Friday 19 October 2018

Owners restore 'cold and miserable' Georgian mansion back to its former glory

Derelict Georgian mansion has been restored back to its former glory

The bifurcated staircase, crystal chandeliers, high ceilings and window shutters at Harmony Hall in Co Westmeath are everything you’d expect in an 18th century manor house
The bifurcated staircase, crystal chandeliers, high ceilings and window shutters at Harmony Hall in Co Westmeath are everything you’d expect in an 18th century manor house
Georgian grandeur: The chequerboard floor in the entrance hall
The bathroom
One of the bedrooms
Harmony Hall sprawls over 13,595 sq ft on its four floors
Harpsichord detail
Another reception room
The library

Eithne Tynan

About 20 years ago, a stranger walked up the drive of Harmony Hall, a once splendid Georgian mansion in the district of Glasson, Co Westmeath. Her intentions were innocent - to have a look around her ancestral home. A few generations back she might have risked being shot on sight.

The lady was a descendant of Dr Patrick Halion Fox, a former army doctor, a general practitioner and rather unlucky landowner who had lived at Harmony Hall several generations before.

In 1903, Fox was put on trial for maliciously wounding a villager, having blown his arm almost clean off with a revolver. The British Medical Journal had the court report and, although the information is scant, it suggests there was a fair bit of provocation in the case.

Fox, a Catholic, had run into trouble with local insurgents. His sheep were being poisoned and his cattle maimed. One night, surprised by what he took to be the culprit, Fox shot him in the arm, and the arm had to be amputated.

Georgian grandeur: The chequerboard floor in the entrance hall
Georgian grandeur: The chequerboard floor in the entrance hall

All was well that ended well, for Fox, in that he met with a sympathetic judge and jury at the Westmeath assizes, and got off with a four-month sentence.

And all was well that ended well for the latter-day Fox as well, who was warmly welcomed inside Harmony Hall by its owners. They gladly showed their visitor around, although at the time they were up to their necks in what would prove to be a positively daunting restoration.

Stuart Taylor and his wife Muriel bought Harmony Hall in 1990. At the time, having stood for 200 years, it was all but derelict, with holes in the roof and windows blown in. As Stuart describes, "it was a cold, miserable house".

They spent years restoring it, and did most of the work themselves even though, as doctors - Stuart a surgeon and Muriel a pathologist - they were probably better placed to patch up a human being than a decrepit old Georgian mansion.

Nevertheless they pressed on, and despite working on it only part-time, they eventually re-established its former glory. Stuart describes it, however, as "still a work in progress", adding that "no house of this age is ever finished".

According to The Houses and Landed Families of Westmeath by local historian Donal O'Brien, the place was built in 1788 for the Caulfield family - a branch of the same family that gave us the Casino at Marino and Charlemont House, now the Hugh Lane gallery.

Harmony Hall sprawls over 13,595 sq ft on its four floors
Harmony Hall sprawls over 13,595 sq ft on its four floors

It's two storeys over a basement, with a flight of cut-stone steps leading up to a classic Georgian Doric front doorcase with a fanlight and sidelights. Above the door on the first floor is a Wyatt window, and elsewhere the windows are six-over-six-pane sashes.

Once through the front door, you'll find yourself transfixed by its authentic Georgian grandeur. Here is everything you could expect in an 18th century manor house - impossibly high ceilings with decorative plasterwork, huge fireplaces, carved doorcases, window shutters, crystal chandeliers, and an almost intimidating bifurcated staircase.

The house sprawls over an eye-watering 13,595 sq ft on its four floors - the two main floors along with the basement and attic. If you were to lay all the floors out flat, they would cover almost a third of an acre.

In keeping with its provenance, the kitchen is in the basement, where by rights there should be a battalion of servants to grind your forcemeat and polish your fish knives. All you're expected to do is to know what forcemeat is, and how to conduct yourself gracefully with that fish knife.

You'll be proving yourself in this manner upstairs in the dual-aspect dining room, which is to the right of the dazzlingly tiled entrance hall. To the left is the drawing room, also dual-aspect. Each of these rooms measures just under 500 sq ft.

They are just two of the seven reception rooms on the ground floor. The others are a library, a music room, a ballroom, a billiard room, and a small (relatively - it's about 14ft by 10ft) sitting room.

Another reception room
Another reception room

Along with the kitchen, the basement also has a wine cellar (but of course), together with a laundry room and utility and a couple of workrooms and stores.

The first floor, then, has the six bedrooms - the two main ones being dual-aspect. There's only one bathroom on this floor, with a sash window and a freestanding claw-foot bath.

The attic accounts for 1,830 of the overall square footage, and there are seven rooms up there used for storage.

The estate once comprised some 300 acres, but when the Taylors bought it only five remained. Afterwards they acquired another three acres so as to regain ownership of the courtyard of outbuildings to the north-west.

Harmony Hall is about a kilometre from Glasson village and from Lough Ree - well loved by fishing and boating types. It's about an hour and a half from Dublin and 10 minutes from Athlone.

It's for sale for €975,000 with Sherry FitzGerald O'Meara.

Indo Property

Life Newsletter

Our digest of the week's juiciest lifestyle titbits.

Editors Choice

Also in Life