Category: Historic Homes & More


These Detroit Metalworkers Prove the Best Home Goods Are Handmade

Hidden away in Detroit's Corktown neighborhood lies this gem of a smith shop, which is bringing high-quality production back to the city.

gabriel craig headshot

Photo: gabrielcraigmetalsmith.com

Any student of American history knows that there was a time when Detroit was abuzz with activity, when entrepreneurs and industry made the city a critical hub for USA-made manufacturing. What’s slightly less well known is that craftsmanship and production is still alive and well in Detroit. Take Smith Shop, for instance. This metalworking shop has been creating beautiful hand-forged and fabricated architectural work, home goods, and jewelry since 2012. Based out of Ponyride, a workspace for socially-conscious business owners, they’re part of a thriving community of local makers, and their goods are on offer throughout the country. Smith Shop’s success has been hard won by their team of expert metalworkers, so we spoke to co-founder Gabriel Craig to learn more about what makes them tick.

 

Smith Shop Detroit Creamer Sugar

Photo: smithshopdetroit.com

How did Smith Shop get started?
I grew up just outside of Detroit, and I moved away thinking, Man, this city is dead. But my wife Amy Weiks wanted to get her Master’s degree in metalworking, and so she applied and enrolled at the Cranbook Academy of Arts, which brought us back. Once we moved back we both realized how great Detroit was, and we’ve been here ever since.

When Amy finished her Master’s degree we decided to open this shop. We wanted to have a more public face rather than just an art shop.

 

Smith Shop Detroit Bar Cart Hardware

Photo: smithshopdetroit.com

What’s it like working at a collaborative space like Ponyride?
Just through proximity we’re always learning from each other, and I think that makes everyone’s work a little better. And there’s obviously tool sharing happening all the time.

We try to collaborate as much as possible with the other businesses. Detroit Denim, for example, is another tenant who came in around the same time as us. They had been looking for someone to make really high-quality belt buckles. When they asked us if we could do something like that, I said, “Yeah, I think we can knock that out of the park.” There are some people manufacturing that kind of hardware in the United States, but it’s mass-produced by casting. What we’re doing is hand-forging and fabricating each buckle individually with extreme attention and care. So we started with a few samples, they put them on the belts, and we haven’t looked back.

 

Detroit Denim belt Smith Shop Detroit buckle

Photo: smithshopdetroit.com

What’s been the most surprising thing that’s happened along the way?
We thought we’d start a shop in Detroit to just export to larger markets around the country and that we’d have very little demand for our products locally. It was a huge surprise to realize there are many people in Detroit and in the surrounding area who really want to support Detroit businesses, and they have sought us out to make things for them. More than half of our business comes from the Metro Detroit area.

I think Detroit loves Detroit. Most may not realize that the Metro Detroit population is about 4 million people, and a lot of them are interested in supporting the resurgence of economic activity and entrepreneurial development in the city. We’ve certainly benefited from it, and for that we’re really grateful. But that was not part of our business plan.

 

smith shop detroit silverware

Photo: smithshopdetroit.com

What’s your process for creating a new piece?
In metalworking there are three variables: the material, the design of the project, and the process by which you’re going to manipulate the material. Because we’re so experienced in working with the material and processes, we can really start with any of those variables. So we might say, “I want to forge something,” and then, “I want it to be a piece of kitchenware.” And so you can start with those two things and design from there. It’s sort of like a puzzle.

Not everyone is involved in the design of every project in the shop, but there’s never any design that just one person is solely responsible for. One of the reasons why I feel that we’re so successful is that we try to take our egos out of the equation. It’s not about having the control or realizing your vision, but taking the talent pool that we’ve accumulated and using it to create something exceptional.

 

Smith Shop Detroit Coat Rack

Photo: smithshopdetroit.com

What’s your favorite piece that Smith Shop has made?
That’s like choosing your favorite child! But the signature servingware was the first thing that we made where I thought, This is really something very special.

 

Smith Shop Detroit Servingware

Photo: smithshopdetroit.com

What’s the most challenging thing about what you do?
Keeping up with demand. We could easily hire more people and grow very quickly, but we want to maintain an extremely high level of quality. We’re very calculating about who we hire and how much training they go through. But that’s sort of the nature of what we do—it takes time.

