First Floor, Part One

This haunted house look is what we started with. Lots of rot, lots of mildew and boards that were just nailed up any old way. Clearly these rooms had not been used in years, except maybe for storage. They are the rooms in the wings, the ones that were tacked on later to make the house look more imposing. Inside they had no clear function or visual connection to the main house. You would come to a bedroom and then oh, look, there is another door and a whole other room. It was a little creepy. Jacques would come into these rooms and pee on the floor, every time. I don’t blame him.

But I was in mourning for a man with whom I had spent our wedding night in a bedroom that had just space for the bed and had windows very close, one on each side, just like here. I couldn’t bring him back but I could bring back these rooms and give them a purpose. So I did.

Above is the first floor landing. As I mentioned not long ago, we refinished the floors and stairs. We rewired, insulated, added new skirting board and painted. Then, those rooms. If you step through that doorway, just to the left is another doorway to what used to be the sad, old pink bathroom.

It now looks like this.

We did the usual hidden work, refurbished the radiator, replaced the window, upgraded the sink, put a toilet where the tub used to be and installed a shower, in which I am sitting. Obviously the shutters have not had their makeover.

Before you just walked into the bathroom. Then beyond that was the tacked-on room. So, what to do? There was a feeling that the tacked-on part should become the bath or a big closet. But really, no. I like privacy. I don’t want to step from a public space directly into my bedroom, just don’t, plus that space between the two doors would be circulation, anyway. So, bathrooms first,then bedrooms. The top half of the bathroom doors are glazed with ordinary Leroy Merlin cathedral glass. I put reflective surfaces on the walls; that mirror is destined for the hall. This keeps the corridors from becoming too dark.

And finally, you must be so sleepy, here is one bedroom. The pictures were brought from California. The headboard will be one of those linen-covered ones, just as soon as Caravane delivers it and its twin, which will be in the next room I will show you. Lamp from Couleurs & Co. The table is an old sewing table; my great-grandmother was a seamstress, so I am pleased by that.

To this point I had been a bear about preserving the original ceilings. The coving and rosettes were irreplacable. Well, we had some coving reproduced, but you get the idea. So the guys asked special permission, with all but a written justification, to take down those splintered, rotting boards. Of course once we all saw those beams it was clear that they had to remain exposed. So we killed a lot of bugs, gave them a finish coat and painted around them.

And here is a corner of the other bedroom, like the first but in the opposite wing. The Mongolian rain cape came here by way of Berkeley. The pillows are from Jim Thompson in Bangkok. One day my headboard will come and I will find the right side tables and all. I don’t know which day but if it involves a return to Bangkok, I can’t wait!

Axis Mundi

We are hiding out today. Our reprieve from the heat wave is over.  At 7 PM it is still 32 degrees celsius, which for you in the States translates to too darn hot. Nothing to do but wait it out. 

This is a good place to do that. This is the first floor landing, the center of the house. You can sit in that tired but comfy chair and sense both the horizontal axis of the house, front to back, and also the vertical, along the staircase. On this floor there is even a secondary axis, along the length of the house. So even though you sit four or five meters in the air, you have a sense of being anchored, of being right where you should be.  It is a good place to read a book. Right now I’m reading Edmund de Waal’s “The White Road,” in which the Dutch potter takes an elegiac pilgrimage “of sorts,” as he puts it, to the sources of porcelain clay. He is in no rush; today that suits me just fine.

As decor goes, the landing could use some. A side table would be good, and a lamp. I need a picture on that wall. For the most part though, the things that I can actually see from here are in good shape. Nothing calls for attention. So I’ll finish the day by doing a little reading. Jacques and I will enjoy the view.

Next steps

Well, obviously it’s time I gave up on the first floor being finished, even sort of finished, and just showed it to you. After all, as a photo like this one shows, these houses are never actually finished. Soon, soon, really, I’ll post photos of the bedrooms, whatever you have not yet seen. Just a Couple More Pictures on the wall. Or maybe I’ll just give up.

