My Mazamet

Life at № 42 by E.M. Coutinho

The Difficulties with Villa Ermo Pt. 2

The background problems were discussed in some detail here, but having had ample experience in design/furniture/art over the past 24 years, I wanted to talk about the things people don’t always consider when taking on a period property.

The appropriateness of the quality of what goes into the house is of primordial importance to making it into a success. We often see people on television saying improvisation is an easy alternative. Programs like Escape to the Château show people making curtains from their old underwear and fixing the plumbing with used condoms. In practice I can assure you these are in all likelihood not good ideas.

One of the major problems with Villa Ermo’s interiors currently is that, everything is improvised.

Take the dining room: The faux silk wallpaper on the bottom section of the wall is probably from the 70s/80s. On top, matching the cut velvet curtains,  is something considerably older. Imagine the fun of getting glued fabric off a wall? Then we have 1950s chairs around a table covered in something rubbery and medallion chairs from yet another period against the wall. Discombobulated in every way, nothing quite gels together.

So let’s go through the list of what needs to be done before we begin. Stripping the wallpaper with steam and praying that works on the fabric without pulling old plaster off the walls with it. Smoothing out any damage from that process (it’s inevitable), filling old holes. Taking down the curtains. The floors will have to be cleaned up and repolished last because of the mess all the work will create.

Now back to the matter of quality. In a room this size,  the first basic is an appropriately sized table. I think period extendable works best because you allow for intimate or large and formal by simply adding or removing leaves. An good option for this dining room would be something like this from Christie’s coming up for auction in a month’s time.

I’ve seen people try to get around this with reproductions or improvised attempts. The result is almost universally a resounding failure. The solidity of the floors and window frames, the thickness of the walls — they put into evidence anything where the quality doesn’t actually match. Cute and whimsical is great in an Ikea catalogue, not so in a period luxury home. Currently the impression when you walk in to this room is what’s I Love Lucy’s kitchen furniture doing here?

Then you have to think chairs. Based on experience I’d say get at least eight, preferably 10 or 12. A great option is 20th century design like Maison Jansen. I know I mention them too often but it’s because their work is so easy to use and quality.

Then you’ll have to consider a wallpaper, a chandelier, a large amount of fabric for curtains. To do any of this properly you need a substantial budget. A quality wallpaper like Cole & Son will run at prices starting at 150€ per roll. Multiply that by 12 to 14 rolls for a room that size, add 450€ for the wallpaper fitter (we just had a room done so this is an up-to-date price). If you go for a panoramic by de Gournay, prices start at 500 per roll. Then you get an effect like in our dining room.

See what I’m getting at? Doing a room properly at Villa Ermo is going to easily cost you over 25000 euros. In a perfect world I’d also suggest a budget for artwork on top of that.

The people in that house now, and many others like it, make an effort to buy the place without any real sense or plan of what comes next. This risks serious financial peril. If your biggest asset/investment is one where you can’t maintain or increase its value by making it the best it can be, the opposite will happen. A downward spiral begins. Every year that goes by, the decay increases a little bit more, the equipment gets more and more obsolete, cracks get larger, damp patches get bigger. And the more the new owner is going to have to invest to repair it, the less they’ll want to pay you for your miscalculation.

This is where lies the danger with misleading real-estate advertisements. The note at the end of the ad in this case says: “nécessite une importante remise à niveau pour lui apporter un confort moderne”. That translates to it needs a major upgrade to make it comfortable. In my mind an upgrade is when you go from business to first class. It’s major if you were in economy. Or when you ask to be moved to a room with a view. If you have to tear a metal stairlift out of a wall, break apart a bathroom to start from scratch, or hire an engineer to figure out how to keep an iron structure from cracking your kitchen walls — that’s a bit more than an upgrade.

The agent should, at the very least, include some pictures to give a sense of the reality of the place. I can’t tell you the amount of time we wasted visiting homes that turned out to be nothing like the advertisement. It used to make me furious. Nobody told us the views were to a sewage plant. They forgot to tell us there’s a train that goes through the garden. I’ll never forget, visiting one of my absolute favourite houses, only to discover the strange building backing onto it with a lot of little windows was a penitentiary. No, thank you.

I sincerely hope people looking at Villa Ermo have a long hard think because a period property is by no means solely about the buyer. It’s a responsibility you take on as a caretaker, a custodian. There were generations before us at number 42 and there will be generations after us, so everything we do impacts on the house’s survival. That’s preservation, conservation. Not respecting that model can mean utter destruction. The work and effort of many artisans and creators down the drain, gone forever. A period property is not for everyone. And certainly not one that needs major work. If you want a lesson in how to do it right, I highly recommend Fool for France. Lynn took on a project like Villa Ermo and is doing it beautifully by making an old Maison de Maitre relevant (and beautiful) in the 21st century.

35 comments on “The Difficulties with Villa Ermo Pt. 2

  1. tildeb
    April 27, 2022

    I was just today saying to a renovator that, “We don;t really own houses: we just live in them for a time and so what we do today to it affects everyone who does the same. So we feel an obligation to do and redo everything correctly on our watch.”

