Inside this whimsical Wexford 'Doll's House' which is now accepting visitors from Air BnB
The restoration of a landmark historic building is one thing - fitting it out to suit is quite another. Caroline Allen discovers how a Victorian gem was transformed into a cabinet of curiosity. Photos by Tony Gavin
The Victorian era's penchant for 'cabinets of curiosity' in the home was the inspiration behind the eclectic decor in this eye-catching listed building. It is a fitting theme - the property, which is in the grounds of Rathaspeck Manor, home to the Cuddihy family since 1951, has always piqued the curiosity of passersby.
"The Doll's House intrigues children," remarks interior architect Ann-Marie Carty, of Arcadia Architects, Ardcavan, Co Wexford, and Bray, Co Wicklow, who has just finished the interior redesign. "There are tales of mothers telling their children they will turn into dolls if they don't stop peeking in through the windows."
Rathaspeck Manor appears in records from 1351, though the current structure dates from 1680, and the Doll's House acts as its gate lodge. An earlier gate lodge was closer to the road.
The Doll's House was built around 1900. "It's speculated that it may have been a folly created by the then owner of Rathaspeck Manor, Edmund Moody, who is said to have visited the Paris Exhibition of 1900," says Carty.
Architect Paul Arnold, who compiled the conservation report, notes that Dan Walsh, author of 100 Houses of County Wexford, surmised that it may have been an ethnic Eastern European pavilion, transported from the Paris International Exhibition, since the year 1900 is emblazoned on to it.
JAK (Dixie) Dean, the noted architectural historian and author of Gate Lodges of Leinster, had an alternative theory, Arnold notes. He considered the possibility that it may have been constructed locally as Edmund Moody was the owner of a sawmill at the time. He believes the plans could have come from a mail order catalogue.
Whatever its origin, the Doll's House remains a well-loved iconic building that was listed as a protected structure in 2001, says Carty. It had a number of tenants over the years, and was vacated around five years ago when the last inhabitant, Mick Cuddihy's aunt Lil, passed away.
The renovation happened in a number of phases. First, in 2004, came the roof restoration, which was completed with funding from The Heritage Council and overseen by architect John Begley. Further Heritage Council funding was allocated for the restoration of the windows, which had spun coloured glass detail, and this work was managed by architect Martin Fitzgerald.
In yet another phase, Mick Cuddihy's parents financed the restoration of exterior woodwork, rewiring and replumbing, as well as the installation of a new oil-fired central heating system.
Carty came on board in March of this year, initially to oversee the kitchen installation and bathroom renovation, and to style the interior and curate the curios that had been collected.
"I was hired to design a kitchen that would fit with the rest of the house," she says. "The project grew organically from there and before I knew it, Betty (Mick's wife), Mick and I where trawling through attics in the manor for hidden treasures that we could use to accentuate the quirky exterior of the building. Internally, we wanted to emulate the excitement you have at seeing the outside of the building for the first time."
The original features provided an interesting backdrop. "The exterior is as the house would have appeared around 1936, when a barrel-vaulted tin extension was put in place to house a kitchen," Carty says. "The original turret is in place, with an original tiny winding stairs."
As well as the windows, other original features included the floorboards, which still have to be restored, timber wall details and mouldings. "Two of the three original fireplaces remain intact, one in the study known as 'Mr Threadgolds', and the other in the master bedroom," says Carty. "Freddie Threadgold was a local man whose family were involved in the railway business. He sadly died very young. A painting of him was donated to the family and adds a touch of authenticity to the space."
One of the challenges was the lack of budget. "It was restricted, due to the costs associated with the restoration of the exterior and making the building weather-tight," Carty says.
However, the simplicity that is associated with a gate lodge interior proved inspiring. "Many are very plain - to keep along this vein, every room was painted in Dulux Brilliant White, and accentuated in a vibrant blue, Night Series from the Dulux Signature collection.
"The white - which was great at creating the feeling of light and space - felt a little sterile. The introduction of the blue was to set the tone for the interior, looking back to the Victorian era in which it was constructed. I wanted to juxtapose the dark, heavy feeling against the light, airy effect of more contemporary times," Carty says.
"The interior decoration is a real mix of style, drawing from no particular era. It's based on the idea of collecting. I was fascinated by the notion of the Victorian trend of a cabinet of curiosity.
"This was a glass cabinet that many had in their homes which were used to display prized possessions collected on trips abroad. The Doll's House was too small to have one, so Betty, Mick and I, with the help of Betty's two sisters Shelly and Ann, went about turning the entire house into a curiosity.
"Betty found a fabulous sofa but it needed recovering. We brought Trish Cullen of Bazonk Interiors in to supply fabric for the window treatments and the sofa. We went with durable reliable fabrics such as Designers Guild and Marimekko. These are teamed with wooden Venetian blinds and weighted voiles. Local upholsterer Terry Roche completed the upholstery," says Carty.
"Most of the furniture was found in the attics of the manor and some of the smaller items came from a furniture sale Betty and I unintentionally attended one evening. We filled in the gaps with small pieces from local furniture store Michael Murphy's and Ikea."
The idea was to intersperse interesting items throughout the two-bed property, to weave in the story of Victorian collecting. The owners also wanted to reflect the history of the area, so the work of local artists sits alongside finds such as vintage golf clubs, taxidermy and books. "We painstakingly put all these found items together over many evenings, considering the location of every object, and the story it told."
The owners' personalities sing out with items like the Betty Blue poster and records, treasured by Mick Cuddihy who collects 20th century movie and music memorabilia. The costume beads in the bathroom are Betty Cuddihy's and serve as a fond reminder of her mum, Stella O'Kennedy, the highly regarded voluntary head seamstress for the Wexford Opera Festival for many years. The hall is a tribute to the past inhabitants of the house. "We took particular care to include them as they had the honour of being caretakers of this extraordinary property," Carty reflects.
"We placed a child of Prague in the annex off the living room to stave off rain.
"It's one of those quirky little things many Irish people grew up with but has recently started to be forgotten," she says. "As the house is being rented out through Airbnb, we thought it was a nice idea to show some small Irish traditions to visitors.
"We made a collection from odd plates found in Lowney's of Castle Bridge. We had a great time gathering items such as picture frames, vases and knick-knacks from Bart's Cancer Charity Shop in Rosslare Harbour. It's a real treasure trove and it was nice to know that the money we were spending was going to help other people."
The Cuddihys say the transformation of the Doll's House has completely surpassed their expectations. They took over the manor in 2005, from Mick's parents, Michael and Ella, and have run a farmhouse bed and breakfast at Rathaspeck since 1969.
"My parents who inherited the property from my grandparents, live next to the gate lodge and my two sisters built houses on the road frontage. It's like Dallas around here," he laughs.
Having decided to add to their tourism offering, the couple are thrilled with the refurbished gate lodge.
"It's like a museum - you just want to look and linger. There's a music box we bought one of the children when they were just a year old, and buffalo horns that were in our attic for years. It's full of memories and memorabilia."