My house in its previous incarnation

The woman who sold me my house — when it was in the condition you see in these photos — came by for tea the other day. She brought a friend to show her what I had done with it. I was impressed by her ability to be objective about the whole thing and pleased that she was pleased by the changes.

I have always been deeply emotionally involved with my homes. I have had a vision for them. If subsequent owners do not share that vision, fine, but I don’t want to know about it. I have never returned to or even driven past one of my old homes. So it was a relief to know that she was so comfortable with the idea of this no longer being her house.

She was invited because I want to collect stories about the house and its owners. While there is much talk about “patrimoine,” or heritage, here in France, people don’t often seem to apply it to their daily lives. For example I have no photos of the house that predate these “before” record shots. And, I learned from her, there is a roughly 100-year gap in my knowledge of its ownership and life.

In about the 1960’s her — let’s call her MP — grandfather bought a derelict house. It had been abandoned for some time, so they got it plus quite a bit of land for a song. MP knows nothing about the previous owners. Her family put as little effort as possible into improvements, though to their credit, if they did do something, they tended to get it right. The slate roof, for example, must have cost a bundle. Most of the money went into building up the family business, a porcherie. Where I park my car, they raised pigs. They owned a slaughterhouse in Luçon, which doubtless served others. Granddad kept vineyards where a lotissement now crowds my walls.

Granddad died and, eventually so did MP’s dad. Her brother and uncle discontinued the business. Her mother stayed in the house, living on her share of the sale proceeds, then on the sale of the surrounding land. When she died, the house fell further into disrepair. When I bought it, it had been on the market for three years.

And that’s basically it, for now. What happened between 1860, when it was first built, and roughly 1960, when Grandad’s eye for a bargain brought him here, remains a mystery. Next stop, the notaire. He keeps the ownership records.

15 thoughts on “My house in its previous incarnation

  1. I love stories like this. The “before” looks like so, so many places I’ve seen. There are many empty old homes languishing unloved and unsold. On a walk in the country this morning, I saw a young couple and, I guess, a builder looking over plans at a new lotissement well outside the village. Young people want new; they don’t want to renovate. They prefer poor construction and minimal insulation to old stone walls.
    One young family did renovate, though the house was only built in the ’80s (by the original owner himself, who did an excellent job). It was typical Mediterranean style; they gutted it and made it ultra modern. Unrecognizable. I guess that’s OK, as long as what’s being torn out isn’t irreplaceably historic.
    As for previous owners, maybe the mairie? Carcassonne’s department of urbanism gave us a bunch of records back to the 1600s that had been digitized. With a couple of clicks, we got printouts.

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    1. There is a reasonably strong economic argument for building new. It’s not my choice, just saying. It costs the same per square meter as renovating because with renovations you have high labor costs. Fixing it up yourself can save labor costs, but do you really want to work all day and rewire all night? You can put in damp-proofing; take it from one who learned the hard way, in an old house, that is either impossible or crazy expensive. Often the floor plan is more efficient. Etcetera.

      Emotionally the symbolism of ‘new life, new house” resonates with a lot of people. Architects are often averse to bringing out the best in an existing building, when they see an opportunity to showcase their own design talents. My new family includes a couple who work in a high-design firm, so I’m sure you’ll understand if I stop right there.

      The notaire should have a record of who owned the house. At one time it was a required part of the sales documents. Maybe the mairie has something. There is also an archive in what amounts to the county seat. Google has digitized many of those records, which is how I learned what I know about the original architect. It is only recently that building permits were required; I think my renovation permit may be the only one that exists for my house.

      I’d like to do a photo book but so far I have no photos from before 2013. Maybe another call to MP is in order. Maybe the mairie will be more useful there.

