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Calendar Houses – mansions built like mystical puzzles

Last month Kinmel Hall near the coastal town of Abergele in Wales sold for £ 950,000 with auctioneers Allsop. The sale was around £ 200,000 above the expected price after several offers from around the world, despite the potential buyers being locals.

Kinmel Hall is an extraordinary estate: 17.5 acres of land with an 80,000 square foot Victorian mansion. It was built in the 1870s by architect WE Nesfield for Hugh Roberts Hughes, whose fortune came from mining for copper near Anglesey. It has been nicknamed the Versailles of Wales for its bombastic grandeur.

More interesting than its size, however, is an overlooked detail in its design: Kinmel Hall is a calendar house, an architectural fantasy. Mansions like this were built using numbers that recall the calendar: the days of the week, or the weeks of the year perhaps, or even the four seasons. In the case of Kinmel, its facade has 365 windows and 12 entrances.

The grand staircase of Knole House, Kent. In Jacobean times, the house would have 365 rooms, 52 stairs and seven courtyards © Andreas von Einsie

This intriguing vanity appeared around the turn of the 17th century in Britain, according to architectural historian Matthew Beckett, author of The Country Seat blog. There was an easing of political unrest, both national and international, so that the nobles no longer felt compelled to build defensive castles. Instead, they could start commissioning houses.

The economy was booming too, at least for the upper classes. But it was their lifestyle that likely helped give birth to the Calendar House, suggests Beckett. Monarchs ricocheted around their estates, followed their retinue, and temporarily took up residence in such houses. “Amuse me,” the regent and his entourage would demand – and their host would stage plays and games as distractions.

The houses and their decor also became puzzles, as another boost to bored courtiers wandering the galleries and gardens for days.

“Look at the portraits of Elizabeth, which are so loaded with symbolism,” says Beckett. “This was a group of highly educated individuals, with a good knowledge of history, religion and metaphysics, and the house would be part of a series of games played throughout the day. . “

Adare Manor in County Limerick was built in the 1860s with 365 windows, 52 chimneys, seven stone pillars and four towers

Adare Manor in County Limerick was built in the 1860s with 365 windows, 52 chimneys, seven stone pillars and four towers © Alamy

Astrologer-astronomer John Dee, for example, exercised enormous influence in the Elizabethan court; mystical symbolism gained prominence with the rise of the Virgin Queen’s notoriously superstitious successor, James I.

Beckett, like many architectural historians, says that one landmark in the emergence of calendar houses coincided with James’ ascension to the throne of England: Knole House in Kent. The Jacobean iteration, owned by the Sackville family from 1605, is said to have featured 365 rooms, 52 staircases, and seven courtyards, but subsequent renovations to the still standing house changed those numbers so they no longer hold up today. hui.

It’s only fitting, given the slightly whimsical nature of these houses, that even this story is disputed. The estate’s current custodian, the National Trust, claims it is more fiction than fact, propagated primarily by Vita Sackville-West, whose imagination such an idea may have appealed to.

Boughton House in Northamptonshire which was radically renovated by the 1st Duke of Montagu on a calendar model

Boughton House in Northamptonshire which was radically renovated by the 1st Duke of Montagu on a calendar model

Other calendar houses followed this century, including Boughton House in Northamptonshire. It is a mansion based on an old house that was radically renovated by the 1st Duke of Montagu on a calendar model: seven courtyards and 365 new windows, but also 52 fireplaces and 12 entrances. Around the same time, silk merchant John Mitchell built a smaller version, Scout Hall near Halifax, Yorkshire, with 365 glass panels; it is still standing, even though it needs to be restored.

The real heyday of this idea, however, was in the 19th century. No wonder, given the surplus of nouveau riche merchants eager to deploy their fortunes in the service of recasting their inheritance as a nobleman rather than a serf. They have gone down in history, reviving or embellishing tropes of the past, whether they are substitutes for heraldic shields or calendar houses.

