It’s been a rollercoaster of a time over the past few weeks at the chateau. As I write this, electricians and plumbers are hustling about, installing a washer and dryer and updating our electrical network in the south wing of the chateau.
For those of you just joining the blog, a little refresher: in January of this year, my wife and I purchased a 17th century chateau in the Loire-Atlantique region of France. Set on 20 acres (9 hectares), the property consists of the main chateau building, stables, a ‘hacienda’ (more on that in a moment), a chapel, a guardian’s house, a small pond, and a couple of potting sheds near the walled garden.
The chateau at sunset, with the chapel to the far left.
It is an exciting endeavor, but not something I would recommend to anyone. It takes a certain measure of madness to take on a project like this. I say this because of the following: first, the scale of the renovation work would make an experienced contractor gasp. (This has actually been the reaction of a couple of builders, one from the UK and one from the US, when they first laid eyes on the place.)
It is not a glamorous undertaking. When we first arrived in the dead of winter, temperatures hovered near freezing. It rained every day for the first 2 weeks that we inhabited the chateau. There was no heating. There was no hot water. Electricity was limited to three rooms. Half of the windows panes in the 9,000 square foot chateau were missing. Bats roamed the billiards room. An owl worshipped in the chapel. We had enough rats to cast a Disney animated film.
Furthermore, there is no realistic end in sight for the costs or the duration of this renovation project. We proceed slowly, deliberately, eating the proverbial elephant one bite at a time. We have learned to take pride and pleasure in small accomplishments…hot water! WiFi service! A working toilet! One less hole in the roof!
The crew from GC Electric, who installed our washer and dryer, and provided safe and efficient electrical service to the south wing.
And we have learned to appreciate the kindness of our neighbors and complete strangers who have stepped forward and leaned into helping us restore this place. It is, in turns, heartbreaking and heartwarming as try to bring this property back to life. But like our vegetable garden, planned with the help of our farmer neighbors, hope grows and brings forth a plentiful harvest.
Still, everything takes longer to complete. Nothing is simple, as we are trying to apply 21st century restoration materials and practices to a building that was constructed in 1610. The beams above my writing desk have horse hair and mud mashed between them. This was insulation for many of our rooms, ,and still is…until we can renovate and update.
Our advantages are few but formidable. The locals cherish this place, as it has been a part of their lives in one way or another for generations. One of our vendors, now in his 70s, swam in the pond as a teenager. Another neighbor, a local aristocrat, remembers coming here as a child and playing in the back pasture during the summers, a time and a way of life now fading.
For the French the aging grandeur of a chateau holds the same mystique that a classic car holds for some Americans: there is nostalgia. There is design. There is the ‘they don’t make them like this anymore’ element that brings grown men and women here to stop, stand on the road in front of the place, gawk, wonder, and marvel at the epic-ness of it all.
The place oozes history, privilege, and a way of life, as I said, that is disappearing…unless we help preserve it. We do this, not only with our dollars, but with our priorities. We have a duty to assimilate, not a right to be condescending. We have work to do, not a pose to strike. And we are constantly discovering what certain architectural features were originally intended for or meant at the time they were created. History constantly unfolds here.
Of course, there is no guarantee that any of our investment will be recouped when/if we decide to sell the chateau. Unlike many other real estate projects, an investment of renovation euros on one end does not automatically translate to a higher selling price on the other end. The price of a chateau floats in a sphere that is independent of other residential real estate prices. This is due to the maintenance costs, the red tape that can be involved in the renovation process, the commercial viability of a chateau, and the legacy associated with a particular property.
A lot of people would like to buy a home. Very few people want to take on a chateau.
The hacienda, once majestic, now in ruins. Overlooking the vegetable garden, it may be transformed into a venue for weddings.
The ‘hacienda’ I mentioned earlier offers a cautionary tale. As I may have mentioned, this property was owned by the same family for over 400 years. It was sold in 2014 to another couple. We bought it in 2023, becoming only the third owners of the place since 1610. At some point in time during the family’s ownership, one of its members went to Mexico and positively fell in love with the architecture of the country. He came back and built the hacienda, a vaguely Spanish styled outbuilding just on the other side of the pond from the chateau.
But the building fell into disrepair. Over the past two weeks, we’ve had two of our trusted team members pulling the roof off and down, as it was in danger of collapsing. We’ll be kicking around ideas of how and when to renovate the structure. As it looks over the walled garden to the south, we are considering a ‘venue’ design for possible weddings and parties to compliment the chapel, which sits just a few yards away.
The walls of the hacienda, which once housed the family’s carriage and horses, will probably remain. They will, however, most likely be renovated to conform more closely to the architectural style and period of the chateau.
There’s also the guardian’s house, a small, 1500 square foot or so structure that sits on the drive as you approach the main house. Its roof is also in need of replacement, as are its 4 windows and crumbling chimney and fireplace. A septic tank will have to be installed for this building. So, for now, it serves as a frequent meeting place for the cows that graze in the front yard.
Luckily, the stables are in good condition, all things considered. The roof was recently repaired by our trusted craftsman, Monsieur B. And the stone walls are sturdy. We recently discovered a hidden room that houses two brick, wood-burning ovens which were once used to bake bread. Now, I’m thinking more in terms of pizza. But chimneys and other safety features will have to be sussed out before we’re enjoying anything by the slice anytime soon.
What all of this translates to is no small amount of work and no small amount of faith. But that’s the nature of chateau life. Hopefully, by this time next year we’ll be preparing to welcome visitors for the annual Journees du Patrimoine (Heritage Days), when chateaux from all over France open their doors to welcome the public for tours.
We’ll have quite a story to tell and hopefully quite a place to share.