Friday 19 August 2022

 Westport House

Evaluation and Evolution

The Entrance Front of Westport House, Co. Mayo dating from 1730,
the work of the architect, Richard Castle
Copyright: ICHC

After any prolonged period of decline, the road back to robust health is a long one, evident with the continuing restoration of Westport House in Co. Mayo. After decades of ineffective repairs and compromised finances, the fabric of the house was on the brink of being beyond rescue. Water was penetrating the building through many avenues, all of which had to be quickly stemmed when the Hughes Family took over the estate in 2017. Moisture ingress was evident through the walls, around the windows, chimney stacks, leaking through damaged roof lights and overflowing from badly designed valleys. 

Photographs showing the central glazed roof light before works were completed in 2007 
and also after further works were completed in 2021 Copyright: ICHC
Photo Credit of Before Photo: DL Martin and Partners

Water was attacking the house on all sides, damaging and degrading the precious interiors designed by the best architects of their day. The house was also plagued by a lack of ventilation, damaged plasterwork, structural issues, cracking and  subsidence. It is now one year since my first visit when the house was a hive of activity and shrouded in scaffolding. I have now returned to review progress, the scaffolding is gone, the roof is complete and watertight, thus allowing the decay to be arrested and finally reversed. 

Westport House shown in above in 2019 and below 2021 Copyright: ICHC

However, there is no quick fix here, there is no 60-minute make-over for this historic house. Sodden walls and plasterwork will now be allowed time to dry out, slowly, thus leading to more issues such as cracks appearing and historic wall finishes flaking. This reaction is expected, now that the water ingress is stemmed. The next phase of works is being planned and adapted as the house is being observed and evaluated as it reacts to the changes brought about by the last phase of works. Westport House is about to undergo a transition, for years this was a country house and family home that just happened to be one of the most popular tourist attractions in Mayo. Now that the house is secure, in terms of its external fabric, it must now evolve. The future of this great house must now be considered in terms of accessibility, presentation and interpretation. As with any visitor attraction, it must be developed to create an immersive experience with innovative means of informing visitors about the history of the house, the Browne family and the estate. This and the continued restoration of the house is the challenge for the years ahead for the estate and its owners.

Westport House in 1912 , here we can see the Italianate gardens to the
Garden Front of the house situated below the terraces. 
Copyright: ICHC

The Entrance Front of Westport House was built for John Browne, later the first Earl of Altamont, to a design by the architect Richard Castle (also known as Cassels) in 1730. An impressive feat for the 21-year-old Earl who initiated the construction of Westport House and created what is now the entrance front. The Browne home was possibly built on the site an earlier house and is believed to encompass the cellars of an O’Malley castle. The barrel-vaulted ceiling in the entrance hall is thought to be one of the only internal elements from the 1730’s house that has survived which was designed by Castle. Castle also designed Hazelwood House in Sligo which shares many similarities with its Mayo Cousin, particularly the decoration and arrangement of the main entrance door surround. For nearly 200 years after this, the Browne Family extended, adapted and changed both the house and garden. Leaving us with the great architectural legacy that is Westport House and the wider estate. 

Completed works to the roof of Westport House including a
large chimney which had to be cased inlead to ensure it is watertight.
Copyright: ICHC

As with my previous visit, I began my tour at the top of the house, on the roof, which is a changed landscape, or should I say roofscape. Gone is the scaffolding and now for the first time, probably in decades, and possibly since the house was first built, does this structure have a watertight roof. Poor detailing both historic and in the recent past have been replaced with beautiful lead flashing. Gone are unsuitable materials substituted over the years when the original owners fought as best they could to secure their home against the elements. These herculean roof repairs have brought the house back from the brink. When recent works began, it halted a process of continued decline. Poor historic detailing has contributed to a lot of the issues in the house such as masonry buttresses found along the side of some chimneys. This allowed water to penetrate into the house interior affecting the coved plaster ceilings of the bedrooms and the hallways on the upper floors. One of the larger chimney stacks, visually dominant from the garden front, had to be encased in lead to ensure it would be waterproof, it was previously plastered in sand and cement. While the original finish did nothing to keep the water out, the sand and cement layer ensured that the water remained in the structure and could not escape. This allowed water to penetrate down the back wall of the main staircase causing damage to the distinctive coved ceiling and sky light. 

Water damage over the main staircase caused by water
ingress around a chimney  Copyright: ICHC

A bedroom on the upper floor, here we can see the effects of water damage
sustained over the years from the issues with roof. Copyright: ICHC

Sixty-four chimney pots sit atop chimney stacks that populate the roofscape of Westport House. Some have been capped with aluminium caps to prevent birds from nesting in the redundant flues again. Flues to the main reception rooms have been maintained, allowing fireplaces to remain in use when necessary. All chimneys were recently cleaned, removing years of birds’ nests, twigs and other detritus. The chimney flues now provide ventilation to the interior of the house, very important in this phase of drying out. Works also included the removal of asbestos and the treatment of both wet and dry rot.

