Founded in the year 914 by the Vikings, Waterford is Ireland’s oldest city and has a rich and diverse history. In an age where society is intent on looking back to the past for solutions to our modern ills, protecting that legacy and celebrating their heritage is a vital part of Waterford’s cultural agenda.
Several festivals and organisations are doing just that by promoting the maritime culture of Waterford, the history of trade in the area and the diverse food scene that has developed across the city. Combining years of experience in the hospitality industry and a passion for protecting Waterford’s rich heritage, the Power family, who own and operate the Athenaeum House Hotel have dedicated their time and energy to many of these initiatives but began the process at home in their magnificent Georgian house.
The Athenaeum House Hotel is a historically significant hotel, located in an authentic Georgian house just outside Waterford City. Rocklands House, as it was originally known, was built in the late 1700s by the White family, one of three prominent shipbuilders based in Waterford. Owner Stan Power says at that time, the ship building industry in Waterford was the biggest in Ireland due to the natural harbour, a skilled local workforce and the high quality wood that grew in the forests upriver.
The ships that White’s created went on to sail the world but one vessel, the Hellas, had a particularly interesting journey for the hospitality industry. Owner Mailo Power explains, “Built in 1835, the Hellas was the first ship to bring a consignment of tea directly from Canton in China to Ireland. Up to that point, all tea that came in came through the London tea monopoly of merchants.” Not only that but the Hellas had actually been leased to Samuel Bewley and this journey led to the foundation of the company. “Captain Scanlan was in charge of the ship and imported 2099 chests of tea. We actually still do business with Bewleys to this day so the house has been doing business with Bewleys for 181 years!”
The Powers bought Rocklands House in 1999 with the goal of turning it into a boutique hotel. At the time Stan was the manager of Mount Juliet and Mailo was a project manager specialising in interior design for hotels. Their plan was to be open for business inside of a year but complications delayed the process by four years. The geographic border between Waterford and Kilkenny runs through the land so processes were complicated by having to deal with two county councils and planning boards. Mailo says they also faced issues with the Heritage Council who had to approve all work on the building.
We’re a listed building so all the elements of the hotel, the architraves, the cornices, all of those had to be made sure of, that we protected them. We were completely on board but they wanted us to build a separate building for the hotel and have a glass link corridor to the building itself. We held out and came up with a solution to use a glass column from floor to ceiling between the old build and the new and step back the roof so it gave a natural divide.
Without any plans to go off, the new wing build was a bit of a risk. Ten years later, a guest whose father had been born in the original building produced a photograph which proved that the risk paid off, even the step back in the roof was the same. Mailo says the coincidence was phenomenal, ‘that without knowing we actually replaced the house back to its former glory’.
Historical elements from the 1700s can be seen throughout the hotel as the Powers worked to preserve the original features. Double doors leading to the piano lounge are the original ones, wider than usual for Georgian style because of the amount of space needed for the Whites continuous entertaining. Glass from the original windows was repurposed in the doors that lead into the restaurant. Mailo lists other details, “the original Georgian fanlight over the front door is very historic, we also have all the original architraves and mouldings in the public areas”.
The house consisted of three bedrooms when the Powers took over and besides the new wing of bedrooms they also added the kitchen and the restaurant. Stan says they put a lot of thought into the style of Zak’s Restaurant and that effort paid off as guests can’t tell the difference between the old and the new. “We’d often get people sitting in the restaurant, trying to figure was it a seminary or a nunnery or something, why would they need such a big room like this. So even though the restaurant is a brand new build, everybody assumes that it was part of the original.”
For guests who are interested in the history of the building, one of the family is usually nearby to answer any questions or relate the stories. Their unfailing presences is partly due to their work and also due to to accommodation arrangements; the Power family live on site at the Athenaeum House Hotel. Stan jokes that they can’t afford a house but Mailo says it creates a genuine Irish welcome for their guests. “We try to make people feel, number one, at home and number two, an entire warmth and a welcome, that it’s more than just an overnight.”
For Stan and Mailo, their priority is to make their guests as comfortable as possible. That means having the best team possible to look after them and continue that sense of genuine hospitality and welcoming. Their daughter Kelly has been part of that team for the last six years. She returned from working in Australia and was covering a maternity contract when she decided she enjoyed working with her parents so much that she wanted to stay. Mailo praises the skills she brought to the team. “Kelly brought the experience, she had been working in a 600 bedroom property in reservations. In many ways she upped the game here in the hotel, particularly online, that’s the way business was heading and she has that experience.”
The entire staff seem to be intricately woven into the fabric of the Athenaeum, like a real community. Kelly tells the story of Michelle Fitzgerald, the Restaurant Supervisor, whose mother used to work with Stan’s parents in their hotel, the Ocean. “We only actually found out after she was working with us for two years! She didn’t know until her Mum saw Mum and Dad when they did a TV show ‘Six in the City’. They were watching it together and her mum was like ‘oh I used to work for Mr. Power’.” Maintaining that sense of family connection, many siblings and family members have all worked together in the hotel over the years.
