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Renaissance in the Loire

A B&B rises within an 18th-century manor

By Christine Temin, Globe Staff

Not far from the Loire Valley chateau that inspired Charles Perrault’s ”Sleeping Beauty” lies a manor that also slumbered virtually unseen, behind overgrown gardens and iron gates. The unlikely Lilac Fairy who reawakened the once-derelict 18th-century house had to do more than wave a magic wand. Gloria Belknap, a transplanted Bostonian, had to deal with French banks,  French plumbers, and the branch of the French government that gives permission to tinker with historic structures. She eventually concluded that the Germans succeeded in invading France because they did so after lunch, which lasts a minimum of two hours and involves wine. In a variation on the strategy that author Peter Mayle used in ”A Year in Provence” – inviting construction workers and their wives to a housewarming party to ensure that construction would actually get done – she once announced to her crew that she had a fatal disease, and the only way they’d be paid was if they hurried up and finished before she passed on.

Belknap is the former proprietor of the defunct Terrace Townhouse in Boston’s South End, which was arguably the city’s most elegant B&B until she sold it to pursue a dream of living in France. That goal dates from 1976, when she spent five months in a $1.50-a-day attic room in Paris, while studying at the famed cooking school La Varenne. She’s now the chatelaine of Le Vieux Manoir, the 18th-century house she turned into a posh B&B that opened this summer. Each bedroom in the main manor is named for a great Frenchwoman, from Madame de Lafayette to Colette. There’s also an adjacent, self-contained, 17th-century cottage with two bedrooms and its own kitchen, perfect for longer stays.

”For me, France has always been the magic place,” Belknap says, explaining why she filled a 46-foot container with her art and antiques, shipped it to France, and moved to the Loire Valley. ”It’s such a seductive culture. You go around a corner and see something beautiful and it squeezes your heart. It’s a privilege to live here. In spite of the plumbers.”

Belknap is 60. ”I think you should change your life all the time,” she says. ”When you’re my age and you’re supposed to retire and sit and look at the wall, that’s when you should embark on something like this.”

Her husband, Bob, did retire – but is now back in Boston working as an engineer to earn money to support Le Manoir until it can support itself. After more than 40 years together, the Belknaps temporarily have a commuter marriage.

Chance discovery

They’d been looking for a house to buy in France for a decade when they chanced on Le Vieux Manoir in 1996, while Gloria Belknap was in Amboise for language school. At a local dinner party, her host mentioned the manor, which hadn’t been lived in for years, and she promptly went and
peeked over the gates. The Belknaps bought the place for $365,000 – and have put more than double that amount into restoring it.

The house doesn’t have a particularly glamorous past. It wasn’t owned by anyone famous; it’s short on duels and murders. The Belknaps are in possession of over 200 years’ worth of documents about it – and Gloria Belknap says they’re largely a yawn, except for interesting details like the dates during the revolutionary period. ”You weren’t allowed to use traditional dating then,” she says, ”so the paperwork says things like`In the year two.”’

Like the tour guide in Peter Shaffer’s play ”Lettice and Lovage,” who embellished the story of her essentially storyless English stately home to the point where it read like a Barbara Cartland novel, Belknap isn’t above inventing a little something. To sell off a redundant rug at a French flea
market, she registered as ”Anastasia Romanoff; home address, the Winter Palace, St. Petersburg.”

”Yeah, she’s still alive, and she’s running a B&B and selling used carpets,” Belknap says, adding, ”It’s important to have some fun in all this.”

Along with the fun, there have been poignant moments. Belknap tells of the elderly woman, a life-long resident of Amboise, who arrived on her bike one day and asked for a tour of the restored premises. At the end, Belknap recalls, ”she asked me, `How did you know this house was inside
the other house?’ I said I didn’t know. She said, `The house loves you for this.”’

More than meets the eye

”Restoring” Le Manoir turned out to mean ”gutting.” ”We went to take the shag carpet off the parquet floor in the living room, and the floor collapsed,” Belknap says, citing the adage ”The only thing that works in an old house is the owner.”

Belknap’s old house is a smooth-faced, symmetrical, three-story white stone structure with hipped roof and slate-blue shutters. It’s set within its own walled garden, behind a courtyard carpeted in crunchy gravel and bordered by plum trees laden, in season, with tiny purple mirabelles. ”The French don’t have corn on the cob,” Belknap says, ”so they have to compensate with mirabelles,” which turn up on her breakfast table.

The shutters are new. So is almost everything about the interior of the house. Belknap began by stripping away acres of the offending shag, along with plywood walls and flocked wallpaper. ”The older I get,” she says, ”the more I think that restoration is a process of simplification and clarification.”

Simple and clear isn’t necessarily how the French wanted Le Vieux Manoir to look, she discovered when she announced her plan to expose old ceiling beams and brick and stone walls, standard procedure in America, heresy in France. ”In a maison du maitre, you’re not supposed to expose the beams,” Belknap says.

