The house, built in the 1820s by the father and son team Richard Morrison and William Vitruvius Morrison, is widely acknowledged as one of the most important examples of nineteenth-century neo-classical architecture in Ireland and is famed for its elaborate interior design in the Empire style. Originally, Dominck Madden (d.1837) was retained and work commenced on a house built to a long symmetrical H-plan, a short distance from the present structure. Madden was, however, sacked by the Cootes and the Morrisons employed in his stead. On the advice of Richard Morrison, the Cootes made the difficult decision to demolish what had been completed of Madden’s building and to build afresh on a new site more favourably removed from the stables and farm buildings.
The house as constructed by the Morrisons is austerely neo-classical on the exterior, with a thirteen-bay façade broken by a portico with giant ionic columns. The Entrance Hall, enlivened with a richly-patterned Roman mosaic brought back from Italy in 1822, leads into the Grand Saloon in the centre of the house. Notable features of the interior include the richness of the stuccowork and the variety of scagliola deployed while the decoration is enhanced by the exotic marquetry of the floors. Design sources liberally plundered by the Morrisons include Percier and Fontaine’s Palais, Maisons et autres Edificies Modernes (1798) and Iberian Moorish designs collected by James Cavanagh-Murphy. The inlaid floor of the Rotonda is based on the Lion Court of the Alhambra Palace, Granada, while the ceiling of the Stair Hall is influenced by Coleshill, Berkshire, attributed to Inigo Jones, and included in Isaac Ware’s A Complete Body of Architecture (1756). However, all these disparate elements fuse organically into a masterpiece of early nineteenth-century Irish architecture.
The most notable architectural addition to Ballyfin after the time of the Morrisons was a glass Conservatory by Richard Turner (1798–1881) added at some point after 1855 and accessed through a concealed door in a bookcase in the Library. At about the same date a folly in the form of a ruined medieval tower was constructed on the site of an old limekiln at the highest point of the estate.
The estate was purchased by the Patrician Brothers, a Roman Catholic teaching order who ran a much-loved school from the estate, and who in 1928 added a wing to the house. In 2002, a decline in the number of brothers led the order to sell, and the school was moved to the nearby village of Mountrath. The estate was purchased by Fred and Kay Krehbiel, a Chicago couple with strong Irish connections, who partnered with Jim Reynolds to form Ballyfin Demesne Ltd. After a nine-year restoration project, Ballyfin opened as a luxury hotel in May 2011.