Few houses in Ulster have as complex a history of building, alteration and demolition as Montalto, County Down. There was likely some kind of residence on the site in the 17th century when this part of the country was still under the control of the McCartan family. However, at some point around 1650 it was either bought by or granted to George Rawdon who had moved from Yorkshire to Ireland twenty years before to manage another estate in County Antrim. Until 1775 the Rawdons’ principal abode was at Moira elsewhere in County Down; Montalto would therefore have been a secondary property. It was the settler’s great-grandson, John Rawdon, created first Earl of Moira in 1761 who decided to move to Montalto and erect the core of the house still seen today. Quite what was there before he took this decision is unclear, as is the precise date of the house’s construction; in their recently published guide to the Buildings of South County Down, Philip Smith suggests work on Montalto may have begun in the second half of the 1750s, soon after the future Lord Moira had finished erecting a splendid town house on Usher’s Island in Dublin. (Later used by the Mendicity Institution, Moira House was demolished in the 1950s, with only the gateposts into the building’s forecourt surviving.) A couple of pictures from the 1790s (one of them depicting a battle in 1798 which took place in nearby Ballynahinch) show Montalto to have a somewhat disordered exterior, suggesting that work undertaken there in the previous years had been sporadic, and based around an earlier structure. The landscape in which the house sits, not least a fish-shaped lake in front of the east-facing entrance, was also undertaken during the same period.
Following his father’s death in 1793, the second Earl of Moira (later first Marquess of Hastings), a distinguished soldier who participated in the American War of Independence and later served as Governor-General of India, inherited estates in England from his mother and therefore sold his Irish property. Montalto was bought in 1802 by a young man called David Ker whose family lived elsewhere in the county. He appears to have undertaken some alterations to the building; a contemporary description notes that he had ‘much improved the house by putting in larger windows, painting, &, &.’ More than thirty years later, Ker’s son, also called David, decided to enlarge the building. The obvious way to do this would have been to add an additional storey above those already standing. In this instance, however, the owner decided to do down rather than up. In other words, the basement was excavated to create what is now Montalto’s ground floor; something similar had been done by his father in the 1820s at the Kers’ other residence in Portavo. The considerable feat of engineering was most likely due to the involvement of a Newtownards builder/architect called Charles Campbell whose son died in 1849 ‘in consequence of a fall which he received from a scaffold whilst pinning a wall at Montalto House.’ In the 1850s David Ker made further additions by adding a two-storey ballroom extension to the rear (west) of the house, along with a new service section. The Kers sold the estate in 1910 to Arthur Vesey Meade, fifth Earl of Clanwilliam, his wife refusing to live in his family home, Gill Hall on the grounds that it was haunted.
In 1950 Lord Clanwilliam attempted to sell Montalto but was unable to find a buyer. Three years later, his son the sixth earl demolished the ballroom and mid-19th century service wing: the outline of the former can be seen delineated by a new beech hedge on the lawns behind the house. In 1979 the house and what remained of the estate was sold to a business consortium but six years later a fire further extensively damaged the building and led to further demolition, so that Montalto today is less than half the size it was a century ago. Nevertheless, it remains a substantial house and, since being acquired by the present owners in the mid-1990s, has been thoroughly restored and opened to the public for weddings and other events. And, as can be seen, the demesne has also received much attention. The house’s interior will be discussed here at a later date.