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Meet the woman transforming an 1800s Belfast house into a luxury hotel filled with artefacts from her travels

After satisfying her wanderlust by travelling the world, Melanie Harrison has turned her hand to restoring a historic townhouse and transforming it into a boutique hotel. Linda Stewart hears the mum-of-two's fascinating story

Boutique hotel: Melanie Harrison at her conversion of a Victorian townhouse on the Malone Road in Belfast
Boutique hotel: Melanie Harrison at her conversion of a Victorian townhouse on the Malone Road in Belfast
Boutique hotel: Melanie Harrison at her conversion of a Victorian townhouse on the Malone Road in Belfast
Melanie with sons Ben and Jake and in the Austrian mountains
Boutique hotel: Melanie Harrison at her conversion of a Victorian townhouse on the Malone Road in Belfast
Globe trotter: Melanie with mum Pat at the opera in Verona
Boutique hotel: Melanie Harrison at her conversion of a Victorian townhouse on the Malone Road in Belfast
Victorian splendour: Belfast in the late 1800s when John Cleaver lived at 45 Malone Road
Boutique hotel: Melanie Harrison at her conversion of a Victorian townhouse on the Malone Road in Belfast

By Linda Stewart

For years, Melanie Harrison's driving force was getting out, seeing world and listening to the stories the locals had to tell, but now she reckons her wanderlust has been cured.

As she prepares to launch Belfast's newest boutique hotel, The Harrison, she admits that the city she loves has a wealth of stories to tell.

"I love talking to people and I really enjoy hearing people's stories," the 47-year-old says.

"Belfast has changed so much. When I left, you had to look for things to do and places to go out in the city. Now there are so many things I can't even do all I want to," adds the mum-of-two,

"I feel we are really on the crest of a wave here. People living in Belfast have so much to offer. The people are warm, they're helpful, they're interesting. Everyone's got stories and it's an exciting place to be. I think my travel bug is cured - it's all come full circle."

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Boutique hotel: Melanie Harrison at her conversion of a Victorian townhouse on the Malone Road in Belfast

Since settling down in Belfast, Melanie has been living in an upstairs apartment in a Victorian townhouse on the upmarket Malone Road, managing the apartments below for the owners as an Air BnB business.

When the insurance offices next door came up for sale, it was too good an opportunity to miss.

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Her Armagh farmer dad Derek jumped at the chance to buy the beautiful heritage property and is now the project manager for an ambitious restoration.

"When they were selling, my dad was very keen to do a deal with them and buy it to make it into a hotel," Melanie says.

The plan is to convert the building into a quirky and stylish 17-room hotel with a beautiful cafe downstairs run by Mary Armstrong, who runs the Lamp Post cafe on the Newtownards Road.

"They're going to do an Oscar Wilde-themed cafe downstairs which will host literary nights," Melanie says.

"We wanted something a wee bit daring and shocking and maybe a bit irreverent and quite tongue-in-cheek.

"When she said she was going to have that (theme), I was so happy. We can make it a place that Oscar would have been proud to be connected with.

"What I really want to offer is something that is a bit different, somewhere I would like to go if I was staying myself.

"The feeling we want to give people is, when they have a cup of coffee they feel better than when they arrived... it's more of an experience.

"They can come in, enjoy it, have a chat, enjoy a book group. It's going to be like staying in your arty friend's house.

"The rooms are going to be quite quirky, quite individual. It's for people who want to go on holiday and look at interesting things - interesting furniture, interesting art, interesting books on the shelves.

"People will go downstairs, have a coffee, meet like-minded people. That's the feeling that I want to have. It's what I like when I go away."

Melanie is the eldest in a family of five and has two sons, Ben (13) and Jake (10).

The boys have been pitching in this summer, helping out with the restoration work, but have yet to catch the bug.

"They have been doing a bit of heavy lifting and carrying, which is not so exciting. They've been doing a lot of hard work and drudgery," Melanie says.

"There have been a few eye rolls. They're yet to be convinced, but I'm sure they will be really excited when the cafe opens and there are all sorts of local treats to enjoy."

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Melanie with sons Ben and Jake and in the Austrian mountains

Melanie has travelled enough to know what she likes - and what will work.

"I've travelled round the world and lived in New Zealand, France, America, Luxembourg and England. I backpacked all around America for three months and I backpacked in India - I really am a solo traveller," she says.

"When I was in my 20s I was into backpacking around. I always loved to meet the local people and meet like-minded people. Now I've developed my tastes. As I've got older, I don't want to stay in a backpacking environment. I want a nice comfy place, but I still want to get to know the people and get under the skin of the culture and find out what makes the local people tick."

When I ask what she wanted to be when she was growing, Melanie says: "I wanted to be anything. I just wanted to get out and see the world."

The first solo trip came courtesy of a food technology course with a "really generous placement" of six months in Salt Lake City. She studied food science at the University of Plymouth and then went to the University of Minnesota. Her next port of call was a scientific institute in New Zealand - "it wasn't what I loved, it was just a means to go away. I found this was what I loved. I loved the hospitality and I loved hearing people's stories".

She returned to do a master's degree in communication studies at Queen's and then bought a machine from a company in Paris and launched her own business called Easy Egg.