But first, what do we have here? Yes, that’s moisture on the skylight, somewhat obscuring the bird poo. On a day when much of France is expected to be in the mid-30’s — I think that is mid-90’s, Fahrenheit — we have fog in the morning and temperatures in the mid-20’s. It doesn’t happen every time but when it does, I am grateful. Weather reports are broadcast several times a day, who knows why, it doesn’t change from hour to hour. However from them I have learned that I am in a narrow coastal belt that is somewhat protected from the wildest of the Brittany winds and also from the hottest of the heat waves that can hit south of us, down towards Bordeaux, pretty hard.

Beyond that, can we see forever? No way, we’re fixing up an old house. All we can see are those bricks. As my fellow renovators are aware, once the hard shell of a brick is gone — in this case I think it is all gone — nothing remains but the soft, porous center. It took close enough to 150 years for the outside to go. The rest could be gone pretty quickly. Birds love this stuff. They not only have nested in the chimneys themselves but have pecked out some of the bricks and are nesting there. This particular chimney has three layers of nests.

So. You can take the chimney down and just leave it down. You lose much of the character of the house but it’s safe and cheap. Many people do this but it’s just not me. Besides, my site supervisor is a journeyman bricklayer who knows where to get those narrow little bricks.

Our plan is to ride out the winter with the chimney you see. In spring, down this old guy comes, to be replaced by one that looks just like it, but is new. I am outlining a whole Phase 2, work to be done when we can stand to think about it. This is high on the list. My bank account is in no hurry for spring.

It has been a long couple of years. We’re all a little burnt out. After this it’s all small ball, little jobs that it’s hard to get excited about. The guys are on another job, apart from bits and bobs here and there. I am beyond tired of writing checks. Sometimes I think of you guys who do the work and also write the checks. I have done that myself. No way would I want to do it again. Hats off to you. The learning curve is enormous. The work can be exhausting. Crumbling houses throughout the French countryside are grateful to you.


This is what I started with. Dirty beams, full of happy insects. No insulation. Water damage. Ugly partitions that made no sense. Flat walls with arbitrarily placed doors, which visually are just the pits. Floors that look more or less okay, until you try to do anything with them. No plumbing and minimal electricity. It was dark up there.

This is what we did. We made the place watertight. We used ultrathin insulation so we could still see the beams. We killed the bugs and treated and cleaned the beams. We replaced the leaky skylights with new ones that are approved for use in historic houses, plus we added a few. We added a bathroom, a bedroom and a kitchenette, which means plumbing and a whole lot of electricity. We broke up the utter flatness of that wall by putting in a closet. So we have one less door and a somewhat separate area for the kitchenette. Oh, and the floor? They — not me, my knees would never forgive me — screwed down every plank at about three inches on center. They removed the planks that were still too far out of whack, replacing them with other boards. They poured a self-leveling compound over that, put a foam cushion over that and oak flooring over that. I guess it’s good that you can’t tell that it was in such bad shape. Since the photo below was taken I have added a floor lamp in the corner. The light is too bright to photograph well but that corner is now a great place to settle in with a book.

Baby, baby!

I don’t know. Maybe when I had that drama with the bird netting and the broken wing I was judged to be totally guilty — hey, I was — and sentenced to a whole lot of avian-related community service. 

Look at this little guy. I found him in the garage, on the floor next to a massive pile of bird shit that indicates a nest just above. The Web site I checked tells me he is not quite two weeks old. He needs lots of protein, preferably mealworms,  chopped up. Ugh. I fed him chicken. He eats little tiny bites, not very many. The site tells me he’ll want more in half an hour. Is that 24/7? What about water? When does he start feeding himself?

His mom knows he’s there. I hope she’ll rescue him but the site tells me it’s not likely. So I have him in a tiny paper – lined plastic dish in a little box, still in the garage but I hope up where the cats won’t get him, though Jacques keeps them away pretty well. Advice welcomed.

I think I’ll do the before and after of the attic, if I’m not too distracted by this little addition to my household. Every 30 minutes is pretty frequent.

