So you want to restore a castle? What you’ll need: a bottomless bank account, loads of free time, endless patience, and an undeterred vision that must remain intact when the unexpected complications of updating a crumbling masterpiece arise. To many, taking on the task of restoring a historical landmark with 90 odd rooms, or 50,000 sq/ft, or derelict stone towers built in the 1800s, might seem like an insane decision. But to certain enterprising, creative, and seriously flush individuals, the decision is anything but crazy. From France, to Rhode Island, private homeowners are scooping up breathtaking but abandoned regal structures and pouring their hearts, and their cash, into renovating the real estate to its former glory.
Despite complications in creating the dream royal home, like difficulties in permits – especially in France – water damage, small room structures, lack of expertise, over-grown gardens, drainage, roof and mold issues, and sometimes the poor taste of previous owners, the DIY restorationists on this list forged ahead. From the stunning visual results, we’re able to catch a glimpse of what kept them going despite it all.
5. Chateau de Robernier – 24,000 sq/ft, 22 rooms
Located in Montfort-sur-Argens, in Southwestern France, the Chateau de Robernier was built in 1870 with some of the structure’s older wings dating back as far as 1650. Before it was purchased in 2005, it had stayed in the same family of nobility for 400 years. The de Robernier family line can be traced as far back as the Capetian dynasty, which was in its time the largest and oldest European royal house. Now, Danish couple Rune Andersen and Cecile Ruppmann have breathed new life into the forgotten home. When they signed for ownership, the chateau was in ruin with collapsed roofs and just one room in a habitable condition. Andersen was not put-off by the challenge, having acquired experience with castle restoration in Poland and Denmark. In 2007, he and his wife moved into the one decent room, and despite the companions of spiders and rats, they got to work. They began on a grand hall; knocking out smaller rooms to create a large vaulted ceiling space. Further renovations included updating the wiring, adding a terraced roof and installing floor-to-ceiling French doors. They also had to add five septic tanks due to the lack of sewers – originally the sewage was sent into the river, which is no longer legal. One of the more unique features of the grounds is a small chapel with a stone altar. The couple hired a local who worked with churches and had him replace the stained glass windows and repair the mosaic floor. Now, the castle can be rented for weddings in the summer and 12 of the finished bedrooms are decorated with different colour themes, antique furnishings, marble fireplaces and decorative wallpaper.
The couple has since built a large, formal garden complete with hedges and fountains and added a second swimming pool. The grounds include almost 200 acres of vineyards and groves of olive trees. Part of the agreement that was involved in obtaining permission to purchase the chateau from French authorities, was for Andersen to become a licensed wine farmer. He has fulfilled this obligation and has now brought back to life the extinct Chateau de Robernier label.
4. Chateau de Gudanes – 27,000 sq/ft – 94 rooms
From the hills of Australia, to the mountains of the Midi-Pyrenees in Southwest France. Ozzies Karina and Craig Waters purchased the Chateau de Gudanes in 2013 and after a year of bureaucratic red-tape and waiting on building permits, they were finally able to begin restorations to their home that dates back to the 1700s.
It all began when a man by the name of Louis Gaspard de Sales, Marquis de Gudanes, Baron of Chateau Verdun and Aston, and King of the Pyrenees began what would become a decade long project to build the home. Gaspard de Sales brought on the help of a prominent French architect back in the day, Ange-Jacque Gabriels, who eventually became the premier architect of France – a role he held throughout most of the reign of Louis XV. in the 1750s the chateau was built and became the place to be wined and dined with aristocrats, noblemen, writers including Voltaire, artists and other creative intellectuals of the era.
Before the Australian couple bought the chateau, which is located in Ariege and settled deep in the valley in the Midi-Pyrenees between Les Cabannes and Chateau Verdun, it was defeated by age and disinterest. But with a dedicated building team, Karina is overseeing the progress of clearing out the debris from the 94 room building, while her husband remains in Australia working to fund the project. Many of the chateau’s unique features are uncovered and revealed daily in Karina’s blog. The couple’s initial plan to recycle what they can from the site has been one of the biggest challenges. Because of safety and weight issues the first floor required steel reinforced flooring, which meant that hundreds of lime/talc tiles had to go, much to her disappointment. Another major task was to remove the heavy beams from high ceilings that were no longer able to provide support. They will be repurposed by Karina as benches or kitchen chopping blocks. Because a large portion of the interior was damaged by water from roof leaks, many areas needed to be demolished and the rotted wood extracted. The gutting alone is a task of colossal proportions, and her administrative to-do list reflects this with items like, “apply for grant from Historic Monuments,” “apply for a French bank loan.” More labour-intensive items on the list last year included, “complete electricity, plumbing and infloor heating plan,” and “decide on lengths of wood to be milled and collected from chateau parc.” Karin has said in her blog that the orchard and other areas of “le parc” were destroyed by hundreds of years worth of abandonment. Her goal is to bring back the symmetry of the jardin à la française. Electricity was scratched off the list December of 2013; after 30 years of darkness, the chateau’s windows were illuminated by a glow once more, no doubt a thrilling accomplishment for the owners.
