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Former glory

The property was bought in October 2002. The idea was to restore it back to its former glory whilst bringing it up to the best of modern day standards and changing its configuration so for most of the year it would feel like one complete unit, but in the summer months be easily transformed into a two part property to welcome self-catering high-end holiday makers.

There were two guiding principles: to ‘follow’ the building and never impose on it a change that would shock or look out of place; when a part of the property had to be re-built it should be done in a style and with materials that blurred the line between what was original and what had been recently built.   

A great example of this was the staircase and landing between the ground and first floor. Both were unsafe and had to be demolished and re-built. The new landing was supported by three re-enforced cement lintels which were hidden from view and when it came to laying the tiles to finish the job, the tiller, to his surprise, was given a pile of terracotta tiles which had been found buried in the garden – the surface partly warn way, scratched and with numerous chipped edges. When finished, the ‘new’ landing looked as though it had always been there. It was all about doing things sensitively.

The renovation work didn’t start in earnest for almost a year after the purchase. It took an enormous amount of time to locate and engage suppliers who were able and willing to do the work. Six reputable building companies based in Marseille and Aix-en-Provence were asked to quote for doing the gros oeuve (the main structural work). Some of them sent people to assess what needed to be done but all declined to get involved. ‘Caches misères’ was always quoted as the reason. They were all put off by the ‘hidden miseries’ they feared they would encounter with a building of such an age.

Whilst the search was still going on preparation for the renovation work started with a small band of locals who became regulars on the building site. The building and its garden had been neglected for many years and it was obvious that the work that had been done by its previous owners was with a limited budget and very little concern for the character and beauty of the original building.

Historic interest

There were a number of examples of elements of the building, which the new owners found of historic interest or adding enormously to its character, which had been intentionally disregarded.

For example, when chipping off the crumbling render on the wall, in what is now the ground floor dining room, a stone window frame was uncovered. Round holes and vertical slots in each of the sides were still evident, presumably used for iron rods during the day and a wooden shutter during the night for safety. It turned out that it had been part of the building next door which was built in 1530, 79 years before ‘La Maison du Faïencier’.

Not far from the stone window, lodged in an internal wall and also covered by a layer of plaster was a square stone plaque. Carved on it were the initials of the two Master Compagnons (Master builders) who were responsible for the construction of the building and the date of the building’s completion. For much more on this see Discoveries.

In what is now the 80m² salon (lounge) on the first floor there was a false ceiling. Breaking through the plasterboard revealed the very impressive actual size of the five wooden beams which were supporting the floor above and also over 150 Chevron or mini-beams which straddled between them. They were all cut from the same beautiful reddy-brown cherry wood and in remarkably good condition.

Plasterboard could hardly be, as a building material, more out of keeping with the fabric or character of the 400 year old building where there’s hardly a straight line or true right angle to be found. But it had been used extensively throughout the property as a quick, cheap, cover-all solution.

It was used, for example, to completely transform the character of two of the second floor bedrooms. Instead of repairing and re-surfacing the old stone walls and leave them exposed to show off their age-old ‘twistyness’ the past owners had the rooms lined with sheets of plasterboard.

Weeks were spent breaking down these false walls – along with many other equally out-of-place additions or changes to the property – and consigning it all to the local rubbish dump.

The walls were eventually restored in their entirety and given a covering of off-white Chaux – a lime substance, mined in the area, which has been used for centuries to renter stone walls allowing it to ‘breath’.

2003

In autumn 2003 a local builder accepted the challenge of working on the building and assigned some of his men to work on its transformation. They were a very skilled and conscientious team and brought with them impressive amounts of equipment, amongst other things, to cut through half-meter thick walls and support ceilings whilst internal walls came down.

The back half of the garage became the main large luxury kitchen,  four odd shaped rooms on the first floor became the palatial main salon (lounge) with it’s three noble arches and purpose built stone, open fireplace. They also knocked through a floor in a store room to build a ‘secret’ staircase leading down to the back of the current garage which allows part of the property to become completely independent from the rest.

Six days a week the building hummed with the sound of marteau-piqueur” (pneumatic drills) and plumes of super-fine 400 year old dust swept through the mostly windowless and door-less shell of a building. 

As well as all the structural changes, almost everything else in the 18 room, 440 square meter building had to be built or renovated.

The project to install the new electrical circuits, hot and cold water system, water pressure and softener systems, gas central heating and the laying of some 3000 wall and floor tiles, were all put out to tender to local suppliers. The project to handle any one of these was unusually large as most properties in villages, such as this, were long ago divided into several apartments. At ‘La Maison du Faiencier’ there are eight toilets, seven power showers, 2 gas central heating boilers servicing 27 radiators, 2 air conditioning units and 8 different electrical junction boxes that control 32 switches, 90 sockets and 110 lights.      

Specialist craftsmen were brought in from further afield. The carpenter came up from his workshop in Marseille to measure, create and fit the bespoke oak units in the main ground floor kitchen and the secondary corner kitchen in the salon (lounge). He ripped out fifteen rotting windows front and back of the building then fitted bespoke new ones having added double glazing.

The vaulted ceiling in the entrance hall and staircase hand rail were created by a craftsman, well known for his work in religious buildings, who spent several weeks on site. All the iron work – the external and internal doors and various hand rails – were the creation of a blacksmith from a village further south.    

The materials used to accomplish these projects were sourced from many different countries and areas.  The stone kitchen sinks came from Spain; a lot of the tiles from Italy and others ordered especially from the local village of Salernes famous for it’s tile making. All the kitchen taps and bathroom shower units came from Barber Wilsons & Co in London who are the one remaining European manufacturer of solid brass plumbing. And in contrast to all this, the bathroom sinks came from the shop just next door where William Offner is the last remaining ‘Master Faiencier”(master potter) in the village and with designs in hand created seven white glazed sinks each different from the other in size and shape.

Special helpers

The project also attracted a special group of helpers: a chance meeting in a bar lead to an English guy living in a nearby village, becoming the ‘right hand man’ on the project; a fellow expat volunteered his help and faithfully turned up one day a week with work gloves in hand; there was a visit from some elderly ladies who had heard we needed to replace many of the tommette floor tiles and offered to contribute what they had uncovered in their basements; and then a group of entrepreneurial kids who would knock on the front door after school and spend the rest of their afternoon cleaning the gifted old tiles in return for a financial contribution.    

During a 10 month period, a total of 73 craftsmen and general builders worked on the property and by spring 2004 ‘La Masion du Faiencier’ welcomed its first summer clients who’d flown in for a week’s holiday from Boston, USA.

Recently

The façade (front) of the house was completely restored and renovated in 2015 by a local artisane who has the reputation for being the best at what he does in the county. The shape of the garage door was re-created in stone sourced from the area and a 4 part bi-folding door built by the Marseille-based carpenters who did all the other specialist woodwork in the house. 

Latterly there has been a lot of work done on the 73m² basement. A cour anglaise was added to the garden side allowing a great deal more fresh air and light into the space; the stone walls and vaulted ceiling sandblasted clean; the floor leveled and covered with stone chippings; the inside of the cuve à vin (stone wine vat) exposed in all its glory; and two light gantries fitted.