 

smith shop detroit third thursday drop in

Photo: smithshopdetroit.com

For more information, check out Smith Shop’s online store or stop by. They open their space to the public through classes, workshops, and private lessons.


Big Box Furniture Has Nothing on This One-of-a-Kind Company

North Carolina-based Old Wood Co. builds quality furniture pieces from primarily reclaimed wood, proving that—once and for all—local, sustainable goods are no mere fad.

Photo: Travis Bell Photography

When Darren Green founded Old Wood Co., in 2007, he had social and environmental consciousness top of mind. After working in the furniture industry for years, he’d seen firsthand the effects that the Asian import industry had had on American furniture makers. In starting a new company, Darren wanted to create high-quality furniture that didn’t have to compete with low-cost imports.

Instead, his pieces—built primarily from reclaimed lumber—stand on their own and attract interest from homeowners who care about aesthetics and origin. The unique wood grain, knots, nail holes, and worm holes of each board mean that every table, chair, and desk is truly one-of-a-kind. Not only that, the Asheville, North Carolina-based team of woodworkers, wood finishers, blacksmiths, and metalworkers craft every aspect of the furniture for a finished product that is 100 percent American made. We checked in with Darren to talk shop and walked away with an understanding of the inspirational beginnings of his company and a whole lot of insight into the process of creating high-quality furniture.

 

The reason I started doing what I do is…
At age 22, I started working with my father in the furniture industry. After about two years, I was offered a sales position at Lee Industries, an upholstery manufacturer in Newton, North Carolina. It was there that I really gained a better appreciation of building and selling well-made custom furniture. After seven years, I decided I wanted to build my own company using the lessons I had learned from my father as well as my close friend and mentor Norman Coley, who was the president of Lee Industries at the time. It is that challenge of building things from scratch, whether a business or a piece of furniture, that keeps me engaged every day.

Old Wood Co - Remade in the USA

Photo: Old Wood Co.

What makes Old Wood Co. environmentally and socially conscious is…
First and foremost, we provide all our employees with a living wage, shared health insurance plan, paid vacations, yoga on Tuesdays, and a host of other great benefits.

Environmentally, we use locally sourced reclaimed hardwoods as well as sustainably harvested Appalachian hardwoods. We use only oils, waxes, and water-based stains and polyurethane top coats. We use these environmentally friendly finishes to protect our environment and all our employees in the shop.

Old Wood Co. - Distillers Table

Photo: Old Wood Co.

We source wood for our projects by…
We work with several local sawmills and reclamation experts to source the best material in our area. One of our main reclaimed wood suppliers is a full-time firefighter whose station is a mere two miles away.

The thing I love most about reclaimed wood is…
The uniqueness of the grain and reclaimed characteristics. Every board tells a different story. Some boards were milled into quarter-sawn, flat-sawn, or rift-sawn—all depending on how much yield the sawyer could get out of that log. When we bring those individual pieces together in a top, we’re telling our own one-of-a-kind story by placing them in a sequence that looks the best.

Old Wood Co - Tree Chairs

Photo: Old Wood Co.

My main sources of inspiration are…
Authenticity. Nature. Grain variation and patterns.

The most challenging thing about my work is…
Continuing to provide the same level of care as our company grows. As we increase production, it is vital to our success that we maintain our highest level of work.

I tell everyone in the shop that we need to be our biggest critics. If we don’t love the piece, then it is not ready to ship.

Old Wood Co - Harvest Dining Table

Photo: Old Wood Co.

My favorite part of the process is…
Seeing a piece prior to finishing that already looks great. If a piece looks good in sanding, it is going to look awesome after finishing.

Old Wood Co - Kids Play Furniture

Photo: Old Wood Co.

My all-time favorite tools are…
Our newest addition: a CNC router with a rotary axis. The tool will allow us to render a turning or a carving in a design program and quickly produce the part. It is the closest thing we will ever get to having a robot in our wood shop.

Old Wood Co - Writing Table

Photo: Old Wood Co.

Old Wood Co. is based out of Darren’s 10,000-square-foot space in the River Arts District of Asheville, North Carolina. Visit the website to request more information or schedule an appointment.


