Last year, on St. Patrick’s Day, I wrote about my favourite TV show in the UK, called Grand Design. One of the episodes that I watched several times was about an architect and his family who converted a shell of a church to stunning vacation retreat. I was contacted by the architect, Andrew Lohan, several months ago, and he kindly agreed to tell the story of the Kilgallan Church. Here’s Andrew…
When we were persuaded by friends, on a weekend trip to the West of Ireland to take a look at a roofless ruined church, little did we know what lay ahead of us. With two young children, and busy careers, taking on a ruin certainly was not part of our plans. But what a ruin!
Neither of us mentioned it over the weekend but when we got close to the turnoff on our way back that Monday we both turned to each other - we just had to take another look - and, as we sat on the window sills looking across the trees growing inside, and up at the stone of the belltower, we were converted. By the time we got back to Dublin three hours later, we had designed our dream home, called our lawyer and instructed him to make an offer. It took a few months, but by the spring 0f 1999 we owned an 1835 ex-Church of Ireland, derelict, roofless, shell on an acre of ground, complete with five picturesque gravestones. Oh joy!
As an Architect I know that restoration is hard. Hidden problems cost money and are by their nature unexpected. And common. Luckily there was so little left of the church that all the possible defects were very readily apparent! And converting churches into homes is harder. The smaller spaces required for living, sleeping and washing mean carving up the big space, and having upper floors cut across the windows.
We tried lots of layouts, but in the end, as usual, the solution was the simple one we had first thought of: keep the full height of the church and the belltower on view at the entrance end, the full height of the altar windows open at the other end and stack the smaller spaces together in the middle. Sounds clinical? Far from it - the sense of space is wonderful, with the old stone walls, tall gothic windows, high ceilings, and exposed timber roof sailing over everything. The “legs” of the stone belltower stride into the living room, drawing your eye up its full height past two galleries, through the roof glazing to the stone cupola. The views constantly change as you walk around the building up the stair, through the tower and across the bridge linking to the bedrooms.
At the other end of the Church the three altar windows dominate the dining hall and kitchen, with a big fireplace surround and wood burning stove underneath the high sills.
An oversized pewter candleabra sits atop the mantle. The bedrooms upstairs have Juliet balconies opening over the dining hall, with views through the big windows across the countryside.
Before we could do any of this, we had to put the budget together to let us start and finish the restoration in one step, allowing us to holiday let the building to help pay the mortgage. We had to repair the dangerously unstable belltower (hit by lightning in 1901 when the church was abandoned) repair the stonework, put on a new roof, and fit new windows. We resurrected and re-roofed the empty shell using traditional methods and materials, lime mortar, stone, brick and natural slate, before building an independent timber “box” in the centre, to house the 4 bedrooms. Padraic, our remarkably dedicated contractor spent weeks re-pointing the stone joints alone. We wanted the work to be honest, so the old fabric of the building is retained and exposed, with the historical layers and fragments of internal plaster visible. The new materials and finishes are equivalent to the original, but are not concealed, the new work can be seen in the whiter mortar, the newer stone, the shaded brick. The overlaid layers of history in the building are preserved and legible.
The new walls and joinery within the space are painted in a restricted palette of whites and grey-greens, with the main feature wall, along with the ‘totem’ wall supporting the staircase is in red . These all contrast beautifully with the stone and the oak floors. (The dark grey green on the doors and fireplace is quaintly named Farrow & Ball’s Mouse’s Back.) The rafters and redwood roof sarking boards are left bare to balance the blue-grey of the old limestone, which is also softened by the cream colour of the lime mortar and buff brick used for the repairs.
Hard as it was to complete (due to the meagre budget we had to get our hands dirty doing some of the work ourselves!) it’s a place that we love to visit, and to share. (Click here for more information about the Kilgallan Church, including how to rent the Church.)
And far from learning our lesson, a couple of years later we did all it again, converting a nearby 1926 traditional 4-room Schoolhouse complete with two front doors, one for boys and one for girls.
All we need now is an old pub and we’ll have a whole village! See you there for Paddy’s Day!
Jackie & Andrew Lohan, Dublin 2010
Thanks so much to Jackie and Andrew for sharing the story about their amazing restorations! Sláinte!