”That’s snobbery” is her American reaction. So the beams got exposed.
The French fought back. The plumbers installed pipes under the beams, and the electricians installed wiring under the pipes. If you’re displaying things that are supposed to stay hidden, why not go whole hog? No sooner was that situation corrected to Belknap’s satisfaction than her second
architect – she’s had several – announced his intention of putting sewer pipes down the front facade. At that point, ”I did a Joan Crawford,” Belknap says. ”I said, `I am going to destroy you and   everything you have ever touched.’ Joan Crawford always works. Two days later he quit, so I didn’t even have to pay the 20 percent `gift’ you’re supposed to give someone you fire.”

The upholsterers at first refused to cover her Napoleon III chairs with common, natural-colored jute, a copy of pauper’s sheeting fabric. ”Faute de gout!” – a ”mistake in taste” – they protested. Finally, they relented. Grudgingly, Belknap recalls. ”They said, `We’ll do it if it gives you pleasure.”’ The workers who installed the gas dryer she imported from America were similarly aghast. ”They couldn’t believe such a thing existed,” she says. ”They thought it consumed oxygen, so people
wouldn’t be able to breathe in the same room.” Another ta boo she broke was mixing periods. ”In France you’re supposed to pick which Louis you want and stick with it,” she says. Le Manoir, though, is completely eclectic – more along the lines of those English country houses owned by enerations of material culture junkies who never throw anything out.

To help sort out her acquisitions from many lands and periods, Belknap signed on Boston interior designers Jon Hattaway and Martin Potter, co-owners of M. J. Berries in the South End and fellow Francophiles. Hattaway and Potter made a couple of whirlwind trips to France to visit flea markets and fabric shops with Belknap. They took extensive measurements and cuttings of every piece of cloth to be used in the house, and made an inventory of every last bibelot. They created duplicate plan books. Belknap kept one in France; Hattaway and Potter brought the other back to Boston, so the decorating could be done long-distance, by telephone.

Together, they decided on the glowing colors for the walls. ”The painters were horrified by the intensity of some of them,” Hattaway says. ”But we thought the house needed that, because the weather there much of the year is rather gray.” So the library has mint green walls and hot red
chintz chair coverings that strike a perfect temperature balance.

Furnishings fit new home

Belknap owned many of the furnishings in Le Vieux Manoir before she owned the house itself. But even her Native American baskets and African sculpture look as if they’d been comfortably in place for a century. ”It’s as if they’d been waiting all along to come to this house,” she says. She points to a long vertical scrap of an old Aubusson carpet she picked up somewhere eons ago. It fits with eerie exactness between two windows in her Amboise library.

Each Manoir bathroom is lined with $1,000 worth of locally handmade tiles, each in a different hue, one the streaky golds of Monet’s Giverny dining room. The bathrooms are state-of-the-art, with heavy German fixtures. But they also incorporate period mirrors and washstands, and
tall French tin flower vases serve as waste baskets.

In the bedrooms, old tin milk bottle carriers hold rolled-up magazines, and as for headboards, anything goes. In one room, it’s a fragment of an antique wrought iron fence. In another, it’s an old gilded wooden sign, all baroque curlicues, with great swags of natural-colored linen falling
from it.

Many of the floors in Le Manoir are covered in 18th-century tiles recycled from torn-down houses. Some bear the 200-year-old paw prints of cats and dogs who wandered onto the terra cotta while it was drying. Belknap plans to audition local dogs to find one whose paw perfectly fits a print, and sign it on as house mascot, ”Cinder-Dog.”

Army of tin soldiers

In the backyard, attached to the house, is a jardin d’hiver – a glass-walled conservatory – which the architecture police allowed her to erect only because she’d done France an aesthetic service in tearing down a hideous modern apartment some tasteless soul had earlier plunked in the
same spot.

The jardin d’hiver is furnished with Moroccan tile tables, New England wicker, and the antique toys Belknap collects because ”they have a wonderful innocence about them.” An army’s worth of tiny tin soldiers dating from the Crimean War march across a living room table. Antique farm tools are also brought inside, recast as sculpture.

Run-ins with painters and plumbers aside, Belknap is on fine terms with lots of locals. There’s the wine merchant who comes to the house to offer private tastings, a vinous version of the Avon lady. There are the villagers who one day gathered at the gate of the restored house to applaud and shout ”Bravo!” in gratitude for Belknap’s labor of love. There are the area restaurateurs whose business she builds by sending diners their way.

Amboise is a bustling place. But while Le Manoir is smack in the center of town, it’s so sealed off in its walled garden that the only thing you hear in the house is the gurgling of the fountain in back. There’s another fountain in the front courtyard, too, currently inoperative. When Belknap gets it splashing once again, she intends to put up a sign that says ”Wishes, 10 Franc minimum. Anything less, you get a curse.” Maintaining a manor is tres cher. She jokes about a backup plan, in case the
B&B idea doesn’t work. ”We put in the most amazing water system. You know how in a French hotel you wait 20 minutes for hot water? And it runs out after 10 seconds? We didn’t want that. If we end up going broke, we’ll just sit by the gate and sell hot water to the whole town.”

Le Vieux Manoir is at 13, rue Rabelais, 37400, Amboise, France. The
phone and fax number is 33-2-47-30-41-27. E-mail info@le-vieux-manoir.com
.

The Web site is www.le-vieux-manoir.com