3. Chateau de Maulmont – +30,000 sq/ft, 18 rooms
Located in the Auvergne region of central France, this chateau has a mysterious local legend attached. Built in 1830 by Louis Philippe for his sister Adelaide, it is also the location of the original Templar ruins. The story goes that when the Order of the Knights Templar was dissolved by Pope Clement V in 1312, many of the members were hunted and executed. While the original castle was abandoned at the time, one Templar managed to hide out on the location and live his days in secrecy. Only at night, the lone knight would come out to pray at the cross that was erected at the edge of the woods around the castle.
Fast forward to 1990 and Theo, a civil engineer, with his wife Mary Bosman, bought the chateau that had turned into a very rundown hotel. The couple have restored it into a unique and picturesque hotel and gourmet restaurant. When they first took on the project, they were not yet living in France on a regular basis and appointed a manager to supervise all renovations. However, by 1996, the distance proved too challenging and the couple, originally from the Netherlands, decided to invest more of their own time and labour to the project. They moved to the area permanently and rolled up their sleeves. Mary has indicated in an interview with a local Auvergne publication that the main difficulties to start were finding the right experts for the jobs. While they made mistakes along the way, and their French was not strong, they pushed forward as best they could. The previous owner had been a local who in turn had purchased it from a rich family a decade earlier.
The last to live there were two elderly women and so the grounds and building were for the most part severely neglected. While the owner before the Bosmans had put some money into a few renovations his taste, as best, was questionable. The couple received subsidies for the work from the Conseil General and the Conseil Regional and even as the hotel was being fixed up, the couple offered it as a place to stay during tourist fairs. It is now a popular fairytale getaway for guests.
2. Belcourt Castle – 50,000 square feet, 60 rooms
This “summer villa” was originally built for 33-year-old bachelor Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont in Newport, Rhode Island. Based on the Louis XIII hunting lodge at Versailles, the castle integrated the owner’s love of pageantry, history and horses in its great halls, salons and ballrooms. Construction at the time, in 1894, cost $3.2 million, a figure that would be more around the $80 million mark today. Once completed, there were over 30 servants employed at the estate for the lone charlatan.
Originally, the first floor was built to house stables and carriages for Belmont’s thoroughbreds, but once he shacked up with Alva Vanderbilt, his girlfriend kicked all the animals out and built a banquet hall in its place. A giant pipe organ looms over the open ballroom that extends from what was once Belmont’s bedroom.
Last year, the castle was purchased by fine jewelry retailer and producer Alex and Ani founder Carolyn Rafaelian. Although she nabbed it for under $4 million, Rafaelian has already put up $5 million in renovations. As the castle is zoned for 12 events a year, with each one requiring approval by the Newport City Council, her plan is to open it as a tour house, art gallery and event space. When she purchased the castle it was in pieces, with a whole host of issues including drainage, mold and roofing issues. The decorative aesthetic wasn’t much better, with layers of “things” attached to the walls on pilasters and fluted, fake columns in gaudy gold hues. Rafaelian’s boyfriend, Joe Triangelo, who was the contractor for the process of restoration, referred to it as “a beautiful woman in really bad make-up.” Part of the upgrades will include solar panel installations and geothermal climate control heating and cooling.
1. Chateau de Grand-Luce – 45,000 sq/ft, 11 bedrooms
Another colourful story once lost to history comes from the Chateau de Grand-Luce located in the Loire Valley of Central France, about an hour’s train ride from Paris. Designed by Mathieu de Bayeux, for Jacques Pineau Viennay, Baron de Luce’, the chateau was built between 1760 and 1764. Viennay, who gave his direction for its meticulous construction by correspondence, was said to be so overcome by the beauty of his new dream home that he dropped dead from a heart attack when he laid eyes on it for the first time. Total drag!
Since his daughter and heir was apparently a very kind and generous landowner, the chateau was spared ruin during the revolution and visitors like Voltaire, who apparently enjoyed castle hopping, and the philosopher Rousseau were just a few enlightened individuals to grace the halls inside. Later, during World War II, paintings from French museums like the Louvre were hidden under the stage of the chateau’s indoor theater, and it was also used temporarily as a hospital for wounded British soldiers. In 1948, ownership was transferred from the family line to the government who held ownership until L.A.-based interior designer Timothy Corrigan came along.
Making it through the tricky and difficult French preservation laws he was given the appropriate permits required to fully restore the chateau. Corrigan has since published a book on his project called, “An Invitation to Chateau du Grand-Luce”. As one of the country’s top interior designers, Corrigan came across his own challenges with this kind of large-scale restoration. He found roadblocks to many of his visions from French authorities who micro-managed the project in terms of point color, tree types even what type of gravel he used. He said that working with them forced out creative solutions, but he seems grateful for the education in the detail of 18th Century architecture, decoration and horticulture that he received through the process. His advice to others interested in undertaking such a project is to honour the past, and be meticulous in understanding what should be preserved and what can be modified – and to always maintain a sense of humour! With renovations complete, the chateau is now a boutique hotel that boasts a 44-acre property with 11 acres of formal garden. On a side note, the garden requires 5.5 tons of composted fertilizer every year to maintain its exquisite topography.