Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.
It’s no secret that the mansions of the American Gilded Age and those found throughout the countrysides of Ireland and the UK were far from long-lasting. Often, these estates, if not flat-out demolished, have become museums.
But there are a few houses that live on much as they were originally intended: as centers for entertaining, gathering, and relaxing. And if they’re lucky, they get turned into a luxury hotel.
“I had known about Ballyfin since the 1980s,” says Jim Reynolds, managing director of Ballyfin, a luxury hotel in central Ireland. “It was the sort of house where you could turn up, knock on the door, and the housekeeper would just let you in to have a look around.”
Ballyfin House, a Neoclassical mansion, was built in the 1820s for the prominent political Coote family by the architects Sir Richard Morrison and his son, William Morrison. The Coote family enjoyed the house for about a century before leaving Ireland due to the changing political climate brought about by the Irish War of Independence.
The Cootes sold the estate to a group called the Patrician Brothers, who ran a school in the mansion until it was sold in 2002 to its current owners, who brought on Jim Reynolds to lead the restoration and transformation into a hotel.
“Right from the beginning, we had a very clear picture of what we wanted,” says Reynolds. “We wanted to create something that didn’t scream ‘hotel.’ We wanted something that said ‘country house’, and country house restored.”
Reynolds and his team wanted the restoration to impose as few intrusions onto the original floorplan and finishes of the mansion as possible. That goal was made easier by the fact that the house had remained more or less untouched since it was first built.
“The son who inherited the property in 1864 was not interested in Ballyfin,” says Reynolds. “The house was closed up to the high Victorian period. While other houses tended to be altered with either new decorative schemes or newer technology in terms of heating and lighting, that didn’t happen at Ballyfin.”
The school also didn’t have funds to do extensive renovations on the house. Everything from the decorative plasterwork to the original chimneypieces (of which Reynolds estimates there are over 50) stayed in place throughout the mansion.
While the house received a top-to-bottom restoration, much of the efforts were concentrated on the principal rooms of the first floor. Reynolds recalls that a particularly tricky room to restore was the Gold Room, a grand sitting room with an ornate plaster ceiling. The room had suffered severe water damage due to neglected and clogged rain gutters.
“The plaster was washed off the brick walls,” he says. “Consequently, sections of the ceiling and decorative plasterwork were completely destroyed.” They were able to take casts of the remaining plasterwork to patch up what was missing.
The intricate gilt paint scheme—which was added in the 1840s—was in remarkable shape, so all that was really needed was dusting off the cobwebs and patching a few missing areas.
Meanwhile, back stateside, a neglected house of a different style was being eyed. Alan Stenberg and Daniel DeSimone, historic house-loving, semi-retired New Yorkers were looking for a new project after restoring their home in Tuxedo Park, 45 minutes north of Manhattan. That's when they came across Glenmere mansion in Chester, New York, on the west side of the Hudson River.
Completed in 1911 by Carrere & Hastings, the Gilded Age architecture firm behind such buildings as the New York Public Library, Glenmere was originally built for the Goelet family. The Tuscan mansion was based off a villa that the original owner Robert Goelet and his wife Elsie saw on their honeymoon in Italy.
At the time Stenberg and DeSimone saw the house, it was owned by Rick Mandel, the developer behind Chelsea Piers. “The only thing he did was keep a roof on it. It didn’t have working heat or septic,” recalls Stenberg.
But there was something about the house that stuck with them. Even though it wasn’t on the market, Stenberg and DeSimone—with the help of an aggressive real estate agent—struck a deal with Mandel to acquire the house in 2007.
“My partner and I both thought—wow, this could be a great house,” says Stenberg. “But it was too big to live in alone and too expensive to flip. One thing led to another, and Dan suggested we start a little bed and breakfast hotel—just make it a getaway from the city.”
While the goal at Ballyfin was to intrude upon the structure as little as possible, Glenmere saw a different process. Stenberg and DeSimone saved everything they could—from the mantles and moldings to the floorboards—but essentially did a gut renovation.
“There was a group of Pennsylvania dutch woodworkers who asked if they could try to refinish the doors we were planning on throwing away,” says Stenberg. “They took a hundred doors out of the house, stripped everything including the hardware, and returned the doors and hardware looking better than ever. You can’t find these things anymore. You can’t buy them!”
Unlike most houses of the Gilded Age, Glenmere was designed with bathrooms for every one of the original 22 bedrooms. When figuring out the decorative scheme for the bathrooms, they decided to clad each in Carrera marble, a decision which led them to purchase a share in a marble quarry to get enough material so each bathroom can match exactly. “Believe it or not, it was the most economical thing to do,” adds Stenberg.
Back at Ballyfin, a house that was originally designed with only two bathrooms, the problem of adding bathrooms was not too hard to solve. Each of the bedrooms came with private dressing rooms, which made for easy conversion into bathrooms.
“We didn’t have to go chopping up any rooms or altering the floorplan at all,” says Reynolds. “The biggest challenge was routing plumbing through to the dressing rooms, which we could do by boring into the brick to not intrude on any plasterwork.”
For Glenmere, the modern amenities didn’t stop with the bathrooms. After beginning the renovation, Stenberg and DeSimone received an investment from a German silent partner, who had a stipulation: incorporate an environmentally sustainable aspect to the hotel. They chose to install a geothermal heating and cooling system.
“It was tricky and challenging to retrofit a house built in 1911 with a system like that,” recalls Stenberg, “But our partner, said: ‘You need to show Americans that this can be done!’ and certainly can be done. You can do it!” Stenberg recalls that when they opened in 2011, they were one of the only, if not the only, boutique hotel to be heated and cooled in such a way.
But while there have been modern updates, there is a dedication to remain true to the past of these grand houses. Reynolds recalls that in the central Saloon of Ballyfin, the intricate wood floor—designed by Morel & Seddon, the royal cabinet makers in London who had done the floors for George IV at Buckingham Palace—had lifted off in pieces, which the housekeeper saved and kept in a box.
“When we took possession of the house, one of the retired brothers of the school produced the box,” remembers Reynolds. “He said ‘I don’t supposed you’d want the jigsaw, but we didn’t want to throw it out, and we hope that somebody would come someday and be able to reinstate it.’”
They did a painstaking restoration of the floor, which is still so fragile that it needs constant conservation. “The floor is really authentic. It hasn’t been dismantled or remade. It’s just constantly under repair.”
Both of these houses had immediate responses from their clientele upon both of their openings in 2011. In Glenmere’s case, it became the first hotel in 60 years to be designated a Relais & Chateaux property within a year of its opening.
The harmony these hotels strike between the old and new stems from a dedication to maintaining these historic structures: “We’re only the caretakers of the house for our life. The house will probably be here for another hundred years way after we’re gone. The property has a life and the house has a life. We’re just tending to it,” says Stenberg.
As well as, of course, a dedication to maintaining the ethos of the grand country house—whether stateside or across the pond—as the ultimate place to entertain and relax.
“When you arrive at Ballyfin, you ring at the gate, so we can greet you by name from the moment you get out of the car,” says Reynolds. “We want our guests to feel as through they’ve arrived just as the Cootes had just gone out the other gate, and their house and their staff are entirely at our disposal.”