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Architectural Conservation Award 2011

Winner: Russborough, Co. Wicklow
Owners: Alfred Beit Foundation
Architect: Howley Hayes Architects

Brief history of Russborough
 

Russborough is one of the most important country houses ever to have been built in Ireland. Designed in the Palladian style by Richard Castles for the first Earl of Milltown, the house was completed in 1744. Faced in ashlar Wicklow granite, it contains sumptuous interiors with carved marble fireplaces, extensive mahogany joinery and elaborate Rococco plasterwork, that is considered to be amongst the finest ever produced in Ireland. Having purchased the house and demesne in 1953, the late Sir Alfred Beit brought his splendid collection of paintings to Russborough where the majority have been exhibited for many years in the house. A number of the more valuable paintings were subsequently moved to the National Gallery of Ireland. In 1978 Sir Alfred and Lady Beit set up the Alfred Beit Foundation to manage the house and collection and open it to the public. 

The Beits instigated many changes and repairs at Russborough during their fifty years of ownership most of which followed the common practices of their time for conservation works to historic houses. These included the use of hard cement mortars, plasters and renders, polychrome decorative schemes and neo-Georgian detailing for any new interventions. Following the death of Sir Alfred and a significant drop in visitor numbers, conservation and maintenance works were limited over a period of many years resulting in a number of quite serious defects to the building fabric, articularly the roofs, plasterwork and windows. With generous help from the Heritage Council and the DOEHLG, it has been possible over the past nine years to commence the challenging task of addressing some of the more serious conservation challenges faced by the house and its splendid designed landscape. An extensive programme of repairs has since been carried out including ñ asbestos removal; structural repairs to roof structure and chimney stacks; repair and partial replacement of main roof; structural repair of ceilings; full replacement of east and west wing roofs (reusing salvaged original slates to outer slopes); electronic and physical security measures; extensive fire safety measures; landscape restoration (north lake, obelisk gates and south walk); and repairs to rainwater disposal system.

During more recent years the works have included a significant number of aesthetic improvements including ñ the full re-fenestration of main block and wings, conservation of many of the external Baroque urns. Internally, decorative plasterwork has been restored in the magnificent entrance hall, drawing room, main staircase and upper landing. Following expert paint analysis, these rooms were redecorated to their original monochrome, Palladian colour schemes. During the restoration of the entrance hall, the monumental Killkenny marble chimneypiece was restored and much of the joinery stripped of later paint coverings that had obscured the wonderful Cuban mahogany finish that is such as a strong feature of the interior of the house. The conservation works were organised through numerous small to medium sized contracts, working directly with specialist subcontractors and conservators under the close supervision and direction of the architect. Through this hands-on process, high quality conservation and exceptional value for money were procured. The house is now much drier, more secure and much warmer, and parts of it are looking much better than they have done for many years.

Architectural description
 

The central block of the house is seven bays in width by two storeys over basement in height. It is linked to impressive seven bay wings by curved colonnades. The east wing formerly housed the kitchens, while the part of the west wing was originally designed as stables. There is a shallow pedimented breakfront to the central block, with similar breakfronts containing giant order pilasters to each of the wings. The natural slated roofs are partly concealed by a raised parapet that features a bold Palladian cornice and a magnificent collection of seventy two Baroque urns.

Details of works

Our first task was to address serious health and safety risks posed by damaged asbestos cladding, inadequate fire safety provision and the structural instability of roof, ceilings and decorative urns. We also faced the challenge of extensive leaking roofs, rotten windows and grossly inadequate physical and electronic security. During the early years most of the work implemented was invisible ñ asbestos removal, fire and security measures, structural and roof repairs, all extremely important, but having no visual or aesthetic impact of the house. More recent years have seen works that have made an important contribution to the sensitive conservation and improved appearance of the house and its splendid interiors. These have included the full re-fenestration of the house replacing plate glass sashes from the 1870ís to which thick glazing bars had been added in the 1950s with poorly proportioned glazing divisions. A late eighteenth-century glazing scheme was the most appropriate model for the new windows, reflecting an earlier re-fenestration dating from around 1800 when the cills of the ground floor windows were lowered by 600mm. The original, half-glazed mahogany entrance doors from this period, were found in an out building, and were repaired and reinstated and a new fanlight added based on a drawing of Russborough from the 1820s. This has transformed the eternal appearance and the interiors by introducing increased light and more satisfactory Georgian proportions to the individual panes of glass. Because the design of this re-fenestration work was open to interpretation we consulted all of the Irish experts in this field, including Dr Nessa Roche, Dr Freddie OíDwyer and Mr David Griffin, all of whom agreed with the solution we proposed and finally implemented. 

Twenty of the seventy-two Baroque, Bath stone urns, on the parapets were repaired by a specialist conservator using selective replacement of damaged parts together with sensitive lime mortar repairs. For advice of this most delicate conservation, that had important structural and therefore, health and safety considerations, we consulted the eminent English conservator Rory Young. The work was subsequently carried out the English masonry conservator Christopher Weeks. The most significant internal changes have been to the entrance hall and main staircase, with extensive conservation works to decorative plaster in both rooms. Richard Ireland advised on the repair of the decorative plasterwork, much of which was unstable and disintegrating underneath impervious gloss paint coverings. These were removed and the detail consolidated prior to re-decoration. Many paint samples were taken and sent to London for microscopic analysis to establish the original and subsequent history of colour schemes. These showed that all of the ceilings and most of the walls, through the ground floor had been painted soft white, originally and repeatedly up until the middle of the nineteenth century. The magnificent mahogany staircase, having previously been condemned as unfit structurally for public access, was load tested to prove it was structurally sound and quite suitable for every day use. In the entrance hall the monumental Kilkenny limestone chimney-piece was also restored, with a major element (removed in the 1950s and also found in an out building) returned to its rightful place. The most exciting aspect of the work in these two rooms was the opportunity it presented to implement a full redecoration based on the original Palladian colour schemes established through scientific analysis of paint and plaster fragments. The new decorations replaced strong, contrasting polychrome schemes from the 1950 and 1970s.