This Company Turns Centuries-Old Barns into Contemporary Homes

One Texas-based company has built a thriving business by turning empty old barns into modern dwellings for today's homeowner.

Photo: heritagebarns.com

As agriculture has morphed into big business and populations have shifted from the countryside to urban centers, timber-frame barns have become rare. Thanks to companies like Heritage Restorations, however, many historic barns are being repurposed in exciting ways that their original builders could not have foreseen.

Based in Texas, Heritage Restorations has spent the last 20 years acquiring, carefully dismantling, skillfully rebuilding, and creatively integrating centuries-old barns into stunning new buildings—commercial spaces, event centers, and yes, even private homes. Combined with the best of today’s energy efficient materials, timber barn frames have made for jaw-dropping superstructures in residences across the country. It seems that whereas historic barns no longer fit the bill for 21st-century farmers, they provide much of what contemporary homeowners want—ample square footage, open floor plans, and timeless, authentic style.

Photo: heritagebarns.com

As alluring as the barns may be in their patinated, hand-hewn beauty, their histories are even more engrossing. Many of these barns survived the Civil War; some are considerably older, dating back to the Colonial era. In fact, in the process of dismantling one barn, Heritage Restorations uncovered a Revolutionary War bayonet hidden behind a wall. Whereas barn-style homes are by no means unprecedented, Heritage Restorations takes a unique approach. Aware of these barns as outstanding examples of early American craftsmanship—and, indeed, as history embodied—the company seeks to preserve as much as possible of the original.

When it began business, members of the company would drive along the backroads of upstate New York and rural New Jersey on the hunt for disused barns. When they found one, they would simply go knock on the door of the adjacent house. In time, and with improved technology, Heritage Restorations adopted more sophisticated methods. The team now uses Google Earth to explore rural areas, narrowing their eyes in search of certain telltale rooflines. But even with satellite imagery available, the company has not outgrown, and perhaps never will, advertisements that list their phone number under a simple message: “We Buy Barns”.

Photo: heritagebarns.com

Some customers buy only the timber frame, opting to work with their own trusted architect and/or contractor. In that case, Heritage Restorations, besides fumigating the wooden members, provides third-party advice gleaned from the many dozens of barn homes the company has helped to realize in the past. Since working around a reclaimed wood frame presents some challenges, and differs substantially from conventional modern framing, there are bound to be questions.

Other customers retain Heritage Restorations for its in-house architectural services. The company has overseen projects large and small, deploying at least a few different design strategies. One option is for the home to be fully contained within the original barn frame. For additional square footage, multiple frames may be combined into a single building. And in still another permutation, the barn frame may be supplemented by one or more conventionally framed additions. Though specifics change, of course, from site to site and project to project, there’s one commonality in all: hundreds of years after its raising, the barn still stands.

Photo: heritagebarns.com

For more information, visit Heritage Restorations.


House Envy: A Cantilevering Creekside Retreat

A glass-walled addition to a California cabin affords a jaw-dropping view of the surrounding woods and adjacent creek.

Amy Alper Creekside Cabin

Photo: alperarchitect.com

In California wine country, a house-hunting couple struck upon a cozy, cedar-shingled cabin. Encompassing 960 square feet, the home sat nestled in a grove of trees, just a stone’s skip removed from Mark West Creek. Taken by the location and the many modest charms of the cabin, the house-hunters decided to buy the place, fully aware of its main design drawback. So before getting too comfortable, they brought in Sonoma-based architect Amy Alper to help devise a solution.

Built in the 1930s, the cabin originally served as the cooking quarters for a family who preferred to camp on the property. In the years since, subsequent owners had modernized the structure with a bedroom and bathroom, turning it into an all-season retreat. But while the cabin grew in size, it never grew to embrace its unique site. Except for a window situated above the kitchen sink, the layout afforded no views to the adjacent creek, the feature that makes the land so special.

Amy Alper Creekside Cabin - Living Room

Photo: alperarchitect.com

For the architect Alper, the challenge was to open up the cabin to its surroundings, without sacrificing the rustic feel, all while heeding a local regulation that limited new construction only to areas previously disturbed. She presented to the homeowners what turned out to be a winning concept. Where a seldom-used, beetle-damaged deck had been, Alper proposed a double-height, glass-enclosed living room addition that would cantilever from the building toward the creek.

