The ruined mansion that becomes an art factory
‘It’s a’ what are you doing for the rest of your life? ‘ kind of project, âsays Sue Raethorne. At the end of June, she threw possibly the biggest, and certainly the most electronic, party that Hazelwood has hosted in the past three centuries.
Since purchasing the Hazelwood Estate and its centerpiece, a famous but neglected 18th century house on the outskirts of Sligo town and on the shores of Lough Gill, the Raethornes have breathed new life into one of the contrasts strangest and most striking architectural works imaginable. Hazelwood came along, like it or not, with a sprawling red brick factory built by an Italian textile company in 1969 that has lay dormant for the past decade.
The factory was built with what appears to be an indecent proximity to the rear of the original house, which was the first Irish Palladian mansion designed and supervised, in 1731, by Richard Cassels, whose future designs would include Leinster House and Powerscourt House. The factory is as large as an airport hangar and as functional in appearance as the old Wynne family home is ornate and fabulous.
The buildings clash, but when they visited Hazelwood last winter, the Raethornes had a vision to make them accompanying pieces. They plan to transform the factory into a whiskey distillery and host the estate’s first art exhibition, Magnetism. The distillery and the current exhibitions will, in theory, meet the financial demands of restoring the house to its original splendor.
The Keepers of the House âWe now see ourselves as the keepers of the house and want to revive it and bring people back to it. “
Raethorne said. âThis is not a place we are going to live. We will have museum halls and rooms to tell the story of the Wynne family and their involvement in politics and the military. And we’ll have a whiskey tasting room in the basement.
âFor the first time, David and I sold two businesses last year and we were looking to invest. We had thought of a whiskey distillery and where you might locate it. And we ran into Hazelwood. And it’s idyllic: the climate, and it’s a conservation area, so it will always have purity, and it is surrounded by water, so the temperature will be mild, which will help us to distill a very smooth whiskey. Everything fits.
âAnd to have this house, the first that Richard Cassells designed here in Ireland. . . It is a place where we continue to find these jewels. So we are very passionate about it.
It was a brave and daring idea that saved Hazelwood from a long and uncertain period when he oscillated between slow ruin and the threat of outright demolition. More than 600 people gathered on Saturday for the opening of Magnetism, featuring great works of art from all over Europe.
It turns out that the interior of the factory is designed as if to host such an exhibition: Fall, the work of Belfast-born artist SiobhÃ¡n Hapaska, is on display in a room 65 m long and 20 m high. It has 11 olive trees suspended horizontally from steel cables and constantly shaking. Despite its magnitude, visitors still have a walk in order to see it properly.
Laura Morrison, a textile artist who works with plasticine and wax, spent weeks in Hazelwood finishing six huge panels depicting the flora and vegetation of the estate.
Igor grubic Monument, which documents the destruction of thousands of anti-fascist objects and statues in his native Croatia, is featured in another wing. that of Alexandre Mir Airplane landing is a vast helium balloon in the shape of a jet plane and suspended above the ground, in perpetual state of landing.
Perhaps the most spectacular piece in the exhibition came about by accident, when Lucy Andrews, the Dublin-based artist, saw oars and reams of videotapes left strewn across the factory floor since the the last occupant, the Korean company Saehan Media, has vacated the building. Andrews spread the lengths of duct tape across the factory floor, then neatly threaded them together and hung from the ceiling to the floor, so that they hung in front of visitors as they entered this section of the factory. . The effect is like seeing an ethereal, endless tree trunk.
âBig reels of videotape are called pancakes, which was new to us,â says Vaari Claffey, curator of the exhibition. âThey’re extraordinarily long, and when Lucy saw them, that was it. It was incredibly demanding work. Each pancake is 5,000 m long. So very laborious, with lifting platforms at the top of the building to hang them from the roof. This is all an unrecorded tape. It unfolds with the wind, so it moves, and when natural light changes, it shines and changes. Lucy has an incredible mind for the material. It’s all based on the way things behave.
Restoring Hazelwood House is a project that will easily span the next decade, but the mill’s potential is immediate. âIt’s incredibly tall, but it’s absolutely beautifully built,â Claffey says. “Some people find it an eyesore, but I hope that when it houses the distillery it will be seen in a new light.”
He will remain Hazelwood’s primary focus for years to come. Planning has been granted for the emergency restoration work required for the roof of the west wing, but interior work will be phased out. The Raethornes have already started consulting with the Hazelwood Heritage Society, which gathered the first photographs and a lot of information about the Wynne family, the owners, from the original Cassells design until the death of Owen Wynne VI in 1910.
The local connection to Hazelwood remains strong. SNIA, the Italian textile manufacturer, employed 500 people in the factory here, and for them the estate, and the specter of the empty house, became the workplace. Beatrice McDonald, the president of the company, is a granddaughter of the game warden who worked on the estate.
The house was last occupied as a private dwelling in 1927, when it was handed over to the Land Commission. It came dangerously close to demolition and was later used as a mental hospital, by the military and by the HSE.
During the Celtic Tiger years, the estate was acquired by a development company whose vision included houses and apartments – and the demolition of the old SNIA factory. The real estate crash put an end to it. David and Sue Raethorne bought the estate for around â¬ 550,000 last December – a modest sum for such a historic property but a pittance compared to the investment that will be required to renovate the house. As Vaari Claffey says, they ransacked the house for copper and fireplaces when it was derelict. â’They’ are vandals. “
Already, the place has started to reveal itself in a way the couple never expected. An old cooler has been discovered. A 300-year-old well that had been walled up has been moved. The couple were shown a waterfront windmill base with its piping still intact. The parent company is still operational in the United States; the wind turbine was added to the overall project. âMore little beauties keep rising,â says Raethorne. “It is like a fantastic landscape, and it is absolutely beautiful.”
The domain seems to exist a little out of time. Hazelwood’s front door contains a perfectly framed view of Benbulbin. It’s been a long time since no one has been able to stand there and enjoy it, but, at an unspecified date, the front door will be open again. In the meantime, two of the largest copper stills in Europe will be installed in the factory once the warehouse has been properly linked. There is no absolute decision on the name of the whiskey at the start of production.
âWe’re kind of spoiled for choice,â says Raethorne. âAll I will say is Hazelwood is a very beautiful name and very evocative. And Garavogue too. It is the smallest river in Ireland and flows alongside the property. And there is Garavogue water going into the well. But Hazelwood himself is a beautiful name, and my hunch is that he will certainly be well regarded.
Magnetism is at Hazelwood Estate until September 27