    So imagine my pleasure reading, “There were generations before us at number 42 and there will be generations after us, so everything we do impacts on the house’s survival.”

    Of course, it’s far, far more than just survival. It’s a living and evolving legacy… especially when it comes to the property itself. I swear that every new owner who move in first gets out the chainsaw and sets to work before opening any boxes. So the generational plan on turning the property into an extension of the living house and making it an inhabited environment one wants to live in is just as important a consideration for the next owners and the next and the next. We’re just the current occupants.

    Believe me, Pink, this is not a common attitude about ownership versus stewardship but I love your understanding of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Pink Agendist
      April 27, 2022

      Thank you! I think it was from seeing the destruction of so many old houses that I’ve become intensely concerned with stopping it.
      From the minute we arrived here I was touched by the past lives that came through it. The cupboard door with the heights of grandchildren. The little paper decorations left behind on the wall in servant’s quarters. The colossal amount of effort by the people who laid the floors, carved the marble fireplaces, did the woodwork of the panelling, the ironwork of the staircase and doors, and on and on. There’s no escaping we have a duty of respect to these people. You can’t come in and just hack away at it, or undermine their work by slapping mass produced junk into the same room 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • tildeb
        April 27, 2022

        Well, you can hack away (and often replace old quality with new shit… ooo.. sparkly!) but I really like the idea of understanding ownership of house and property to be that of stewardship.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. foolsmusings
    April 27, 2022

    Although my house is only 60 years old, I’m sure they started wallpapering immediately and just kept adding layers. Unlike yourself, in addition too swearing “death to wallpaper” I’m still hoping to one day meet the wallpaper installer in a dark deserted alley. 🤪

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Kris
    April 27, 2022

    Truth. Integrity. Humility. Excellent lessons in caring for a home.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Pink Agendist
      April 27, 2022

      Thank you! I think the big one, and most difficult, is humility. We looked at incredibly grand chateaux. Like with twenty bedrooms and ball rooms — and my heart would flutter and I’d say I MUST HAVE IT!!! Then Mike, the voice of reason, would say no. We can afford to buy it but then nothing else. We’ll end up like Ms. Havisham, walls crumbling, pots on floor collecting water from leaks and wearing coats inside the house to stay warm.

      Like

  4. Bizzy
    April 27, 2022

    Thank you so much for the recommendation. Yes, come one, come all, even though I don’t post all that often any more. This fool loves her house. Next up, the front garden, which is about halfway done.

    When I took on this house I wasn’t naive about the issues you raise. I have a degree in architecture, with a specialisation in historic preservation. So I had been drinking the “old house” Kool-Aid for a while and knew to watch for structural damage and all. But even though I bought a solid house with a good floor plan, no nasty wallpaper, etc., the costs were quite surprising. You estimated the dining room — smart, because folks think that will be one of the cheaper rooms. Just wait until they realise that there are not nearly enough bathrooms, the kitchen is a mess, the insulation is nonexistent, the wiring and plumbing might as well be, and the bugs are munching everywhere. I spent easily three times the purchase price to get this house where I wanted it to be. The house is now worth about 75% of what I put into it. Maybe less. I’m glad I don’t want to sell.

    In a way I was lucky, in that this house was built in 1864, pre-Belle-Epoque, all that flowery stuff. The architect was a Polish engineer, so think clear axes and simple lines, just what I like. My own taste runs to Poltrona Frau, modified Shaker, that kind of thing, all simple and comfortable, which fits well here. Most of my furniture is transplanted from my mid-century ranch style house in California and looks just fine. Maison Jansen, much as I love their things, might have been too much for this house. And everything that will be here when I’m gone is absolutely correct, respectful of the period and, as much as possible, dates from 1864. Except for the bar in the attic. Consistency, the hobgoblin of little minds, has never been one of my flaws.

    Happy as I am here, I’ll never do it again. This is my fourth, maybe fifth, renovation. That’s enough.

    Liked by 3 people

    • The Pink Agendist
      April 27, 2022

      The work you’ve done exemplifies respect for quality. Every aspect is thought through. Every angle is an interesting tableau. I agree you have the perfect furniture for the the place. Beautiful balance and interesting arrangements. I love the photos above the blue sofa – even the meditation room with the leather sofa is fantastic.
      I chose you as the example because I think people should take a good look and ask themselves if they have this sort of knowledge and resources to take on a project of this calibre. If they don’t, a modern house is probably a better option.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Bizzy
        April 29, 2022

        High praise. Thank you again.

        Interesting comment about modern houses. Remember, I’m from California, the land of William Wurster, Richard Neutra, Rudolph Schindler, more brilliant modern architects than I care to list here. One of my treasured books is Taschen’s big version of their volume on the Case Study houses. I love a good modern house. The trick is to find a good one.

