The French Cottage: A Room-by-Room Tour

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Photos and text by Gabrielle.

Oh my goodness. The Cottage! If you’re new here, you may not even know this, but right before we left France, we bought a little cottage. It’s essentially the shell of a very old farmhouse. No electricity. No bathrooms. But we have BIG plans for it. I haven’t written a ton about the cottage, but there are a few posts. If you’re curious, you can find them all here.

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About a year ago, I realized I hadn’t given you a tour of the property yet, and it’s been on my list ever since. In fact, I mentioned it again on my New Year’s post. Well, it’s JUNE! And I’m finally getting around to the tour. Related, I’m still quite baffled at how quickly these last two years have disappeared. I suppose the first year was mostly taken up with my mental health issues (dang, that was rough), and I realize the second year back in the States has been all about my book. And of course throughout both of those years there were a million other projects going on — including improvements to The Cottage! But still, I feel like I haven’t had brain space for this project in ages. And suddenly, I do.

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Two years! Has it really been two years since I’ve been back to France? I think it feels shorter because Ben Blair has been back, and because Ralph & Olive both spent last fall there. But all the same, I’m aching for a return trip. Plane ticket prices look decent in the fall, so I’m thinking about how to make something work — but that’s a topic for another post.

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Anyway, I have dozens of cottage photos to share with you. And I can already tell you that some of you will see these images and feel overwhelmed at all the work that is required. While others will see the photos and feel itchy to tackle a similar project!

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When I look at these photos, I feel nothing but excitement! Especially when I see the work we did last year — we replaced the roof and repaired the walls so that they are structurally sound (and by we, I mean we hired it out, under the supervision of our amazing architect).

The difference is so striking! And now, I can’t wait to transform the rest of the house!

Here’s a room by room tour, starting with the door on the far left:

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Heres’ the open door:

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This space was apparently used for animals. Note the cement trough:

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Here’s a shot from the back of the room looking toward the door wall:

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And now, here’s a tour of space #2, with the second door from the left — this one has an attic access door above:

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One wall of the interior in this space is brick instead of stone. I feel like brick is unusual for this part of France (at least, I didn’t see much of it in my town):

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Like the first room, this space was also apparently used for animals:

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Here’s the view of the back fields from the little window:

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There isn’t much of a ceiling in this space to separate the room from the attic:

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Next up, the center door — I would call this one the front door. I have the most photos of this space. The front door has a window to the left and a 4th door to the right:

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Here’s the view peeking in from the front door:

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Straight ahead, you see a small window with some built-in wall compartments below. To the left you see a fireplace that takes up most of the wall, and a small door leading to an ante-room:

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To the right is an armoire:

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Here’s the massive fireplace:

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Here are two shots standing at the back of the room looking toward the front door:

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Here’s the armoire/cabinet:

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And a shot of the floor:

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Here’s a peek at the small, sunny ante-room off the main room:

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Moving on to door number 4 (second from the right):

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The first 3 spaces we had mostly cleared out and swept before these images were taken. But not this room. It’s still full of general rubble:

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Here’s a photos from the back of the room, looking toward the door:

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This space is especially dark, so the photos are quite blurry (sorry!):

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Next (and last) is door number five. This is the space on the far right of the house. This space has barn doors. Here are two shots with closed and open doors:

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Based on the hay inside, I assumed this space was also for animals, but there are no troughs here, so maybe it was more for farm equipment and storage. Who knows?

The thing I like best about this space is that it doesn’t have a low ceiling like the rest of the house. Instead, you can see right up to the roof:

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And the roof is pretty cool:

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Also, all those holes in the roof? They’re gone. The roof is new and happy.

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In the stone work in this room, there is also a column intended for a fireplace:

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This particular space really gets my imagination going — it’s the space where I started imagining how our family might use this house and create bedrooms and living spaces.

Here’s the room from the back, looking toward the door:

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And a detail shot of the window:

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These photos were taken in July two years ago — on the day before we moved back to the U.S.. But here are some shots taken a few months prior (when it was still snowy) that show the overall property a bit better (can you see all 5 entrances?):

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Here you can see our small outbuilding to the right. It has a rounded brick oven on one end and we were told that it used to be the neighborhood bread oven (I’ll give you a tour of that outbuilding in another post, because this one already has so many photos!):

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A few overall shots:

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And here’s another one looking from the front gate toward the front of the house:The Cottage Snow10

There it is. The Cottage tour!

Something you may have noticed: there is no bathroom or kitchen. Or really any proper rooms at this point. Hah! I’m actually still not sure what the final layout or floorplan will look like. As I’ve noted, from the front of the house there are 5 entrances going to 5 spaces — and none of those spaces are connected! So figuring out how to connect and use these spaces (or some of these spaces) is definitely one of the biggest challenges for this home.

As I think back, I can tell you that I assumed we’d tackle the cottage in the first year after purchasing it, so that we could start furnishing and decorating and using it right away. Obviously, that didn’t happen. (Understatement of the year.) I’m trying not to feel guilt about it. Life happens. What can you do? I suppose in this case, it’s also been an out-of-sight-out-of-mind situation. But happily, I’m ready to keep it top of mind once again. I can’t wait to see it transform!

I can’t wait to hear what you think. Does seeing how rustic this building is stress you out, or get you excited? Have you ever taken on a project like this? Have you ever been to Normandy? If yes, does this sort of dwelling look familiar to you? Chime in!

P.S. — When we first purchased the house, one end was covered in ivy, but it’s really damaging to the stone work, so we had to pull it down:

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83 thoughts on “The French Cottage: A Room-by-Room Tour”

  1. Love your blog. Such a refreshing outlook on family life. I love how you encourage your kids to be true to themselves. But I gotta tell you: Girl: you’ve got VISION when it comes to the cottage :) Looking forward to all the updates.

