Photographs by James Fennell.
Few people these days have the breadth of vision - and largesse - to fall for, purchase and painstakingly restore a large Georgian country estate. But that is precisely what the Hungarian born owners of this splendid 19th century Irish mansion have achieved. Ballyhook House lies just west of the majestic River Suir amid the fertile green pasturelands of Ireland's County Tipperary. The house was built in the 1750s by Arthur Sykes, a Yorkshire born Protestant whose grandfather acquired the land in the late 17th century. Shortly before Irish independence was granted in 1921, the owners - descendents of the Sykes through marriage - abandoned the property and returned to England. The three-storey over-basement house went through several owners in quick succession but had been unoccupied and unloved for nearly 15 years when the Grunwald family purchased it.
"We had to have it", recalls Mimi Grunwald. "When we looked down over the sweep of the authentic 18th century parklands to the wonderful house itself, we knew we had no choice - the Georgian period is our downfall". Negotiations with the farmer ensued and, in 1995, the house became theirs - initially as a weekend escape, though the long-term plan was always to make it a permanent retreat.
The limestone-faced house, surrounded by farmland and stables, was in surprisingly good condition. Not only was there no dry rot but the roof was sound. Externally, only two jobs demanded immediate attention - and both on aesthetic grounds. The windows, many of which had been replaced in the Victorian style, rankled. Sixty five in total were replaced with proper sash windows, immediately restoring the correct proportions to the Georgian façade. The second priority was to remove the rendering from the exterior walls.
"Everyone said "For Goodness' sake! You don't know what's under it. But when the render was removed in the stables and the stonework was found to be perfect, we went ahead - even though it meant the house was smothered in scaffolding for a year".
Since then the Tipperary mansion has been a work in progress. The builders are almost permanent residents - every now and then the Grunwalds order them to take another job so they don't lose all their other clients! Every Saturday morning is spent with builders and craftsmen ironing out glitches, outlining plans and discussing progress. All without the input of an architect though an architect friend, provides invaluable advice should the couple run into a problem.
"We started from the top floor and worked down", Mimi explains, "renovating three bedrooms, two bathrooms and the kitchen - the rest was an El Dorado type building site for six years."
The interior is now a work of superb imagination. Original rooms have been sliced, extended and amalgamated, sometimes up through two floors - as in the kitchen. But every change has been made with careful consideration for period details and proportions - and the result is that each appears part of the original construction.
The huge stone-flagged kitchen, for example, is a new creation. Formerly a billiard room, the space is now double height - one arched window reaching almost from floor to ceiling - with a mezzanine entrance on the first floor. An antique hay manger, salvaged from the stables and nicknamed the "Giraffe's Manger" on account of its size, was customized by a local blacksmith into mezzanine railings. Other pieces were either lucky finds or excavated from the house itself, such as the old schoolroom cupboard, now painted in cool whites. In the main hall, flagstones from the basement have been re-laid and a period fireplace added. "Like the first Mr. Sykes, we have a very Protestant attitude", observes Mimi. "Everything has been reused."
A delicate staircase, painted in Gustavian blue, winds around three sides of the back hall. Wide-planked floors are lined with liming paste, thinner and a matt sealer. In fact, throughout the house a deliberately simple palette has been used with plain distemper on the walls, producing neat and attractive light effects.
Upstairs, the Music Room is kept beautifully empty. Locally made benches, lining the long sweep of floor, serve to draw attention to the balcony at one end, overlooking an internal atrium, roofed in glass. The awe-inspiring rococo ceiling by Robert West was saved from a nearby house scheduled for demolition.
Although it might appear that the room was originally designed this way, the doors and fireplace were actually re-centred after the Grunwalds had annexed an ante-room to create the extra space.
Nor was the Library an original part of the house. Again, restored fireplaces and false doors were added to ensure a pleasing symmetry. The furniture is either Louis XVI or early 19th century reproduction. The French-style bookcases were crafted by local joiners.
Perhaps the most breathtaking feature of Ballyhook is the two-storey internal atrium, known as "The Temple", overlooked by the balcony of the Music Room. Colonnaded, stone-flagged and filled with lemon geraniums, sweet scented jasmine and topiary, it forms the heart of the house - with five rooms connecting off it. Above a glass roof, cleverly designed to open in sections as temperatures change, means the space is always bright and warm. Here the owners potter, listen to music and endlessly revise new plans.
"Country life is exhausting", says Mimi. "When we go to New York, we sleep for the first 24 hours". Small wonder considering the superb efforts she and her husband have put in to restoring Ballyhook. Eight years later it must seem as though work here will never end; the Grunwalds are wise to this. Like the grand schemes of their beloved Georgians, their plans are too numerous and often too long-term to be completed in their own lifetime. But that won't stop them for a moment. Thus they sit in The Temple and plot again - planting 50,000 trees between the house and the river, establishing a peacock nursery, constructing a colonnaded galleria behind the house and so the list goes on. Everyone knows it's a long way to Tipperary. The Grunwalds might suggest that there's still a long way to go even when you get there.
This article appeared in Objekt in April 2005.