The palace owned by the Lebanese and Anglo-Irish family, the Sursock Cochranes, suffered extensive damage to its building and artwork during the Beirut port blast last August, writes Hannah McCarthy.

The damage, caused by the 3,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate which ignited last August at the port, has placed an enormous burden on a population of Beirut that was already struggling with economic and political meltdown.

Since 2019, when the economic situation in the country quickly deteriorated, Lebanese banks have imposed strict capital controls on their customers. As a result, the majority of the population (those without high-level political connections) have only been able to withdraw the equivalent of a few hundred dollars from their accounts, even after the port blast, which left 300,000 people homeless.

There are now fears that the historic neighbourhoods surrounding the Sursock Palace, which were already under threat before the port blast, will disappear, as owners face impossible bills for repairing their homes.

While there are, in theory, laws regarding the sale of period homes, there has been no government support for owners of such homes, which typically require significant funds to repair and conserve.

Reliant on a network of NGOs, foreign governments and volunteer groups for assistance, many owners were unable to source the necessary coverings to protect their damaged homes before the start of Lebanon's rainy season in November.

While some owners have allegedly refused to repair and waterproof their heritage homes in the hope that the building would collapse and that the site could then be sold to developers.

The Sursock Palace

The owner of the Sursock Place, Lady Yvonne Cochrane, 98, died from injuries sustained in the blast and the family is now undertaking a six-year renovation project costing over €6.5m.

The Sursock Palace in Beirut was built in 1840 and survived the long and bitter civil war that ravaged Lebanon from 1975 until 1990 relatively unscathed.

Nestled in the wealthy neighbourhood of Achrafieh, the Ottoman-era palace is located less than 500m from Beirut port.

The Palace, unfortunately, had little protection from the lethal blast that tore through the Lebanese capital.

It destroyed every window and almost every door in the three-storey palace.

The ceiling collapsed in most of the building, including in the library where rare books were left exposed.

The Palace’s collections of antique glass and china were destroyed in an instant.

"Anything that gave any sort of resistance was destroyed in the blast," said Roderick Sursock Cochrane, whose family owns the Palace famed for its fusion of Middle Eastern and European styles.

Marble dados were blown off the walls, while delicate stucco plasterwork was ripped from the towering ceilings.

Statutes were left beheaded and paintings, many dating from the 16th and 17th century, were left seriously damaged.

The Sursock Cochranes are a Lebanese family with Anglo-Irish and Italian heritage, who originally amassed their wealth as grain traders in the Ottoman era.

As the family matriarch, Lady Yvonne Cochrane was in the Palace at the time of the blast.

A portrait of Lady Cochrane at the Sursock Palace. (Photo: Hannah McCarthy)

She died less than a month later from injuries sustained during the explosion.

"Lady Cochrane was wonderful; she stayed the course all through the [civil] war. So many of the wealthy people went to live in France but Lady Cochrane really stood her ground and never left the Palace," says Philippa Quinn, an Irish restoration expert who spent several months at the Sursock Palace in the late 80s restoring an artwork.

The Lebanese woman was married to Anglo-Irish nobleman Sir Desmond Cochrane, who once served as Ireland’s honorary consul for Lebanon and Syria.

The couple inherited Woodbrook Manor in Wicklow in 1952, when Sir Cochrane’s father, Sir Ernest Cochrane, died.

Sir and Lady Cochrane frequently spent summer and Christmas there with family and become friends of the Guinness family, who own Leixlip Castle in Kildare, and the Fitzgeralds, who own Glin Castle in Limerick.

Desmond Guinness and Mariga Guinness (Photo: The Irish Georgian Society)

Desmond and Mariga Guinness established the Irish Georgian Society (IGS) in 1958 to conserve and repair the classical buildings that remained in Ireland from the Georgian period.

The Ango-Irish couple’s passion for protecting historic sites from neglect and property developers was shared by Lady Cochrane, who founded the Association for the Protection of Lebanese Heritage Sites and Buildings (APSAD) and served as the Association’s president from 1960 to 2002.

Lady Cochrane was a tireless advocate for protecting Beirut’s architectural heritage, which became a victim of property speculation and overdevelopment after the civil war.

After the controversial demolition of the Khoury Palace, an Ottoman-era palace in Beirut in 1999, Desmond Fitzgerald, the President of IGS, offered to provide support to APSAD.

