Share this article

print logo

Medieval ruin becomes modern home

Until recently, the medieval tower that rises above the Dordogne River in this small village in southwestern France was a romantic ruin, inhabited only by pigeons.

The adjoining house “was just about habitable,” said Pamela Marshall, 63, one of the current owners. “But the tower had been empty for decades. It probably hadn’t been occupied since the 19th century.”

Still, Marshall and her husband, Richard, 66, a British couple from Lincolnshire who had a long association with the area, weren’t put off. Back in the 1970s, they had rescued another ruin, a dilapidated barn in Dordogne that they had been using as a vacation home ever since.

“It was wonderful for holidays in the summer,” Pamela Marshall said. “But we felt that it was time to look for a place in France that we could use in the winter as well.”

And the village, which was once a stop on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, was instantly appealing.

“There’s an atmosphere about Montvalent that is hard to put your finger on, but that made me sit up and take notice,” Marshall said. “There’s a real sense of history about the place that I’m perhaps more tuned into than the average person.”

She continued: “We are probably the ideal family to buy this property. I’m a buildings archaeologist, Richard is a lawyer and our son Mark is an architect.”

They began by buying the house next door in 2002, for $75,000. They would have preferred to buy the tower at the same time, because the two shared a party wall, but that was more complicated. Because it had long been abandoned, figuring out who owned it wasn’t easy. In the end, they had to seek permission from 11 descendants of the family it had belonged to – the oldest over 80 and the youngest under 5 – to arrange the purchase, which finally happened in 2006, for $31,000.

That’s when the work really began.

Mark Marshall and his business partner, James Daykin, of Daykin Marshall Studio in London, took on the challenge of sorting out what should be restored, what they should try to reconstruct and what ought to be a contemporary reinterpretation. To some extent, the condition of the building dictated their decisions.

“It was decided that the building would be stripped back to the original 15th century building fabric,” Pamela Marshall said. “We also made the decision that we were not going to reconstruct anything without sound archaeological evidence.”

Information derived from local precedents and what remained of the tower was compiled to create a computer model that guided the carving of the missing stones, which in turn were used to reconstruct the two and a half missing stories.

But there were two ruined facades that had to be reimagined without any historical evidence. As Daykin said, “We had a lot more architectural scope to create something contemporary to the side and rear, but we didn’t want this to be some big, bravado design statement for the sake of it – even though we were young architects just starting out, and with lots of youthful exuberance.”

A white concrete bridge now functions as the back entry to the house. The facade is cut away to create a terrace overlooking the gardens below, and the modern cantilevered roof echoes the forms of the surrounding medieval roofs.

It was a four-year project that cost more than $400,000, but as far as Pamela Marshall is concerned, it was time and money well spent.

“It’s thrilling to live in a 15th century house with a magnificent 21st century part that’s modern, stunning and seamless,” she said, “and that doesn’t compromise the integrity of the original house.”