In pictures: You won't believe the inside of this beautifully restored Martello tower
When the Stephensons bought their period home, it came complete with a dilapidated tower. Their daughter Simone eventually took up the renovation challenge.
Published 27/11/2016 | 02:30
There was a time when inside toilets were such a luxury, only the wealthy could afford them. As for the hoi polloi, they often had to share a toilet with their neighbours and queue to use it.
So no surprise then that the common soldiers who were stationed at Bartra Martello Tower, built in 1804 as a defence garrison, only had the use of an outside job.
Bartra Tower, however, probably now has the most luxurious outside toilet in Ireland. The tower, in a spectacular location by the sea in Dalkey was recently renovated and turned into a stunning home, complete with stylish bathrooms, by architect Simone Stephenson. Nothing was neglected, not even the humble outside toilet, which is beautifully fitted out in state-of-the-art sanitary ware.
As her surname suggests, architecture is in Simone's genes; she is the niece of the 20th Century's most famous Irish architect, Sam Stephenson. She acknowledges the part Sam played in her pursuit of the profession but she says her own creativity and style came from her mother, Helen, who actually owns the tower and commissioned her to renovate it.
The family had lived in a large house nearby - Bartra House - and when they sold it, they retained some of the land which included the tower. "I was lucky I grew up surrounded by style, it's in my blood" Simone enthuses. "My mother really is extraordinary, she was designing a range of clothes for Arnotts when she was still in her teens."
It transpires that Helen was from Clare, and when she was 16, she answered an ad for a job in Dublin. She was sent drawings from Vogue magazine, asked to make up patterns based on the drawings and then present herself in Dublin for the interview.
"My grandmother Lena Brown, the postmistress in Kilkee at the time, saw her off on the train on the famous West Clare Railway, told her she wouldn't get the job but the interview would be great experience," Simone explains.
However, when Helen turned up at the interview, she found the company had made up the patterns, were thrilled with the resulting outfits and offered her a job on the spot. Shortly afterwards she was headhunted by Arnotts, recruited by Mr Nesbitt himself, then MD as well as being a member of the family who owned Arnotts, and asked to design a Junior Miss collection.
Of course, when Helen met and married Simone's father Noel, she had to give up her burgeoning design career as was the regulation in those days.
However, according to Simone her mother has continued throughout her life to bring her style and creativity to everything she does, including her homes and her children. "She was always making cushions and curtains, she has exquisite taste," says Simone.
"She made myself and my older sister beautiful clothes when we were young. My dad was mad on skiing, mum was more into the shopping in the ski resorts and she used to buy embroidered trims and make us Tyrolean capes, and my sister and I would traipse off to Mass showing them off," Simone recalls with a laugh, adding that she also had three brothers. Sadly, her beloved brother Karl was killed in a car accident in his late teens, in 1989, a tragic event which broke all their hearts.
Helen created beautiful homes for the family in different parts of South County Dublin. Noel, a successful businessman, was also very hands-on. "Actually there was nothing my father could not tackle," Simone says with a laugh. "If you were sick, he was the doctor. Shure, why would you get a painter when you could paint the place yourself? This was before Woodies and all the other DIY shops which have sprung up. He was the best customer at the Dalkey hardware shop. As for gardening he had the wheelbarrow out every weekend."
Simone was a teenager when the family moved to Bartra House. As far as she was concerned, at the time, there was no need to move; they already had a beautiful home in Woodbine Road. "The house in Woodbine had been all done up, the garden was beautiful.
"Then Mum spotted Bartra House was for sale. She picked me up from school to go and see it. The big house was dark and dreary but still an amazing property right on the water. Because she grew up in Kilkee, she always had a grá for the sea. So Mum went back and told Dad she'd love it. He, of course, said: 'Are you mad, we've just done this place up,'" Simone recalls.
She did persuade him to go and see it and, according to Simone, the one thing that blew him away was the tower which came as part of the property.
At that stage they didn't do anything about buying Bartra. However it was the early 1980s, there was a recession, there was no-one snapping up the house, tower or not. Finally Lisneys contacted Noel and offered to sell it to him at a reduced price. This time it was Helen's turn to object. "However my father did the crazy thing and bought the house. She said: 'I don't want to move to Dalkey'. He said: 'I don't care, I'm moving.'"
Of course Uncle Sam Stephenson was called in to advise on the renovation. However, Helen had her own ideas and went on to create a beautiful home herself.