The staff are also incredibly loyal to the family, Zita in housekeeping has been there since just after they opened and many who leave end up returning to the fold like Head Chef James Crawford. James previously worked with Stan in the Tulfarris Hotel in Blessington before coming to the Athenaeum in 2006. After four years, James went to run a chef’s training college in Cavan but he found himself welcomed back last September. Assistant manager Louise MacNamara also took some time away from the hotel to study veterinary nursing but returned to work a couple of days a week because she enjoys it so much. Stan explains that it comes down to that family atmosphere.
There’s various other people like that who have been away and gone and done things and come back again so I suppose we’re lucky that we have good relationships. Everybody leaves on good terms so everybody can come back. I suppose we put so much time into it and in fairness there’s always somebody here and people are never left on their own, there’s always support for them.
Mailo says people feel valued as they respect everyone’s individual skill sets, “as they say there’s no I in team. Everybody brings something to the table, something different and unique”. Head Chef James also believes in investing in their staff. “He actually has a great ethos of training in the kitchen and a lot of our young chefs are actually attending college and upskilling as well. It’s not only about the business but developing the people within it.”
Looking after their staff was a big concern for the Powers during the recession. Stan explains how difficult it was, and still is, for family businesses who are constantly battling against large chains. “Trying to survive in this economic climate when the NAMA hotels can eat up small properties like ourselves because they’re either underselling or undercutting pricing. What we’re trying to do is grow as a unique small business and offer that whole authentic Irish experience for customers.”
Mailo reckons one of the reasons they have survived and are flourishing is their ability to read the industry and trial new methods. “As a family business we can react with speed I suppose and make a decision to change certain things or try something new. That willingness and entrepreneurial spirit is what keeps you going. I think also in a family business where you have the next generation, you maintain your competitive edge because you’re bringing in the likes of Kelly’s skill set. You maintain that freshness by having young members of the family involved.”
The entrepreneurial spirit that Mailo refers to is not just present in the Athenaeum House Hotel but also in the wider industry and community where the Powers are involved in lots of initiatives and organisations. Stan and Mailo were the first couple to serve simultaneously on the National Council of the Hotel Federation and he currently sits on the board of Manor House Hotels. Closer to home, Stan was one of the founders of EAT Waterford, a collaboration between restaurateurs to promote eating out in the city. “EAT is about trying to be locally engaged and locally sourcing produce and suppliers. Getting the chefs together at the harvest event we did last year, they’re sharing their knowledge and their experience and their suppliers so then people are more engaged with key local suppliers that are doing things organically and are supplying locally.”
Mailo says the supportive and collaborative attitude benefits everyone, ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ and they actively support that ethos at the Athenaeum with the majority of the produce they use being sourced within a 30k radius. “That means then that we have very fresh produce, that is in season and it also means that local suppliers are getting a chance of developing a business and sustaining it.”
Celebrating their pride in the area, the Powers were heavily involved in the recent bid by the Three Sisters for European Capital of Culture 2020. The family actually used to run a guest house at Cheek Point, where the three rivers meet and they are constantly sending their guests on day trips to nearby Kilkenny and Wexford. Mailo says they have a natural passion for the region and the bid was a great way of opening it to the media. “A lot of very positive things came out of it, a lot of people working together, the collaboration was absolutely massive but also many of the things about Waterford and Wexford and Kilkenny are Ireland best kept secrets so in many ways it gave us a platform to come together and say this is our region and we are proud of it.”
Stan says coming together for the bid happened as a natural progression of Ireland’s Ancient East, the new intitiative by Fáilte Ireland that focuses on the historical culture of the South East. “Rather than seeing each county as an individual entity, we try as best we can to work together and this was another opportunity to do that and another showcase of that working platform. It wasn’t successful on this occasion but I think a lot more good came out of it and a lot more good will flow from it so it may well be if we get a chance to bid again I think it could easily be successful.”
Now that the bid is over, Stan will return to his commitment to EAT and the upcoming Harvest Festival and Mailo can go back to working on Winterval, the six week long Christmas festival that celebrates all things Waterford. Mailo helped found the event which runs from the end of November right through to Christmas. “We started working on that back in January for the following Christmas so that’s very much ongoing, I chair the hospitality committee on that. We started with less than a handful of us and now we have nearly 500 volunteers working with us so again the community strength. Last year we brought almost a million people into Waterford.”
In the meantime, the team at the Athenaeum House Hotel will be looking forward to their annual charity afternoon tea in aid of the hospice. Kelly will be taking the lead on this project and like everything in the Athenaeum, it is fusing family with history as the event is part of heritage week. “We did it last year, great afternoon tea and the staff dress up in period costumes and that. We’re trying to get Bewley’s involved this year as well so we can weave the whole history of the house into the afternoon tea itself.”
For more information about the Heritage Week Afternoon Tea or the Athenaeum House Hotel visit athenaeumhousehotel.com.
Alison has been writing since she could hold a pen, which came in handy for her degree in English, Media and Cultural Studies. She has been working in media since graduating and is the latest features writer for TheTaste.
Writing for TheTaste allows her to combine her passion for the written word with her love of food and drink. Find her on Twitter @AliDalyo