Method Statement of the conservation works
 

Our work at Russborough was guided by our practice philosophy of conservation, which seeks to do ñ as little as possible but as much as is necessary. Sensitive repairs using appropriate traditional materials and traditional workmanship. Following the direction of John Ruskin and William Morris, we believe that ñ the beauty of a building is in its age. We would like to think that the work we did at Russborough would not jump out, distract or detract from the original historic fabric and that if conservation is done well ñ it will become invisible. On issues that we felt might be at all controversial or open to different interpretations, we made a deliberate point of discussing these with the Heritage Council, the Department of the Environment, the Office of Public Works, the National Trust for Northern Ireland and other acknowledged bodies and experts in each relevant field, to add the authority of these bodies to the decisions we ultimately recommended to the Beit Foundation.


Original Drawing Award Category 2011 (Highly Commended)

Liam Mulligan SCSI, rendering of the Red House, Youghal, Co. Cork 

 

Mark Costello RIAI, drawing of Dublins Parlour and the Point Depot

 


Architectural Conservation Award 2011 (Highly commended)

Camellia House, Shanes Castle, Co. Antrim
Owner: Shanes Castle Estate
Architect: Alastair Coey Architects Ltd

Brief history of the Camellia House
 

Shanes Castle was first depicted with a loughside conservatory in 1793, in an illustration published by the renowned printmaker and topographical draughtsman, Thomas Milton.

The present Camellia House was built between 1812 and 1816. It is generally believed to have been conceived by John Nash (1752-1835), the eminent English architect responsible for much of the layout of regency London, including Regent Street and Trafalgar Square. As well as the design of Buckingham Palace (1820-1830). The Camellia House bears a striking resemblance to the ëLong Conservatoryí Nash had already built for himself a number of years earlier at his home, East Cowes Castle, on the Isle of Wight. Evidence suggests that following the death of the first Viscount OíNeill at the Battle of Antrim in 1798, his heir, who had been raised to an Earldom on the Act of Union in 1800, sought out Nash, who was them working at Killymoon, Co. Tyrone (1801-03) to design a completely new house for him. The new house was far from complete however when most of the old house, along with its contents and the family records, was destroyed by an accidental fire in 1816. Although only two drawings survive, they illustrate that such work on the house as did proceed was inconsistent with the visions of Nash. Successive lowering of the lough have also deprived the finished work of the effect Nash had intended, especially it is was to include a dock for the paddle steamer yacht spectacularly shown on Felix Kellyís painstaking of 1988. Other relevant estate papers were destroyed along with a number of buildings on 25th May 1922 when a, politically motivated, malicious fire was started in the Victorian Castle.

Brief description of Structure
 

The Camellia House is a long rectangular building set over an extensive vaulted undercroft which projects southwards to form a gravel-paved forecourt. The forecourt is bounded on its south, east and west sides by a crenellated parapet with, at its south east corner, a two tier circular crenellated telescopic tower. The south elevation of the main glass house, facing Lough Neagh, has thirteen semi-circular arched openings, carried on triple clustered sandstone colonnettes each of which has a moulded base and small scalloped capital. The colonnettes stand on a deep sill which projects above a low plinth at ground level. The arches are surmounted by a continuous drip moulding. The spandrels are polished ashlar limestone with exceptionally fine joints. Each of the painted timber arched windows consist of twin casements, centrally pivoting, surmounted by a bottom-hung inward-opening radial fanlight, all housed in rebated frame.

Details of conservation/restoration works to date
 

The works involved restoration of the glazed roof and supporting timber structure including vent openings to the pitched slopes; restoration of the cast-iron columns including re-instatement of opening mechanisms to the vent openings; removal of cement plaster and re-instating lime plaster; stonework repairs; repointing; replacement to lead flatroofs; replace single membrane roof with lead flat roof; refurbish and restore rainwater goods; replace concrete to internal paving with stone; protective render over decayed brick walling; installation of lead DPC below parapet level; discovery of steps between Camellia House and undercroft; re-instatement of original window details to south elevation.

Method Statement of the conservation works
 

Throughout the project the minimum of original material was removed. A petrographic analysis was carried out to provide information to allow an accurate sourcing of replacement stone. Cast iron gutters were refurbished where possible, any replacements were detailed to match existing profiles. Pointing and renders were lime based with NHL strength characteristics to suit the background surrounding stone. Original details discovered during the restoration work such as the steps from the Camellia House to undercroft and vertically pivoting windows to the south elevation were reinstated. Scalloped glazing details to the windows on the south elevation were also reinstated. Previous concrete repairs to the internal path were carefully removed and replaced with stone paving to match the original details. Path repairs uncovered evidence that the stone paving formed the top surface of a hypercourse. As part of the contract large sections of the battered ramparts to the platform and stone burial vault were repointed with lime based mortar.