first building and land sale to final completion of the convent element, over a rocky decade-plus.
With a new Ursuline school then coming on stream on the city side of the convent lands, the nuns sold the building, and 22 acres, in 2001/2002 for a reported c €12m to developer Kieran Coughlan of Lyonshall, who brought O’Mahony Pike on board as architects.
They secured the overall planning for what was to be Cork’s largest old suburban developments, totalling 550 units, and which is still being followed through on.
(Some 30 Eden houses and apartments were put to market earlier this year via Lisney, with further new stock yet to be built.)
With planning in place, Lyonshall subsequently sold on, selling the development land element for Eden to Pierce Construction, for a highly profitable c €30 million.
Separately, another company, Firestone, headed by Cobh man John McCarthy took on the formidable project of the convent conversion, using Clancy Construction and a raft of specialist conservation firms and sub-contractors on this listed building, with ornamentation across its 15-bay facade, grand limestone steps to a double aspect grand entrance hall with entrancing southerly garden views, and no less than 200 original windows, which had to be removed for conservation.
Windows still are among the many exemplary glories of this building, including oval and spoked ones, fan lights, and camber headed sashes, Palladian windows, tripartite door frames, Tuscan and Corinthian columns, and more.
It’s quite the palette, and credit is given by the Buildings of Ireland register to Presentation brother and initial architect, Rev Michael Augustine Riordan for its balance and extension, and billing it as “an important complex in social, historical and architectural terms.”
More than two centuries after first built, Firestone stayed true to the building in its own grand project, albeit at a slow pace during the downturn; those who witnessed each stage of the work along the way spoke in recent years, and in some awe, of what was to be delivered.
“There’s nothing like it in Cork,” was the oft-repeated description, of the work in progress.
Ultimately, the Ulster Bank-funded schemes was acquired from Firestone a couple of years ago by Michael Roden’s well-funded Merrion Property Group, and he and his wife interior designer Helen Roden of Merrion Square Interiors jumped right in to bring it to completion.
They’re not your typical property developers going for scale and density, Roden says, and one of his best known projects was the late 1990s The Warehouse, a series of New York style loft apartments in a former textile factory in Dublin’s Clanbrassil Street.
At one stage last year, during a busy spell for the Merrion Property Group and as the market gathered its skirts and as rents started to climb, Merrion thought to put the Ursuline building up for resale, guiding €3.75m via Lisney.
The offers came in well above that sum, but in the heel of the hunt there was a change of mind, and they decided to stick with it, and see it through themselves as “we absolutely wanted to see it done, to bring it to this exciting conclusion,” according to Michael Roden.
Options could have been to keep it all and rent it out (rents in Cork are up 18% this year, and Mahon set just around the harbour peninsula’s now a huge employment hub,) or sell some and rent some.
All 27 are to go for sale, with two exemplary showhouses completed, and prices pinned today on launch to just six so far by residential manager at Lisney, Trish Stokes; she has a handful already
reserved to those who’ve been watching, and waiting, in the wings.
The 27 are a mix of eight one-beds, 16- variously sized two-bed, and three three-bed penthouses.
There are one-beds at €270,000 (ground floor, 770 sq ft) and at €285,000 at first floor: there’s a range of two-beds, of 1,159 sq ft to 1,423 sq ft, and at prices of €365,000, €405,000, €440,000 and €445,000, and all that’s needed for occupation is floor finishes and furnishings, with PC sums for a choice of kitchen styles, contemporary or classic.
The 27 include penthouses (the word ‘penthouse’ sounds vulgar in terms of a convent conversion?) and among the three only three-beds is the ultimate show-stopper, apartment No 16, on the second floor.
No 16, done to a state of grace by designer Helen Roden, is 2,546 sq ft, and isn’t yet priced as it’s anticipated the two show units will be the last to get offered after other sales are reached.
But, given its double aspect, space and scale, finishes and furnishing, graceful wrought iron internal fanlight between living room and kitchen/dining room (with kitchen by Linehan Designs) it’s entirely probable that offers might well be made on No 16 by the better heeled traders down in the Blackrock area or from other ‘genteel’ city suburbs, where vendors can bank millions from selling larger old homes.
The expected buyer profile, says Ms Stokes, is very much likely to be traders-down, corporates and returnees to Cork from far-flung climes and lucrative employments.
Agent Cian O’Donoghue adds that the “significant early interest among local and international buyers in the stunning development reflects the local prestige of the site, and also Cork’s position as an emerging tech hub with global reach and appeal.”
At a price guess, might a unit like No 16 be in the €750,000-bracket?
That works out at in the €300 per sq ft price bracket, and there have been a number of sales at the upmarket, and contemporary Elden apartment schemes in Maryborough Douglas, with 2,000-plus sq ft penthouses selling for €730,000/€740,000.
Inside Blackrock House, ceilings are high, rooms are consequently bright, and brass features in door and window furniture, hinges, and discrete door numbers for all 27 units (red ribbons might be spotted on the ‘reserved’ first few today.)
Ceilings are corniced, and all units are painted flat white (show units are also richly papered and draped), with Villeroy and Boch bathrooms, with Hans Grohe fittings and there’s a centrally managed district heating system, separately metered.
There’s wiring for internet, TV and audio, with lift access at several points, each serving very small numbers of apartments per floor. Common areas are most uncommon, being lofty, light and oak-parquet-floored in the main, and some of the exceptional ceiling, rose, arch and coffered plasterwork detailing appears to have veiled nuns heads, as corbels (see pic, top right.)
“There’s nothing else in Cork to rival Blackrock House, in terms of its exceptionally appointed architecture set within a natural harbour setting,” says the enthused Trish Stokes, reckoning it to be “certainly one of the most exciting scheme to come on the market in Cork in the last decade.”
It goes on show at 2-5 pm this afternoon, and Wednesday 5-7pm, for those the man wish to pray, prey or pry.