The new steel-and-glass addition basically wraps around the wood-framed original. What had once been a section of the shingled exterior now divides the kitchen from the living room, imbuing the sleek new space with a sense of the home’s history. And though the project only added about 300 square feet, the floor-to-ceiling windows manage to erode the distinction between indoors and out, seeming to join the cozy cabin with all the forest acres beyond the glass.

Amy Alper Creekside Cabin - Exterior

Photo: alperarchitect.com

For more information, visit Amy A. Alper, Architect.


House Envy: Outpost in the Idaho Desert

Architect Tom Kundig designed the Outpost not only to withstand the brutal conditions of the desert, but also to witness its beauty.

Outpost - Exterior 1

Photo: olsonkundigarchitects.com

In the Idaho desert, the Outpost sits at the end of a half-mile-long driveway. Designed by architect Tom Kundig, the house belongs to an artist who lives and works inside its boxy concrete form, and who collaborated with Kundig over the course of what became a quite lengthy process. For nearly a decade, a series of unanticipated constraints forced Kundig and his client to scale back and refine the original plan, over and over, until nothing beyond the essentials remained.

Outpost - Main Floor

Photo: olsonkundigarchitects.com

Making up much of the interior is a large, open space that includes the kitchen, living, and dining areas. A staircase leads to a mezzanine bedroom, which looks over the undivided volume below. On the very bottom level is a utility room and the homeowner’s office and studio space. Windows—some as large as eight-by-eleven feet—interrupt the concrete exterior walls on all sides of the structure. Through these panes are sweeping views of the desert and its undulating hills.

Outpost - Inside Out

Photo: olsonkundigarchitects.com

Kundig has described the Outpost as a Tootsie Roll, “hard on the outside and soft on the inside.” In response to the climate and its extremes, he chose durable, low-maintenance materials, beautiful in their utilitarian simplicity. No surfaces have been unnecessarily modified. Even indoors, one sees mainly raw, unfinished wood and natural, unpainted plaster. Several elements—the exposed steel beams, for instance—recall the farm and mining buildings seen nearby. This is the region where Kundig grew up; reportedly, he took the job in part to reconnect with the land and architectural vernacular that had fascinated him as a youth.

Outpost - Exterior 2

Photo: olsonkundigarchitects.com

However artful, the interior excels in one respect most of all: It focuses attention out towards nature, the seasons, and the ever-stunning desert landscape.


A Suburban House Like You’ve Never Seen

Designing, not for a client, but for his own family, an architect follows his vision, and in the process transforms a prototypical suburban house into something entirely new.

Casa Westway - Facade View

Photo: lopezresendez.com

You wouldn’t necessarily expect to find experimental architecture in McAllen, a small city on the southern tip of Texas. But if his own house provides any indication, architect Luis López Reséndez may be out to change how outsiders perceive McAllen. After purchasing a three-bedroom house here—a rectangular, pitched-roof ranch like so many others built in the postwar period—Reséndez went to work putting an exciting, utterly unique twist on its familiar design.

Related—House Tour: A Prototypical Suburban House, Reinvented

Since he was building his own house, for his own family, Reséndez got something that’s rare for a professional architect: total design freedom. Seizing the opportunity, he explored widely in terms of both materials and construction methods. “It’s not that easy to do with a client,” he says. But left to his own devices, Reséndez was able to develop creative responses to any challenges that arose. Some challenges were specific to the project—the site, the budget—while others were fairly universal. For instance, how do you bring together interior and outdoor spaces, and what makes for an ideal family living environment in today’s world?

Casa Westway - Before Shot

Photo: lopezresendez.com

Though it’s no larger than it had been, the Reséndez house, dubbed Casa Westway, stands out in the neighborhood now, largely thanks to its innovative roof. Breaking from convention, Reséndez stretched the roofline out and down so that it actually curtains one full side of the house before terminating at the ground. “The roof keeps on going and going, floating out farther as it becomes a skin,” Reséndez says of the choice. In this way, the distinction blurs between roof and facade, facade and roof. The outward appearance of the home takes on a seamless quality, while the interior spaces enjoy greater articulation and better light.