The re-engineered valleys now provided with ventilation to
ensure that the issues of the past are not re-visited Copyright: ICHC

Shallow lead valleys behind the parapet have been re-engineered, incorporating overflow pipes and additional hoppers to manage the surface water generated by the roof. The poor arrangement of these valleys in the past was responsible for some of the damage to the interiors of the house. The valleys were shallow, so if there was any build-up of water in a heavy downpour of rain, they would overflow, saturating the walls and damaging the plasterwork inside. Now that the surface water is managed more effectively, this problem should cease. Ventilation has also been improved to the substructure of these valleys, preventing the old issues from resurfacing. Previously the hot air from the interior of the house allowed moisture to condense on the underside of the lead causing the supporting ply to rot. Light wells that illuminated the inner corridors of the upper floors, where bedrooms were located, had been covered with plywood and corrugated iron. Now glazing has been reinstated, allowing these areas to be illuminated with natural light again.  

Above and Below: The completed roofscape with lead work, slating and 
glazed roof lights now in good repair. Copyright: ICHC

The estate manager noted that during the works on the roof, the original King Post Oak Trusses remain insitu and it was considered that they were possibly the work of boat builders. Urns on the front of the house have been replaced with replica’s, the originals were removed as they had degraded and were cracked into multiple pieces, held together with an outer layer of chicken wire.  Other larger urns on the corners of the parapet were temporarily removed, the corroded steel rods holding them in place were replaced with stainless steel. This ensured that they are secure in their lofty position, high above the heads of the visitors below. In all 26 tonnes of lead has ensured that the roof will remain watertight for years to come.  While works carried out ensure that the roof is watertight, works also had to be implemented to ensure that the roof would remain watertight in the future. Therefore, access for future maintenance had to be considered and a new fall arrest system has been installed. This will allow operatives to easily and safely access the roof to carry out ongoing maintenance, removing blockages from valleys etc. ensuring the problems of the past are not revisited. A system of discretely placed steps, ladders and platforms ensure that no area of the roof is inaccessible.

A relic from the Victorian past of the house,
the elevator hidden from view in the centre
of the house Copyright: ICHC

In the centre of the house is a service core that provides access to the roof. Here is a time capsule of a part of the house once utilised by the large team of servants. In Victorian times, it was probably unseen by the family or their guests. Here can be found in this top lit space, the service staircase and the mechanism of the lift that would have served the various floors of the house. The basement section of Westport House is wonderfully preserved where the vaulted kitchen and servant’s hall can be seen. A cleverly disguised dumb waiter served the Wyatt Dining Room on the floor above. Servants accessed the house via an entrance in the under croft, which is found under the terrace on the Garden Front. This access arrangement and the service staircase ensured that the bulk of the servants remained out of sight of the family. 

The entrance to the undercroft under the garden terrace which
provided access for the servants to the house Copyright: ICHC

Back staircases from the basement penetrated up into the floors above, to allow servants access to the various reception rooms and bedrooms, virtually unnoticed. These stairs were independent of the main staircase and were necessary so that the family would not meet their laundry or ashes from the many fireplaces being ferried up and down through the house by their servants.  These utilitarian back staircases, which were used constantly by the servants, kept the main marble staircase in pristine condition. The central core service stairs in Westport house is hidden by a set of beautiful etched glass doors on the upper corridor.

The vaulted kitchen area of Westport House found in the basement
Copyright: ICHC

The library wing of the house, destroyed by fire in 1826, remains unchanged but will probably house an events space at a future date. This is the one section of the house that will require a more invasive interior treatment. Here the roof requires attention, as various interventions over the years have compromised its structural integrity. The wing on the north side of the house has had its roof renewed, the balustrades around the edge had to be removed, roof timbers were replaced and covered with a new surface layer of lead.

The North Wing which has now had its roof repaired
and the balustrade repairedCopyright: ICHC

The next phase of the works will ensure that the house is accessible for all, with the establishment of circulation routes for visitors. Part of the planning process for this phase of works will consider how people interact with rooms and artefacts. This pre-planning is necessary so the integration of all necessary electrics, including task and display lighting, are incorporated. Westport House while once a grand country home is also a museum, with valuable paintings, antique furniture, rare books and artefacts on display. A heating system will have to be considered to ensure the rooms are maintained in a controlled environment, despite growing visitor numbers. The upgrading of fire prevention and suspension systems in Westport House are also being developed in tandem with the works. The recent calamitous fire suffered by Clandon Park in the UK, owned and operated by the National Trust, springs to mind. This stately home was destroyed by a fire that spread quickly and left the house in ruins.