Typical of this type was Kinmel Hall builder Hughes, says Mark Baker, an architectural historian with particular expertise in Wales. Like the builders of houses in the Jacobean calendar, Hughes was keen to appeal to the monarch; he reveled in his nickname, HRH, and managed to fight over a perch for one of his daughters as Queen Victoria’s maid of honor.

“He was a bit of a pot character – people either loved him or hated him,” Baker says of the mogul. “He got very rich, almost overnight. The family really wanted to be part of society, but it was arrogant and difficult to get into the decor of the country house.

Balfour Castle on Shapinsay, a prime example of the Scottish Baronial style refined by architect David Bryce

Balfour Castle on Shapinsay, an excellent example of the Scottish Baronial style refined by architect David Bryce © Alamy

Hughes had fallen into such wealth when the longtime heir to the copper-based family fortune passed away. As the closest male relative via female lineage, Hughes was suddenly richer than he could have imagined – and aimed to establish himself among the elite. Kinmel was intended to act as a social stepladder, with its construction and size comparable to royal palaces, not to mention its quality: hand-finished hoppers, hand-made bricks, and special slate for the roof, for example.

Built in the 1870s, Kinmel Hall is in the late Victorian style, but the style spread to the British Isles throughout this century. Adare Manor, for example, in Irish County Limerick, is now a hotel, but it was built in the 1860s with 365 windows, 52 fireplaces, seven stone pillars, and four towers.

That same decade in Cumbria, a mill owner commissioned the Gothic Tudor pile known as Holme Eden Hall. It included elements referring to the five categories: 52 fireplaces and fireplaces, 12 corridors, four floors, seven entrances and 365 windows. When converted to apartments 18 years ago, the thoughtful renovator created 12 apartments, each named after a month of the year.

Avon Tyrrell House

Avon Tyrrell House in the New Forest

In Scotland there is Balfour Castle on the Isle of Shapinsay – seven turrets, 12 exterior doors, 52 chambers and 365 glass panels, making it a prime example of the Scottish Baronial style refined by architect David Bryce . Avon Tyrrell House in the New Forest was a late Victorian Arts and Crafts style calendar house, built by Lord Manners, an aristocrat who increased his fortune through a swaggering but successful bet that he could buy, train and ride the Grand National winner; he achieved this goal in 1882.

The style appeared across the British Empire: Mona Vale in Tasmania, completed in the 1860s, was built by a newly wealthy entrepreneur to impress the royal family. In this case, it’s a Isle of Man businessman who finished his calendar house just in time for Victoria’s son to stop by on the first royal visit to Australia.

The style appeared across the British Empire, including at Jamaica's Rose Hall

The style has appeared throughout the British Empire, including at Jamaica’s Rose Hall © Alamy

Rose Hall in Jamaica also has these elements, although it was built 60 years earlier. The cashed sugar barons of this era, of course, were treated with the same disdain as the industrial upstarts that followed – and therefore were inclined to similar cachet-boosting gestures.

According to Baker, there are examples of such houses beyond the borders of Britain and its former dominions, albeit sparingly. Most are Central European estates, often adorned with mystical or astrological symbols – the Austrian Baroque Eggenberg Palace in Graz, for example, has 365 windows, 52 of which are on the ground floor.

This century-old estate is in move-in ready condition, unlike poor Kinmel Hall, who curators estimate will need tens of millions of pounds for restoration; its new buyers have embarked on a historic renovation. Baker remains hopeful for the future of this dilapidated mansion. House prices in North Wales have risen, he notes, due to the pandemic-induced move to the countryside. He would like to have the chance to get involved in rehabilitation.

Some Central European estates exhibit this vanity, notably the Austrian Eggenberg Palace in Graz

Certain estates in Central Europe exhibit this vanity, notably the Austrian Palace Eggenberg in Graz © Alamy

“It’s so vast and has been cut out so much that we don’t even know if it has 365 windows and 365 rooms,” he says, adding that it served as a conference center and school after the family Hughes has lost interest in the house. . Could there be a secret passage somewhere, to get her count down to 366 – a leap year house – maybe? “I’ve never encountered this, but at Kinmel I wouldn’t be surprised at all.”

House and house unlocked

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