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Boutique hotel: Melanie Harrison at her conversion of a Victorian townhouse on the Malone Road in Belfast

"My father supplies eggs to all the companies around him, so I bought the eggs from him and I hard boiled and peeled 8,000 eggs in an hour. I'm always coming up with hare-brained business ideas," she says.

After selling the business, Melanie moved to France with her ex, the father of her two boys, and lived there for a couple of years.

"But it didn't really work out in France and I came back," she says.

"It took a while to plant my feet. I had to wait for about five years before I would be able to find that. It was just pure chance when it all happened.

"I went through a lot of to-ing and fro-ing and living out of bags for a while before it all happened and I had to move a few times, But we managed and it made me and the kids more resilient.

"You're more thankful when you get some good luck and you appreciate it more.

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Boutique hotel: Melanie Harrison at her conversion of a Victorian townhouse on the Malone Road in Belfast

"Just by chance, I landed upon this flat which came up for rental on the Malone Road and I got to manage the flats below as AirBnB accommodation."

At the start, these were offices, but when they were turned into flats, they turned out to be filled with beautiful period details lurking beneath the office finish, and Melanie has loved managing them as accommodation.

"I really love it. It's the best thing I've ever done," she says.

"There wasn't a plan. I had nowhere to live and this just came up. People were saying they wouldn't want to live there because there was no garden and no car parking, but I'm a single mum. I don't need a garden. I don't need car parking - I don't drive around, I walk everywhere.

"It didn't annoy me. It wouldn't have been everybody's cup of tea, but I loved the history behind it, the magnificent marble columns, the beautiful features, the big bay windows, the fabulous cornicing.

"We lifted the carpets and found beautiful mahogany floors underneath.

"It's just realising the beauty of the old buildings we have in Belfast. We're so keen to knock them down or modernise them, but we should realise the beauty of what we have.

"Why are we trying to be like other places? We should appreciate what we have around us and I think more people are opening up their eyes to that."

When the insurance offices next door came up for sale, it was impossible not to bite.

"My dad was the driving force behind this. He's given me that support and encouragement that you need," Melanie says.

"You need a real encourager behind you to say 'You can do this'. A lot of people have been saying 'why are you doing this? It's a bit mad', but I live next door to the house, I live in the community and I have complete faith that it's going to work.

"When the opportunity came up next door, I couldn't not do it. There is no other way. I have to do it."

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Victorian splendour: Belfast in the late 1800s when John Cleaver lived at 45 Malone Road

Luckily, much of the cornicing is still intact and she has found local craftspeople to recreate anything that is missing.

"It just needs a bit of TLC to bring it back, so that you can imagine what it was like with the Victorians living in it," Melanie says.

"John Cleaver of Robinson and Cleaver was the first person to live in No 45. We had all these wealthy merchants of Belfast living along this street in the late 1800s and then in the 1930s they were converted to flats and in the 1960s they were turned into offices. It's a sign of the times.

"I think next door is perfect for what I want it for. It's stunning. It's got the real wow factor and the comfort as well and is full of that lovely charm and character that people really love."

Even the branding is an indication that The Harrison is going to be something slightly off the wall, down to the Victorian octopus lady logo, designed by Melanie's friend Ross Cunningham.

"I immediately loved it because it suggests Victoriana without being stuffy," she says. "The face is matronly and caring but there is a bit of madness running through underneath with the legs. I'll need eight arms and legs to look after the place."

She envisages The Harrison as a home to all sorts of creative endeavours, particularly in the cafe, from open mic nights to movie nights and book groups.

Over recent months Melanie has been scouring antique shops and auctions for weird and wonderful pieces to add that quirky touch to each room, celebrating each treasured acquisition on her Facebook page. Local artists will be involved in the projects as well.

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Globe trotter: Melanie with mum Pat at the opera in Verona

"The rooms will have lovely bay windows with chaise longues where you can have a coffee and watch the world go by. There are going to be free-standing baths and luxurious velvet curtains," she says.

"Every room will have different pieces. I'm mad about going to auctions and I've bought most of the furniture there - a real Victorian organ, for example.

"It's really off-the-wall crazy things. Things of beauty and they all have stories behind them. In the attic room there's an old-fashioned typewriter. There's a story behind every object and I am going to breathe life into this building again."

Some of the old floorboards were gone but Melanie managed to salvage the old floorboards from the Royal Victoria Hospital which will be restored, installed and waxed ahead of the planned launch next March.

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Boutique hotel: Melanie Harrison at her conversion of a Victorian townhouse on the Malone Road in Belfast

The hotel will have some car parking at the rear and will even be dog-friendly.

"You can bring your dog and they can have a puppuccino in the cafe," says Melanie.

"There's a little garden area out the back and terrace out the front with tables so that you can sit outside and watch the world go by.

"The residents' groups here have been amazing and really supportive - they can't wait for us to open."

Melanie's dad planted roses at the front of her house and is delighted when passers-by comment on them. They've even invited people to come and look around.

"I think what he's trying to do is make his mark and to have something that people will appreciate and love for years to come," she says.

"Lots of people stop and look. I think they can't believe it. I'm really excited that those doors are going to open up for everyone to come and see it, rather than a few people in an office.

"I've put my heart and soul into this place."

Follow updates from The Harrison on Facebook at www.facebook.com/The-Harrison-465933187574844

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