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  2. Like you, I tend not to go back to a house I have sold but I think this lady is so delighted with you bringing her old home back to life that she is carried along with your vision (who wouldn’t be – it is stunning, after all). In terms of finding history. We have been lucky so far with our place but still, like you, have gaps to fill. Notably a woman who lived in the house from the end of WW1 to around 1960 and the woman and her daughters who lived there following her til 2000. We know a little from talking to villagers but intend to go to the Mairie for official records then try to trace the daughters. Whether they will want to speak is another thing entirely. The French can be notoriously closed about their personal lives and it will be delicate operation. I do with you luck with it – uncovering the secrets a house keeps is positively frisson-worthy, I find.

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    1. Good point. If a house like that is let go, there is generally a sad story behind it. MP was quite open about how it was decided to sell the house. Other people made the critical decisions, after all. The family before might not want to talk about it.

      Well. I live with someone who will handle those introductory inquiries as tactfully as anyone could. The first hurdle is to find out who they might be and whether there is even any family left. In addition to the mairie, there is M. Le Maire himself, who has lived in the area for ages.

      Congratulations for finding a survivor from WWI. That’s a century ago, now. I’ll be lucky to find photos from that era.

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      1. I so wish we had earlier photos …. we have a wonderful retired historian in the village and he has made it his mission to uncover as much as he can about the village and knows I’m like a piglet on a truffe for any signs of pictorial evidence of the house as it was ….

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  3. Lynn

    A fascinating research project. Even knowing more about the immediate prior family is fascinating.

    We will look forward to more chapters in the history of the house – perhaps even details about the people themselves.

    GMN

    >

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    1. I’d like a few more details myself. It just dawned on me that I don’t know MP’s first name, though that is likely in the sales document, nor do I know what she does for a living. It will be an uphill battle, no question.

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  4. We were lucky in that people knew about the houses and were happy to pass on their knowledge…there was always the cadastre for backup, too and the departmental archives, though those in our area were so badly organised that it was quite a task to find anything relevant.
    I have to admit to loathing what people have done with the houses we renovated…not that I go back to look, but I do see the pics when they come up for sale and have a minor fit of rage. A country cottage, once the post house for the abbey along the road, turned into a tart’s boudoir….plastic bloody windows in what had once been a hunting lodge…even a loo with glass bricks installed in a library…tchah!

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    1. See? That’s why I don’t dare look back! PVC windows, nooooooooo.

      The archives are likely worth a look. Google scanned the written docs, but not the drawings. They are just across from the prefecture, though, always a bit stressful. I’ll get there. It sounds like a good rainy day project.

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      1. I shouldn’t look at the sales sites either…not good for the blood pressure!
        Enjoy the archives…goodness only knows what you might find! he cadastre keeps all the actes de vente, which are public documents so you can inspect them.

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  5. I hope you are able to fill the gaps.
    Our Notaire was only in possession of fairly recent copy deeds and we have only been able to establish the 20thc owners.
    The rest of our house’s story is anecdotes and vague memories dredged up by the locals and hints that house itself has given up over time.

    The previous owners won’t be coming to tea, sadly.

    We only recently found out it was a wine cave (Blanquette) a few decades ago.

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    1. Oh, a cave. That’s so much better than a cowshed. Your place is only newly unified, though, isn’t it? And that’s thanks to you. I just got back from Charleston. One day your place will be a monument too, with all its painted walls. No question, your house’s most significant period is right now.

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  6. Am fascinated to hear more. Are you able to put the before and after pics side by side in a post? (I am very – very – nosey and love to see what people do with their houses!) x

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    1. Yes, I can. I have been waiting to get all the photos in one place. Then if possible I’d like to show before, during and after. Often I have all three, but they are scattered over two computers and an iPad. Also I’m just about to hang curtains in the bedrooms, so I’ll want to wait on those rooms. I am tempted to do a poll — better with Jennifer’s Turkish pestamel curtains or without? With the stunning Moroccan tiebacks or without? I don’t know myself, though obviously I’m hoping the answer will “with” and “with.” Anyway, technical difficulties with one computer are slowing things down. All in good time. I always want to see those, too.

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