Update, four hours later: he’s gone. I fed him his chicken — much merriment from a friend who guffawed, you fed chicken to a bird??? — oops. Then I moved his little box atop a bigger box, the better to foil the cats. I went back after about an hour, thinking I’d switch him to high-protein soaked and mashed dog treats. He wouldn’t eat. Maybe he had indigestion but he looked pretty perky. I left the dog treats. An hour or so later he still wouldn’t eat but I could swear he had exchanged some pin feathers for the real deal. He looked a little belligerent. I thought well, if he has attitude, he may be okay. An hour later, no bird and no sign of mayhem. So either he was plucked from safety by a particularly sneaky owl or his mom got him back into the nest. I’m hoping for the latter.


Showing you this will be a little tricky. If it starts to seem a little geeky for you, come on back tomorrow. But one of the things that drew me to this house was the attic. It was a mess but the beams were gorgeous. I am used to living in places where you would never, ever waste even a broom closet, so the idea of leaving an entire beautiful, habitable floor of a house just sitting empty was a nonstarter. The attic was neglected, no surprise, and was blocked off, probably to help insulate the habitable floors. That was sad because this house design is all about axial symmetry. One axis runs front to back, with rooms opening to either side. The other runs top to bottom, with the rooms opening from the staircase. To let light and air flow through the house and to restore the axis, I had to open the stairwell from ground floor to roof. To stay warm, I insulated and put in somewhat-geothermal central heating.

I have shown you much of the attic, so I’ll focus on the stairs. Tomorrow I’ll do a few attic shots for you guys who have not been with me since I moved from California.

Above is the attic landing. Stuart wanted to note the poor condition of the handrail, thus the odd angle. You can see that a door opens directly to the left. There was also a door to the right. The wallboard was in terrible condition and the linoleum covered a multitude of sins. It all went.

This is how that area looks now. We kept the handrail but reinforced it and shortened the landing, so we could tuck a shower into the bathroom. The bedroom door is straight ahead, with the door to the main room to the right. The flooring is sea grass; I just noticed how it resembles the old linoleum.

The whole thing is lit by a skylight and a Le Klint light fixture.

The staircase blocked off. It looked even worse from the first floor landing. I have a photo somewhere…

The staircase now. Jacques likes his toys.

Here we kept the rails and that graceful curve. We refinished the stairs and replaced the drywall. The floor tile, which was peachier and cheesier than you can imagine from this photo, was replaced by pierre de Bourgogne.

Yikes. Photos do show you all the flaws. Ignore that little piece of wadded up packing material, okay?

And finally, here is a detail of the bannisters. I remember looking at those and thinking really, I can just buy them?

Living Room/Salon

This is what I bought. Pick a pet peeve, any pet peeve. Dated curtains, absolutely needed because of the single-pane windows which leaked. Surface-mount wiring. Wallpaper, could be worse but not to my taste. And is that dirty fitted carpet on the floor? Eew. But the room also had those huge windows and pretty molding. Proportions are difficult to photograph but this room, like every room in this house, is beautifully proportioned.

So here the room is now, magically transformed into a very classy storage unit — right inside the door, too! We didn’t have to remove a fireplace as there never was one. We did remove the whole floor, not just the carpet. Somewhere in the archives is a photo of this room with caution tape over the door because stepping inside would have taken you directly to the cave. Beneath the carpet was rotted wood, so off that went, to be replaced by beams, concrete, heating tubes and a stone finish floor. The painting, a view from her house in the Drôme Provençal, is by my friend Sharon Romero. I may have the biggest collection of her paintings in the world, except maybe her mom’s house.

The curtains are gone, sorry. We insulated the walls, which allowed us to bury a whole lot of plumbing and wiring. Thanks to this space-age super-thin insulation that I have so often raved about, we saved the original molding and the rosette, seen below. I love a good rosette.

Before and after

Above you see my house in California, halfway packed to go. Below, just a bit of the house here in France, maybe the most important bits.

My contractor was kind enough to send me a huge batch of “before” photos. I have some too, somewhere, but his are handy. I may do a series of images, Homes Under the Hammer style, of what I bought and what I have now. I fell in love with the house instantly, from the first photo sent while I was still in California. Looking at these “before” pictures now, it can be hard to see why. I think I made the right decision, though. Probably. I think. Yeah, probably.


It still doesn’t feel like home — for two years I kept from going crazy with impatience by referring to “the job site,” so it’s taking a bit of mental adjustment — but I am unpacking and I like the place.