It was around that time that Simone decided to become an architect. "I was very good at art at school. I had the same art teacher as Orla Kiely, Mother Peter, and art was my thing. I love art, the painting, the colour. Anyway I was thinking of becoming an interior designer and Dad traipsed me off to see Sam who said it was a good choice but that it would be better to study architecture then specialise in interior design," the bubbly brunette says.
Simone decided to do history of art and philosophy at Trinity first and then she went to a school of architecture in London called the Architectural Association. "It was wonderful. They weren't telling you what size a brick was, they were trying to get you to come up with new ways of building. We were looking at buildings old and new and learning from them," says Simone.
After graduating, Simone met a Chinese engineer and they married and moved to Canada where they had a son, Celt, now aged 17. "My ex-husband came up with the name. I thought I'd left Ireland behind so it seemed like a good name," she says with a laugh
Sadly, the marriage ended - the couple are still good friends - and Simone came back to Ireland with Celt in 2001. She feels lucky that she had a great career to get immersed in. After graduation she had worked with some of the top architects in Ireland including Crean Salley, Murray O'Laoire as well as with her uncle Sam and now she works with Kavanagh Tuite. "I'm passionate about architecture. I don't have a formula. It's whatever the client's brief is. It's their home, their café, their office. I love working with people, I listen to what they want and interpret it," Simone says.
When Simone's mother sold the big house in 1996 - her husband Noel had died in 1990 - she kept part of the land and Simone designed a new house on the land for her mother and she and Celt live there with her. The land they kept included the tower; it was always Simone's mother's intention to do something with the tower.
When Simone set about designing the renovation, Helen had, of course, a lot of input. Simone, who obviously adores her mother, wanted to make it into a fabulous space for her. "The tower is one of 28 defence towers built between 1804 and 1805. It's really strong and well built. They knew how to build things well. The stone on the outside is local granite, the cut is known as Ashlar cut. Ashlar means it's straight," Simone explains.
The project was started in 2006 and finished in 2011. It was a big job - all the exterior stone had to be repointed but the main reason for the length of the renovation was the damp. "It took so long because the walls are so thick and were so wet. We had to use natural ventilation and heating on the inside to dry it out and that all took time," Simone explains.
Simone says they had a lot of ideas but as the tower got drier, it started to reveal itself and they began to see how beautiful the stone was, with its lovely lines and arches, and its barrel vaulting. Initially they thought they would be re-plastering the interior - it had been plastered but the plaster was all bitty and would have needed major work - but they realised the stone was so elegant that it would be better to repoint it and leave it as it was.
"The tower is so beautiful, it's all about scale and proportion," Simone says. So when it came to interior design, Helen and Simone decided to keep things simple; to allow the beauty of the stone shine through.
They did however, need to get all the services in - water, heating electricity. "We had to come up with a way that the services would be hidden. We got a diamond cutter and cut a big hole to include them, we wanted nothing to interfere with the fabric of the building. It's a preserved building, so no extra doors or windows could be put in. And everything we've done is reversible, for example, the entrance stairs is attached with bolts," she points out
The ground floor, where the soldiers used to sleep, is open plan and includes a large living and dining area as well as the kitchen. Below that where the officer had his quarters and where the artillery used to be stored is now a bedroom, a little office and a bathroom, while on the top - the look-out area - is a wonderful deck, complete with bar.
All areas are accessed via spiral stone steps. The views of the sea from the top are spectacular, making the house an ideal participant in TG4's Tithe Cois Farraige, a series currently paying homage to some of Ireland most wonderful seaside residences.
Once the tower was dried out, the stone re-pointed and the services incorporated, all that was left for Simone was to furnish the different spaces.
For her colour scheme she took inspiration from the stone itself - there's a definite green hue, she notes.
She also covered the many pieces of furniture - which she purloined from Helen's extensive collection bought over the years at auctions - with luxurious fabrics, adding a softening effect to the solidity of the stone.
And needless to mention Helen came up with many great ideas. "When I told her I was putting in an oak kitchen to match the floor, she said she thought it would be boring and suggested stainless steel units, which of course were perfect," Simone says.
Helen, who's in her eighties, opted to stay in her own home nearby but loves to visit the tower. They have family gatherings and book club evenings and lovely summer parties where drinks can be enjoyed both on the roof and in the many sunny nooks surrounding the tower. And, of course, if anyone needs to use the facilities, they can be found downstairs and in the grounds.
Tithe Cois Farraige, an eight-part series about beautiful homes by the sea continues on TG4 at 9.30pm every Wednesday
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan.
Photography by Tony Gavin
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