Casa Westway - Interior View

Photo: lopezresendez.com

Much as the Casa Westway exterior erodes the distinction between roofing and siding, the interior virtually eliminates the division between rooms. Gone are the walls that once partitioned the ranch into a series of small, separate spaces. In the remodel, only the bedrooms remain private. The central living areas, in contrast, flow into one another in a fluid relationship that even carries onto the backyard patio, which is accessed through sliding glass doors. The openness, Reséndez says, is “a reflection of how a family interacts.” He sums up the project by saying, “We wanted a space where we could be together on a daily basis—a universal space.”

Westway House - Rear View

Photo: lopezresendez.com

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art, and design for national and international publications. He also edits and publishes a digital design magazine at architectsandartisans.com. His new book, Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand, is due out from Routledge in the spring.


Cabin of the Week: The Shack at Hinkle Farm

Built by an architect as a family retreat, a West Virginia cabin harkens back to a time when houses offered little more than shelter from the storm.

Shack at Hinkle Farm

Photo: broadhurstarchitects.com

Perched on South Fork Mountain in West Virginia, deep within a 27-acre site you can only reach on foot or with an off-road vehicle, there’s an uncomplicated cabin. Architect Jeffery Broadhurst built the place for his family and by his own description, it’s only a modest step up from tent camping. Here, there’s no electricity, and besides oil lamps and a wood stove, there are few creature comforts. There’s shelter from the elements, and a platform from which to admire the spectacular view.

Shack at Hinkle Farm - View

Photo: broadhurstarchitects.com

As noteworthy as the design may be, in all its refreshing simplicity, the cabin also impresses with its clever execution. Most obvious is the overheard garage door that completely opens up one side of the cabin to the outdoors. But there are smaller triumphs as well. For instance, a metal mesh rodent barrier—the kind used to protect local corn cribs—lines the underside of the floor. So even though a person can see the ground through gaps between floorboards, furry pests can’t get in.

Similarly ingenious is the makeshift plumbing system. Beneath the cabin and accessible by a trap door, there’s a large storage tank that feeds (by means of a marine bilge pump) a smaller distribution tank mounted to the ceiling. From there, gravity delivers water to the sink faucet in a tiny, tucked-away kitchen area.

Shack at Hinkle Farm - Wood Stove

Photo: broadhurstarchitects.com

Broadhurst built the cabin himself, with help from family, friends, and neighbors. The materials used are no different from what the average person would find on the shelves at his nearby home improvement retail store. Sitting atop a quartet of pressure-treated lumber posts, just as a backyard deck would, the cabin features board-and-batten wood siding and terne-coated metal roofing. Though plainly utilitarian, both elements lend a timeless look of elegant, enviable simplicity.

Shack at Hinkle Farm - Site

Photo: broadhurstarchitects.com


Meet the World’s First Luxury Tiny House

Tiny Heirloom manufacturers very stylish, jaw-droppingly small homes that can accompany you virtually anywhere you'd like to go.

Photo: tinyheirloom.com

Over the past several years, the tiny house movement has only gained momentum, with increasing numbers of homeowners saying goodbye to extra square footage—and burdensome mortgages—in favor of very small, quite affordable, and often portable dwellings that have come to be not-so-creatively called tiny homes.

Some choose to build their own, designing every inch to meet their individual needs. Others hire a builder to realize their custom design in three dimensions. And still others purchase kits or preassembled tiny homes from the growing cadre of manufacturers who are servicing this rapidly expanding “cottage” industry.

Enter Portland, Oregon-based Tiny Heirloom, the first luxury-oriented company to enter the market. Steered by a close-knit group of six family members and friends, the brand-new outfit combines thoughtful design with fine craftsmanship to create what they call “the best and most quality tiny home in the world.”

Though custom options are readily available and Tiny Heirloom works closely with each of its clients, the company’s 128-square-foot standard model includes a lounge area, kitchen, and bathroom, with bedroom and storage lofts above. It costs $65,000, including delivery to anywhere in the continental United States.