The now-deceased Knight of Glin said at the end of an IGS tour of Lebanon and Syria, that the tactics used by developers in Beirut were similar to those employed by Irish developers to demolish Georgian buildings in Dublin in the 1960s and 1970s.

"It’s the usual trick," said Fitzgerald to a local newspaper in Lebanon, "first the house is stripped of its roof, the building is allowed to deteriorate and then bully boys move in at the weekend to pull it down." 

After a life spent trying to save the French and Ottoman architecture that gave Beirut the name "The Paris of the Middle East," it is particularly tragic that Lady Cochrane would die in a blast that damaged at least 8,000 buildings in Beirut including 640 heritage sites (her own home, the Sursock Palace, being one).

A badly damaged wall in the Sursock Palace (PhotoHannah McCarthy)

The Sursock Cochranes have not been insulated from Lebanon’s economic hardship and the family now face a reconstruction project that will cost millions and take up to six years to complete.

According to Roderick Sursock Cochrane, the Palace and its contents, including countless works of art, were not insured; nor has there been compensation from the Lebanese government, which is ruling a country close to bankruptcy, and whose negligence and corruption caused the lethal port blast in the first instance.

The income that the family normally earn from rental properties in Beirut and events held at the Palace has been drastically reduced due to both extensive damage from the port explosion and the economic crisis that has led Lebanon’s local currency to lose over 90% of its value since 2019.

So far, a collection of NGOs, international experts and construction companies has stepped in to help with the initial preservation efforts for the Palace.

Metal roofing has been installed in the Palace (Photo: Hannah McCarthy)

Charities ALIPH and Blue Shield provided waterproof coverings and scaffolding for the Palace, while a local construction company installed the metal roofing to temporarily replace the roof that had collapsed.

There was no inventory of the artworks and furniture in the Palace prior to the port blast. As a result, Pedro Maximo, a doctoral researcher at University College London, provided assistance with devising an online database that will contain a definitive list of all the artworks and furniture in the Palace.

Students from Lebanese American University and the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts are currently assisting with physically gathering and cataloguing the damaged furniture and artworks at the Palace.

The "Penitent Magdalene" by Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the few female painters of her period, was damaged in the blast and is now at the Palazzo Reale in Milan undergoing repairs.

The artwork was bought by Roderick’s grandfather, Alfred Sursock, a collector of Italian art, who was married to Donna Maria Serra, the daughter of a Napolitano Duke.

A student catalogues artworks at the Sursock Palace (PhotoHannah McCarthy)

A second artwork by Gentileschi was damaged and remains in the Palace awaiting restoration; it was this painting that art restorer Philippa Quinlan repaired when she travelled from Ireland to Beirut in 1987.

"Lady Cochrane arranged a work permit for me, and I spent three months restoring the beautiful painting of 'Hercules and Omphale’ at the Sursock Palace", says Ms Quinlan.

Oliver Ibanez from Mobilier National, the agency that oversees the French state’s collection of antique furniture, visited the Palace earlier this month to assess the damaged furniture; while three Swiss experts in stucco, marble and woodwork will be visiting the Palace in April to assist with the restorations.

The ceiling of the upper atrium of the Sursock Palace. (Photo: Hannah McCarthy)

Roderick, who is leading the efforts to repair the Sursock Palace, has partnered with Restart Beirut, a Belgium-based charitable fund that was launched last year to safeguard Beirut’s art following the port blast.

Joseph El Hayek, who is the Lebanon-based member of Restart says that the fund will assist with fundraising for the interior and exterior renovations for the Palace, as well as the restoration of the Palace’s art collection.

Restart Beirut will also work with the Sursock Cochrane family to transform the Palace into "a museum and cultural centre", operating under a model similar to private house museums such as Blenheim Place in England, or the Musée Nissim de Camondo in France.

While the Palace will continue to serve as the Sursock Cochrane’s family home, the space will also serve as a cultural hub for Beirut with exhibitions, concerts and dance performances.

"We will also host international artists for a period, who will come to Lebanon and live and work on the Palace grounds," says Mr El Hayek.

The Palace and its surrounding gardens are already expected this year to host a drama therapy workshop for survivors of the port blast, a performance by ballet dancers from the Paris Opera House and a comedy festival, as well as a fundraising gala dinner in October.

Despite the overwhelming destruction of his family home, Roderick said that he is hopeful that the reconstruction and modernisation of the Palace that can now take place will enable it to survive for another 160 years.