This is most of the kitchen. Not all of it fit into the photo and not all of it is there. Note the missing door hardware. That door is solidly closed but right now there is no way to open it.

The Lacanche stove is a delight. The induction cooktop is more responsive than gas, so it was easy to make the adjustment from looking at the flame to looking at the. numbers. I can’t wait for the weather to cool down enough to justify using the oven. However you can easily see that the steel panel that should go behind it and the range hood are not installed yet. Long story, not fun. Let’s talk about it another time.

The boxes hold my garbage disposer, not yet installed, and my cookbooks, which will go in shelves that are promised for next week. We shall see.

My contractor, SSH Developments, made the cabinets. The bar stools, stained glass roundel (we put it so close to the window to disguise some cracks in the glass) and bust of Gandhi (why Gandhi? Can’t tell you, I inherited it.) came with me from California. The light fixture is from a great little shop in the center of Melle, not so far from here. It’s a Jura coffee maker, the E8. The frig is a Liebherr, I forget which one, but it’s wonderful.

The sink faucet looks gadgety but it’s not. It is actually very easy to use. I am much happier with it than I thought I would be.

And the knife rack is up. Now it feels like a working kitchen.

Peaceable Kingdom

If you have much interest at all in American folk art you are likely to be familiar with the painter Edward Hicks and his Peaceable Kingdom series of paintings. They show a little slice of heaven: lush foliage, lions and lambs happy together, a whole universe about as far from today’s crazy world as one can get.

With the guests gone, the contractors gone for the day and my furniture finally escaping from padded boxes, my own small-caps peaceable kingdom is finally emerging.

This is the view from my dining table. You see a Turkish copper bowl atop an Italian slate-topped table. The Moser Shaker-inspired chairs, made in Vermont, are just in front of my English contractor’s reproduction of French windows. In the garden are a wind chime from Germany next to a picnic table and chairs from Leclerc, of all places, which probably means from China. The morning is as quiet and calm as it appears to be.

Let’s hope it’s catching.

Victory lap suspended

You see before you my kitchen, just a couple of hours before my guests appeared. You see workers, actually a couple of very talented craftsmen, but do you see drawers, shelves, a faucet, much of the other normal apparatus of a working cooking area? No you do not, though you do see a bit of an unpacking and building frenzy. You also see a woodbutcher throwback, oak countertops. Why would that be? Well, my nice but hopelessly disorganized contractor did not contact the marble/Silestone guy in time to order anything different. I’ll stop there.

So, sorry, no photos because there was not time, what with all the last-minute bed making, picture hanging, furniture moving and, finally, kitchen stocking. The house does look quite nice and soon will look better. The victory lap will resume in two weeks.

Couch Potato land

Really? You want to see the place? Not just bits and pieces? Oh, okay. Be careful what you wish for.

This is the area in the attic that is set up for TV. For you, that may be it. For me this whole house is filled with memories. 

Charles Moore and his good friend Donlyn Lyndon wrote a lovely book, Chambers for a Memory Palace, all about how space shapes our perceptions, interactions, etc. I am not such an abstract thinker. This house is clearly becoming my memory palace. I will be able to take you around every room and tell you specifically why. I’ll try to keep it brief. I’ll avoid rooms you have already seen.

So here you see your basic complementary color scheme: red, green, yellow. I see a drive down Fillmore in San Francisco. “Stop, drop me off, park the car. I just found our sofa.” So Robert did; we had been looking for ages and were pretty desperate. I had found our sofa, with fold-out beds, even. We bought it on the spot and my aesthetc credibility went up a mile. I see Robert’s chair; I wish he were here to sit in it. There is a red rug we bought on our first trip to Istanbul and the tan one we bought on the last. The propaganda posters, not yet hung, are from a trip to Viet Nam. I remember our guide taking me off the luxury path that Robert enjoyed to this little shop where an indifferent sales clerk was clearly baffled by all these Americans wanting this stuff. Mathieu made the table. An ersatz Japanese young man dreams of Elvis, fries and a Harley. I bought it for a boyfriend, a bit of a dreamer himself, who later died.

And yes, it’s a pleasant place to watch TV.