Wednesday 17 July 2019

Escape to the country: How designer transformed Lea House into her family’s dream

Mark Keenan talks to designer Angie Doyle whose experience with big historic State restorations equipped her to transform Lea House in Laois for her family’s country house dream

Lea House
Lea House
Former interior designer Angie Doyle says you restore a big country house one room at a time.
The restored study
The main hall and stairwell
The living room runs through to the formal dining room containing the original 19th century dining table
The family had to wait ten years before doing the kitchen, with its vast island unit
The checker board tiled inner hall showing the view from the front door
One of the main bedrooms
Upstairs bathroom
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

AFTER her wedding in the 1990s the then Dublin based upmarket interior designer Angie Doyle dreamed of moving to the country to bring up her children with room to roam, lots of fresh air, access to outdoor activities like horse riding, and most of all, she dreamed of living in and restoring a historic country home. After years of being part of the well known family owned Gleeson Interiors firm (founded by her Dad Declan in the 1970’s) and restoring and spicing up the big old historic homes of Ireland’s rich and famous, Angie fancied applying her skills for the benefit of her immediate family in search of a new country based lifestyle.

So in 1998, she and her hubbie began scouring for historic properties with land, located within an hour’s drive of the capital. That’s when they came across Lea House. It’s a late Georgian Rectory built in 1826 to house with some opulence, the minister for the then relatively newly built Church of Ireland church at Lea on Ballyvacum Hill. The house, which was located near Killenard, and just outside of Portarlington in Co Laois; was discovered on the then fledgling internet.

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The two storey over basement was, home to an elderly couple who were living largely on two of the three floors and it would need almost everything doing to it.

“We saw it, loved it and we bought it on a Friday. It was only launched to market that weekend. We were so nervous someone else would swoop in and steal it off us, but we were soon deemed to be the buyers.”

By that time Angie’s work with Gleesons Interiors has seen her involved with plenty of large scale redesigns and renovations. It meant she wasn’t put off by a project of this size which would otherwise have scared many other buyers off.

Aside from restoration and redesign  projects at the private homes of  big business personnel, her interiors work included redesigning rooms for well-known hotel chains and also plenty of big state contracts. She worked on older historic government buildings and even minister’s offices.

“Memorably I was involved in the refurbishment of Dublin Castle back in the day and I can remember just how much detail went into that. At one point we had to replicate the existing old 14 foot high silk curtains in the corridors and I can remember we must have had 20 pairs of them hand made from silk.

“So if I could do Dublin Castle, then I wasn’t scared at all taking on Lea House, which is 5,000 sq ft, without counting any of the outbuildings.”

While her husband was working, Angie took full charge of the restoration project. “The very first thing we needed to do was sort out the roof which cost far more than we thought it would. We had to remove all the slates and then we had to find antique salvaged versions to replace them with so the roof wouldn’t look out of its time. When we moved there I had two young children and one on the way. Now we have five ranging from 10 to 24!

“After the roof came the windows. Once the building was weather tight it was time to move inside. The next step was the basement floor. With a house like this you need to take your time and do it right. You do a room at a time, you keep the basics simple and you concentrate on getting it perfect. That often means trawling around to find the right materials or furniture which are not always readily available. So you need to be patient.

The basement had been neglected by the previous owners and even the staircase to the entrance floor was gone. So Angie considered it to be the right place to start indoors. “At this point we were actually sleeping on mattresses on the floor of this cold, damp, semi derelict basement. When you do a home like this from scratch I’d advise anyone to live in it first for at least six months. You find that the ideas you started with will change or alter once you’ve been living in the house. Rather than put in the wrong bathrooms, we waited 10 years until we could afford to have them done properly. And it took 12 years before we finally installed our dream kitchen on the first floor.

“Aside from scale, you’ll soon realise that you need big furniture for a big house. For anyone buying a house like I’d advise making offers on key pieces of correctly scaled furniture to the vendors.” She is most proud of the big dining table and chairs which have been with the house since the 19th century and may even have been bought when the house when it was first built in 1826. “I was told that the table was shipped by canal barge down from Dublin.”

Given the twelve year time frame for most of the work, did Angie at any point feel she bit off more than she could chew? “No. Absolutely never. Looking back I achieved my dream of living in a special historic home, helping to restore it and putting in time as its custodian. My children are older now and they’ve had a great childhood in this house, its grounds and the surrounds.  There’s something very special about the proportions of the rooms and the light those windows let in each day and the way it moves through the house.

“But the oldest are going to college and its time to move on. We’re getting older now and it’s just too big for us. With a house like this, you’re never really finished. In our case we’ve left the outbuildings and coach houses for the next owners to do. Now we’re going to look for another smaller more manageable home, somewhere that doesn’t need so much cleaning and is closer to where our girls are in college.”

The family has placed Lea House on the market for €700,000 through Savills with four and half acres attached. Buyers will likely include couples just like themselves two decades ago, who want to raise children in the countryside while still maintaining  a good train link to Dublin. Alternatively Lea might suit someone looking to move to Ireland from the UK in the wake of Brexit.

The house is approached though a bell-mouthed stone wall with piers and wrought iron gates, which open to an winding driveway leading to a parking apron at the front of the house.

Notable internal features include shutters, cornicing, open fires with decorative marble fireplaces and large windows throughout the property which offer spectacular views over the rolling countryside.

The house was designed to face north-east to take advantage of the morning sun with the majority of the living space southward facing to channel natural light all day. Enter through the porch which leads onto a further five reception rooms and a modern kitchen. The hall leads into a drawing room, a study, a sitting room, a dining room, a sun room and a kitchen.

The bedroom accommodation is laid out on the first floor and includes three bedrooms, plus a master bedroom suite. The self-contained basement accommodation comprises two bedrooms (one ensuite), kitchen and breakfast/sun room. The basement has two separate entrances and is suitable to accommodate an elderly relation, teenage children or an au pair. It now has access back again to the house above via a staircase. This is also useful for those who fancy earning a little rent, or running a guest oriented business. Just outside and set around the original courtyard are multiple period storage buildings and there’s  a large stone coach house. The traditional buildings offer potential to be restored and developed, subject to planning permission.

The immediate gardens are in lawns and there are two paddocks to the side of the house which can be accessed both from the driveway and from the main road. The grounds span 4.5 acres.

Nearby Killenard is a small village that centred around the five-star Heritage Hotel and Spa and famous Severiano Ballesteros Heritage Golf Club. The village has a church, primary school and a number of restaurants and bars within the Heritage Hotel & Spa complex.

Portarlington, just under three miles away and alongside handy Ballybrittas and Monasterevin has trains to Dublin City run every 15-20 minutes at peak.

LEA HOUSE

Ballyvacum Hill, Killinard, Co Laois

Asking price: €700,000

Agent: Savills (01) 6634357for

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