Photo: tinyheirloom.com

What separates Tiny Heirloom from its competitors is the attention paid to interior finishes. Top-of-the-line materials are incorporated throughout. Highlights include hardwood flooring, aged-bronze sconces, and hand-hewn pine ceiling beams. In the kitchen, European-style compact appliances succeed in saving floor space, while their stainless steel housings sacrifice nothing in style. In the main living area, a washer-dryer combination fits snugly within a two-foot-wide closet.

Photo: tinyheirloom.com

Customers choose between wind, solar, or battery power, although each home also comes equipped with 12-volt and 110-volt hookups, allowing it to connect to an external power source, if one is available. Heat comes from a small wall-mounted propane-fueled heater originally designed to be used inside the cabins of boats.

Photo: tinyheirloom.com

Perhaps the best part is that, because Tiny Heirloom builds on wheeled chassis, its little homes are classified as travel trailers. That means an owner can take his home almost anywhere, leaving it parked permanently on a lonely piece of land with a beautiful view, or pulling it behind his vehicle on a cross-country road trip.

Photo: tinyheirloom.com

For more information, visit Tiny Heirloom.


Cabin of the Week: The Floating Farmhouse

A four-year labor of love transforms a derelict Catskill Mountains farmhouse into an effortlessly stylish amalgam of cutting-edge and country.

Floating Farmhouse - Exterior 1

Photo: givonehome.com

In 2002, Tom Givone went out on a limb. The former advertising copywriter decided to purchase and resuscitate a 19th-century farmhouse in Upstate New York. Thus began a four-year-long odyssey, filled with both physical and design challenges. The stop-and-start process was hampered not only by the delays and frustrations that typically accompany large-scale renovations, but also by the Great Recession. Today, however, the reborn structure carries no scars from the struggles that bedeviled its completion. Rather, the Floating Farmhouse, as Givone Home calls it, blends old and new with seemingly effortless style.

Floating Farmhouse - Addition

Photo: givonehome.com

Probably the most stunning aspect of the Floating Farmohouse is the spacious, open kitchen, situated within a new wing, the gable end of which is composed entirely of glass and steel. Here, there are overtly modern touches—polished concrete floors, wraparound bluestone counters, and high-gloss cabinetry. But there are also testaments to the history of the farmhouse. For instance, antique hand-hewn beams salvaged from a dairy barn in neighboring Pennsylvania span the contemporary space.

Floating Farmhouse - Bathroom

Photo: givonehome.com

The luxuriously minimalist master bathroom features a nine-foot-long wall-to-wall shower, as well as a tub housed within a white-painted wood surround. Girding the vessel sinks is a countertop made from one of the 11 pine trees on the property that were felled and milled to provide most of the lumber used in the project.

Floating Farmhouse - Bedroom

Photo: givonehome.com

Cor-Ten steel frames the fireplace and serves as a bold focal point in the master bedroom. The airiness of the room owes partly to its all-white palette, but more so to the soaring vaulted ceiling. A pared-down version of traditional wainscoting travels the room’s perimeter, recalling the building’s origin. But a more overt reminder of the past comes from the original cedar shake roof shingles, exposed during the renovation and deployed here, along with roughly aligned planks, as decoration for the doorway.

Floating Farmhouse - Guest Bathroom

Photo: givonehome.com

It’s hard to pick a favorite feature in the guest bathroom, but perhaps most noteworthy is the sumptuously imperfect Italian marble sink, which cantilevers into the room with no visible means of support (in fact, it’s hung by means of angle irons concealed within the wall). Also eye-catching is the wood-and-zinc tub, a 19th-century artifact rescued from a New York tenement building. Givone chose to wrap the vintage tub in stainless steel, again finding a way for different centuries to complement one another.

Floating Farmhouse - Before

Photo: givonehome.com

You can rent the Floating Farmhouse—located two hours north of New York City, in the Catskill Mountains—from $600 per night. Click here for details.


The Resurrection of a Gloriously Derelict Castle in France

An Australian couple has begun the long journey toward restoring Chateau de Gudanes, a centuries-old house, long-neglected in the south of France.