The recent fire at Clandon Park in Surrey left the house a ruin,
hence the need for careful consideration of fire prevention at Westport House

These works are currently at the design stage and will be carefully considered. The house is being observed as visitors return to the property after the Covid lockdowns. Once these vital services are resolved, one of the final pieces of this puzzle will be repairs to the plasterwork and internal decoration.  In my innocence, I thought I would be returning to pristine interiors as issues with the roof were resolved. However, the house will take two years to dry out, which is a gradual and continual process. Walls that have been saturated for years, are slowly releasing moisture. Ventilation provided by the chimneys and the opened windows allow it to escape. This has led to its own problems, paint finishes and plasterwork on affected walls, are flaking and delaminating which is particularly evident in the Wyatt Dining Room. Therefore, this room like others in the house, are being observed by a raft of suitably qualified people who can put in place a plan for their stabilisation. 

Above: The Wyatt Dining Room with its contents returned
Below: Damage to the walls and plasterwork of the Wyatt Room
caused by water penetration Copyright: ICHC

Despite the interior of the house being a work in progress, it is beginning to look like its old self again, paintings have returned to the walls and furniture has populated the rooms. In the Chinese Room, the wallpaper has been removed for conservation, and stored onsite. The paper was removed by a specialist and his colleague over five days. This wallpaper hung on these walls for possibly 200 years and is known to have been hung sometime after 1817. This is the date that appeared on a stamp on the wallpaper found underneath : J & P Boylan, 102 Grafton Street, Dublin, 1817. Despite Westport House being situated in the West of Ireland, this room would have been very fashionable and is one of thirteen houses in the Republic of Ireland that possesses a Chinese Room. The walls of this unique space are now stripped back to its original construction, which is a great insight into how this house was constructed, laths, plaster and timber wall bracing have all been exposed. To see a space like this stripped back to its bare bones, is a must for anyone interested in historic interiors.

Above: The Chinese Room before works were undertaken in 2019 with its original
wallpaper in place which was subsequently removed for conservation
Below: The Chinese Room in 2022, the precious wallpaper was removed before
works were undertaken. This room suffered from a number of structural
issues which needed to be rectified. Copyright: ICHC

The artefacts associated with this house are also important, and one person who is passionate about these is Kathryn Connolly, Supervisor at Westport House. When touring the house with Kathryn, its objects are brought to life as she recounts stories about the provenance of each piece. In the Drawing Room, there is the dinner service on display which belonged to the Marquis of Sligo, items range from dinner plates to egg cups emblazoned with an ‘S’. Upstairs there are also on display a piece of porcelain that served the other end of the anatomy. In the sluice room, a vast range of chamber pots, foot baths and jugs are personalised in a similar fashion to the dinner service. 

Above: The chamber pots, foot baths and jugs in the Sluice Room of
Westport House, emblazoned with an S for the Marquess of Sligo
Copyright: ICHC

There are numerous items on display throughout the house, paintings and sketches by Sir John Lavery, chairs from the coronation of George V in 1911, taxidermy, old Irish silver, statuary, ancient military flags, art and antiques. Kathryn’s repository of ephemera associated with the house and the Browne family is found at the top of the house, ina room that was the bed chamber of Lord Sligo. Here are items that will eventually be on display and will tell the story of Westport House, but for the moment must be recorded, collated and archived.

The garden front which is thought to be the work of Thomas Ivory
but it is also possibly thought to have been created by William Leeson.
Copyright: ICHC

Works have continued apace outside the house as well. The limestone steps to the main entrance have been reconstructed, the side walls have been taken down and rebuilt. The bottom four runs of steps had become unstable and required re-alignment.  All works to the house have been non-invasive, unnoticeable to the untrained eye. The steps do not appear over restored and wonderful natural planting on either side, ensures the illusion is kept intact, that they have not been touched. On the garden front, the concrete terraces dating from 1914/1915 are renewed, again the mantra of replacing where only necessary has been upheld. Repairs to the concrete detailing and the installation of limestone steps ensures that this dramatic outdoor space, leading down to the water’s edge, has been retained. Over the decades the steps had been affected by subsidence and sections had become unstable. It was necessary that the area was deconstructed, foundations improved, and the area rebuilt. 

Above: The terrace on the Garden Front of Westport House which
has been subject to restoration and consolidation which included
works to the Summer Pavilion. Copyright: ICHC

The summer pavilion located at one end of the terrace is pristine, having been in a serious state of decay during my visit in 2021. It was composed of an early form of reinforced concrete, which was failing, and the structure was so fragile it had to be cordoned off until works could commence. Enabling works have also been completed around the property, including the provision of service ducting which will allow for the future installation of external lighting and services. The surface water management system and the sewage system have also been upgraded in anticipation of the next phase of works to be completed. Once the house is consolidated, further phases will concentrate on the wider estate including the re-establishment of the Italianate Garden and the development of the nearby coach house.  This project is a wonder to see, the conservation, adaption and restoration of Westport House will ensure it continues to be a wonderful resource for future generations.  I look forward to another visit, to record the continued development and evolution of this unique piece of Mayo’s architectural heritage.