Irish architect’s family and homes hit by Beirut explosion
Alfred Cochrane is the scion of one of Lebanon’s most famous aristocratic families
The 160-year-old Palais Sursock was one Beirut’s great landmarks and home to the Cochrane family. Photograph: Getty Images
In addition to the devastating human toll taken by the recent Beirut explosion, a lesser but not insignificant casualty was the restored 19th century home of the Irish architect and artist Alfred Cochrane, known for his Alfrank furniture company and scion of one of Lebanon’s most famous aristocratic families.
Along with the city’s great landmark, the 160-year-old Palais Sursock, where he was born and where his 98-year-old mother Lady Yvonne Cochrane resides, it now lies in ruins, its roof and ceilings collapsed, its magnificent interiors destroyed.
His mother escaped major injury and was taken to a hospital in the mountains and is now recovering in a cottage belonging to the family. Mary, Alfred’s sister-in-law living in Palais Sursock was speaking to Alfred on the phone when the explosion happened, and a ceiling collapsed on her. She has just been discharged from hospital. Her husband Roderick, Alfred’s youngest brother, returning from the mountains, escaped unscathed.
In Dublin, Alfred witnessed the blast as it was happening through Mary’s screams. “I feel very emotional. I was emotional when there were demonstrations in the streets in October and people dying of hunger and committing suicide. Then this. The abscess has been burst. I find it difficult to talk about Lebanon without dissolving into tears,” he says.
His indomitable mother, when informed of the scale of destruction of her home, a Lebanese treasure known for its magnificent interiors and works of art, whose gardens were enviable locations for stylish weddings and cultural events, appeared unperturbed. According to Alfred she declared. “Don’t worry. We have done it (the restoration) before and we can do it again”.
His house was one of several palaces built by the city’s merchant princes in the Ottoman era which had fallen into decay when they were bought by Alfred’s parents in the 1950s and their fortunes reversed. Alfred, then a young architectural student in Rome, took over “the prettiest one” and did it up for his newly married brother and his wife. By 1968 their friends and others started to make the area desirable and improvements took place only to be stymied by 15 years of civil war from 1975 when most of these magnificent houses with their large gardens were damaged. In time, the remaining buildings were divided up amongst his family and the whole historic area regenerated.
Located in the gardens of Palais Sursock, ancestral home of his mother, matriarch of the family, Alfred’s house had various tenants while he pursued a successful architecture career in Ireland working, amongst other projects, on the interiors of the chapel and great hall of the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Kilmainham in Dublin with John Costello. When he returned to Beirut in 2006, he completed the restoration of the house “to a genteel, decadent Irish gentry standard” he says. Irish friends remember the high roofs, the wooden marquetry painted in strong colours, the frescoed ceilings, arcades and elegant balconies, the little hamman in the garden.
His last visit to the house was in September and he had intended returning in April, but was prevented by coronavirus. He remains in contact with his extended family nearly every day. “I will only go back on one condition, that in three or four years’ time there is stability and I can find the money to restore the place. If my ideas are followed, Palais Sursock will not be a family home any more – the house will have to be accessible to as many people as possible,” he says.
Cochrane had not just been involved in the restoration of the houses but in the urban regeneration of the area. He also established a not-for-profit art gallery in an old bath house at the back of one of the palaces. “It became a centre for conferences and concerts and even the Hay Literary Festival – it was the only one of its kind in Beirut – and there’s very little left now,” he says. One of his high profile clients was the fashion designer Elie Saab who wanted to buy a house in the area “so we struck a deal, he paid for the restoration and then rented it – and when he came, others followed, so by 2015 a queue of people wanted to live there”.
Cochrane’s dual Irish–Lebanese identity goes back to his Irish father Sir Desmond Cochrane who in his 20s met the young Lebanese heiress Yvonne Sursock in Beirut. They married in 1946. Desmond’s grandfather Henry had made his fortune from ginger ale and mineral water with the company Cantrell & Cochrane (C&C) and was appointed a baronet in 1903. Through Desmond’s friendship with the Irish diplomat Frederick Boland, he became honorary consul general for Syria and Lebanon and was involved in promoting Irish business in the Middle East.
On his death in 1978, Alfred’s brother Marc inherited Woodbrook outside Bray in Co Wicklow, the summer home of their uncle Sir Stanley Cochrane. Stanley was an accomplished athlete and opera singer who created on the estate championship cricket pitches, a golf course (Woodbrook Golf Course today) and an opera house where Dame Nellie Melba once sang.
Corke Lodge, built in the early 19th century and part of the Woodbrook estate was inherited by Alfred on his father’s death. He restored and furnished it in 1980 and it is now his Irish sanctuary, with its lovely gardens included in the Dublin Garden Trail.
“My garden in Ireland is breathtaking,” says Alfred. “We had a summer that was unbelievable. I am like Alice in Wonderland here and driving back from Dublin recently, I thought that we don’t realise how wonderful Ireland is, it is so beautiful, calm and civilised. The Lebanon I knew had everything that Ireland didn’t have and more and then wrecked it. Nothing seems to last more than 10 years there. It is like a danse macabre. But with the help of the international community, there is a slight ray of hope.”
On August 29th, Bewley’s Café Theatre and The Wilde Garden Adventure will present a special afternoon of theatre, music and horticulture with readings from Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince and The Selfish Giant with Bairbre Ní Chaoimh and Michael Ford in the magical atmosphere of Corke Lodge’s gothic follies and avenues. (Admission €20 – includes complimentary prosecco – 087 9018294, all proceeds to the Red Cross Beirut Appeal).