        I can feel myself heading into a rant about the lack of training in aesthetics. Let’s just say it wouldn’t take much and would do a lot to improve the appearance of much vernacular construction. I learned a lot by watching my dad add rooms to friends’ lotissement-type houses. Maybe a few pointers could be built into some of those “Chasseur d’Appart'” type programs. Or made part of arguments for sustainability. After all, if it’s good, we keep it.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. makagutu
    April 27, 2022

    I will from today henceforth stop contractors from using used condoms to repair plumbing fixtures. Not good for the house nor the environment

    Liked by 1 person

  6. acflory
    April 27, 2022

    I’ve always nursed a secret dream of ‘doing up a wreck’, probably because my parents tried to the same thing with our Federation Edwardian house. But. Having lived through years of renovations on a shoestring budget…maybe not.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Pink Agendist
      April 27, 2022

      I used to dream of it, but not anymore!!!! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      • acflory
        April 27, 2022

        lmao – you and Mike have lived that dream now for…how many years????

        Liked by 1 person

      • The Pink Agendist
        April 28, 2022

        I barely remember any other life! Of course we wouldn’t have it another way. Last week I was cleaning the gates, this week I was touching up the iron doors. This weekend I’m polishing the parquet. The house keeps me anchored. Even when my mind goes to dark places (usually late at night), the house brings me back in the morning 😀

        Liked by 1 person

      • acflory
        April 28, 2022

        -hugs- I don’t know where you get your energy from, but I know what you mean about the house lifting you up. I feel the same about my smallish cottage. I don’t want to sound all hippie, but the love we invest comes back ten-fold.

        Liked by 1 person

      • The Pink Agendist
        April 28, 2022

        I have a sort of overflowing fountain of resentment and hate which I transform into excellence 😀

        Liked by 1 person

      • acflory
        April 29, 2022

        lmao – that works. 😀

        Liked by 1 person

  7. inspiredbythedivine1
    April 28, 2022

    Of topic, but how’s Mike? You can send me an email if you have any more questions on procedures and what not.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Pink Agendist
      April 28, 2022

      He had his first battery of exams last week and we got the results yesterday. There seems to be no spread to any other organs — EXCELLENT! The scintigraphy is on the 5th and it’s at that point that they present the treatment options. At the moment he’s leaning to what you chose to just get it out and over with. Fingers crossed!

      Liked by 2 people

      • inspiredbythedivine1
        April 28, 2022

        Good choice. Just have it cut out. I’m pretty much at 98 percent of normal about seven months out. Viagra makes it at about 99 percent. 😁

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Helen Devries
    April 28, 2022

    You must respect the house….live with it for a while, listen to it, as it were, see how it works…..and then review your initial ideas.
    We did buy one ruin…a thirteenth century tower with a sixteenth century pile attached to it….and that cost a lot less to put right than the last house in France where everything you and Bissy say about renovations is all too accurate.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Pink Agendist
      April 28, 2022

      Where was the tower? France has a long list of complexities, especially where tradespeople are concerned I’ve learnt to do all sorts of things myself now to avoid hassles and delays 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Helen Devries
    April 28, 2022

    In a town in the Deux Sevres……in the historic centre which was being ruined by being used for ‘social housing’ which suited the ‘big’ families who owned the properties as they had guaranteed rent payment, and could not have cared less how those properties were outraged bybeing crudely carved up.
    The workmen were not a problem…we had a Turkish firm whose boss had worked on monuments historiques for years before setting up on his own….I would not have touched the artisan francais in that area with a bargepole having had early dealings with the beast.
    The main problems were the Batiments de France who were a pain in the proverbial in wishing to cover the stone exterior with crepi – ‘ton pierre’ which resulted in the town centre looking as if aa IRA dirty protest had taken place – epic battle involving the town archives and then the senator next door who decided he had a right of way over the property. Much dirty work at the crossroads and in the courts before settling his hash.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The Pink Agendist
      April 28, 2022

      I don’t deal with any of these things. I’m more of a do first, sue me when you find out in a decade sort of person — at which point the law will be on my side 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  10. dpmonahan
    April 28, 2022

    I went with a buddy to see a 1790 house by the Connecticut River. Siding was rotting he said “eh, I’ll just replace it with aluminum.” I gagged. Roof was was bowed and he asked if it needed replacing. I told him “but you want to save those slate tiles, they will last another 2 centuries” and he said “nah I’d just do asphalt” and I said “You’d be much happier closer to Boston.” He didn’t buy it.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Anonymole
    April 30, 2022

    That’s the crux of the matter isn’t it: adopt a period property with the promise to become its protector, its curator and executor. If you’re not willing to embrace that philosophy, then, by all means, skip it. Corrupting cultural heritage just shouldn’t be on the table.
    If one has the money to entertain such a purchase, but not the wherewithal to enjoin the tradition of preservation inherit in such a place, buy something culturally insignificant and go all Frank-Lloyd-Wright on it. (My preference… Actually, my preference is a crude log cabin in the woods, near a stream, isolated entirely from humanity.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Pink Agendist
      May 1, 2022

      I have a tremendous attraction to an isolated log cabin, but I’ve found a way of doing it in town within walking distance to amenities by having very high walls and very few friends 😀
      I wish more people understood the concept of conservation. I’ve lost count of the times I look at work people do and cannot fathom what they were hoping to achieve.

      Liked by 1 person

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