Chateau de Gudanes

Photo: chateaudegudanes.org

Five years ago, Karina and Craig Waters—a tax accountant and a urologist, respectively, in Perth, Australia—began looking for a vacation home in the south of France. Karina says she envisioned “a small farmhouse,” the sort of simple, “shabby-chic” cottage so often invoked in fantasies of French countryside living. On their real estate hunt, however, the Waters couple visited a long string of homes whose rural charm had been replaced by modern luxuries. Whereas they had set out seeking worn, weathered floorboards and casually planted, wonderfully scented gardens, they found sleek, blemishless finishes and infinity pools.

Related: House Tour—A French Castle Rises from Its Ruins

That was when their son, 15 years old at the time, stumbled onto an Internet listing for what appeared to be, from the aerial views provided, a grand, albeit ramshackle, estate. Intrigued, Karina and Craig decided to check out the chateau on their next trip to France—and they did, driving 500 miles in a single day to arrive at its iron gates. What they discovered there in Chateau-Verdun, a tiny town perched high in the Pyrenees, utterly captivated the couple. ”We fell in love with this chateau and the region,” she says. After two long years of negotiations, the Waters family finally purchased the 96-room Chateau de Gudanes.

Chateau de Gudanes - Interior

Photo: chateaudegudanes.org

Move-in condition? Not quite. During a prolonged period of neglect, several portions of the roof had collapsed into the 43,000-square-foot building. Many floors in the five-level structure had caved in too. On their first survey of the property, the couple wore hard hats, and for safety reasons could walk only into a handful of rooms. Trees were growing inside, and everywhere there was dirt, rotten wood, rust, mold and mushrooms. Still, amid the rubble, Karina and Craig saw ample evidence of the chateau’s former glory—centuries-old stained glass, painted frescoes, gilt-framed mirrors, ornamental plaster, and artisan-carved woodwork.

Chateau de Gudanes - Stained Glass

Photo: chateaudegudanes.org

Chateau de Gudanes dates back to the mid-1700s. Its architect, Ange-Jacques Gabriel, was the most prominent of his time. His high-profile commissions included the Place de la Concorde, a major public square in the French capital city, as well as the Petit Trianon, built for Louix XV’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, on the grounds of Versailles. In its heyday, the Chateau de Gudanes hosted lavish parties frequented by the cultural elite, including Voltaire.

Chateau de Gudanes - Upper Floor

Photo: chateaudegudanes.org

Once the Waters family took ownership and work got under way, more of the chateau’s history began to emerge. For instance, Karina and Craig had assumed that nothing remained of the medieval fort that originally stood on the site. It was believed to have been destroyed in the late 16th century, during the French Wars of Religion. As workers began digging, however, they soon uncovered two of the fort’s towers. They later discovered a 10-foot-deep hole in the floor, which lead to a previously unknown, largely inaccessible portion of the basement. Karina thinks it may have been an escape for the owners during World War II.

Photo: chateaudegudanes.org

Chateau de Gudanes - Restorationists

Photo: chateaudegudanes.org

So far, much of the effort has gone into removing—by hand, pulley, and cart—the mixed debris that had accumulated during the building’s abandonment. In addition, steel I-beams have been installed to replace rotted the wood joists that once ran under floors of layered lime and flagstone. It’s deliberate, slow-going work, primarily because the couple intends to restore the chateau, not completely redesign it.

On the blog that she began to chronicle the project’s progress, Karina writes, “Our aim is to tread lightly and gently, to preserve the atmosphere and authenticity of the Chateau and region as much as possible. [The Chateau] will be renovated but her rawness, wear and history will not be erased…”

Related: House Tour—A French Castle Rises from Its Ruins

With the help of an architect and the cooperation of the French architectural preservation authority, Monuments Historiques, Karina says, “We’re developing a plan to give the Chateau a sustainable future.” Opening the house to the public is definitely part of that plan, but the details are, for the moment, fuzzy.

Would there be a café, guest rooms, outdoor concerts, community events? None or all of those? The Waters family hasn’t decided. One thing is certain: “The Chateau won’t be a pretentious museum piece.”

For a bird’s-eye perspective on the Chateau de Gudanes, its grounds, and the surrounding area, don’t miss this high-definition video, captured by a camera-equipped aerial drone!

 

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art, and design for national and international publications. He also edits and publishes an online design magazine at architectsandartisans.com