    1. Hah! I hear you. I was laughing as I uploaded the photos and I had a total WHAT WERE WE THINKING?! moment. But then I started looking through photos at all the other houses we considered, and I felt better.

      There’s no doubt this one is a major project, but somehow, when you’re in Normandy, the context suddenly changes. The architect didn’t even flinch when he saw this! It’s as if renovating a space like this is not mind-blowing at all to the locals. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself. : )

    1. Thanks, Paige! As for inspiration, you can imagine, I have pinterest boards filled to the brim with ideas for this space. : ) I have a strong urge to keep it very French. I want French pots in the kitchen and French café chairs around the table and French linens on the bed. And I hope I can find furniture at the vide greniers (community yard sales) around the region.

  2. I got so excited when I saw this was an update on the cottage! I can’t wait to see what you do with it, although that project would really intimidate me.

  3. This is my first visit to your site, so I’m glad you gave a little background on the cottage. Renovating any house when you live on another continent is HUGE! But this one, particularly so. You definitely have a gift for vision and I’m excited to see it unfold. We are knee deep in renovating a 1971 5,000 square foot mcmansion that we got for a song. (because it came with rats and the remnants of a hoard. ) I was feeling overwhelmed about that….but now I feel pretty good. We started with electricity and plumbing at least.

    Now off to read your archives :)

  4. OMG! It’s dreadful! Get a dozer to it and build a new house! Use some of the old stone in the new place but some things are not worth the time and money. Hope you prove me wrong but that looks like a disaster ready to happen.

    1. Oh my goodness, no way. New construction in this very old neighborhood would be awful — and so rude to the neighbors! It’s all about restoring/remodeling.

      1. Sharon Fischel

        Oh, I absolutely LOVE it. I can feel the history of the people who lived there before. Other than updating it and making it functional, I’d never want to see it torn down. In fact, preserving as much of the past as possible would be a huge priority to me. I agree that you have your hands full renovating from abroad but good for you!!! We are in the Seattle area now, but we used to live just over the hill from you in Moraga, Gabrielle!

      2. HECK no! Restore, save, love!! Have you ever seen Grand Designs? It’s a UK show about building well, grand designs, and they have a few called Grand Designs abroad – anyways, they often feature saving old near-ruins (yours would be in great condition comparatively!). Only kind of show where they only show the progress, they don’t get involved at all. Anyways, if you haven’t seen it, you might enjoy some inspiration. If I can find the specific episode i’m thinking of, i’ll let you know! Read through the archives and can’t wait to see more!!

        1. Florence, how can you be so insensitive?? The building is beautiful, I can’t understand how anyone would want to knock it down. Just you wait, no doubt Gabrielle will prove you wrong. Good luck Gabrielle, can’t wait to see more progress shots and eventually the final outcome!

  5. This would be overwhelming if it was my project, but I can’t wait to see how you guys tackle it! I have complete confidence that you will do a fantastic job!

  6. Go Blair family! I LOVE that you are doing the hard work of keeping this little house alive, and that it will soon have family and laughter and love inside of it. Just keep your eyes on the end goal and take it day by day, month by month, and we’ll all be swooning when we see the finished product.

  7. I’m excited to see how you move forward with your cottage. I bet having an amazing architect gives you a lot of peace of mind with a project like this. At least it would for me.

  8. My in-laws have a very old house in the south of France–so a totally different style–that used to be an olive mill. It might give you some ideas on how to turn non-domestic space into a home with actual bedrooms, etc. There’s still original milling equipment (which is huge and heavy, and basically impossible to move) throughout the house and attached apartment. http://www.moulindeboursac.com

    1. Laura, wait a sec. THAT place is owned by your in-laws?!? Good Lord!! It is AMAZING!!! And I am so excited for you, Gabrielle. I have no doubt it’s going to be beautiful!

  9. WOW! I love renovations but this takes that to a whole new level. I’m really looking forward to you proving us doubters wrong. What is the time line for this?
    ps. its my birthday on Saturday and I asked for your book, I CAN’T WAIT! The only downside is that we are having people over that night and I’ll have to be polite and not read the whole time :)

  10. I’ve been waiting with bated breath for this post! I can’t wait to see the progress. I am counting on living vicariously through you. But no pressure ;)

  11. This reminds me of a British tv show called Restoration Home (I know you can watch it on YouTube) that follows the renovations of houses from 100 yrs old and older. So I think it so neat that you are doing this.

  12. I’m curious as to what the original use of the structure was? Was this a dwelling for people and animals or just for animals and equipment? Maybe I missed that in the commentary? I understand what you mean about the nature of what surrounds it (restoring vs/rebuilding) – what is the square footage of the main house? Is there any kind of foundation? Here in the US and particularly in CA we are so obsessed with foundations and earthquakes – how did you reinforce the walls to make them sound? Sorry for all the questions – SO curious!! We are about to restore an 1870 Italianate cottage so all these things are really on my mind.

    1. Hello Yvonne, as a French person who has lived in the country most of her life, I can tell you that this cottage was in fact a small farm. There was one side for the family and one for the animals, cows most probably, bc the ladder thing above the trough was used to hold hay. it’s a “hay dispenser”. My grandparents had one of those houses, further south and made of white stones (no brick in that part of France)
      My dad had his own building company and as it grew, they became abilited to renovate historical buildings, a lot of his work included old houses like these made of stones. It might look awful to the untrained eye, but the Blair family got it right; with the proper work, it will look amazing! I love love love old renovated houses in France!

  13. Honestly, I think I’d find this project a little (a lot?) stressful, but I’m totally on-board to live vicariously through your renovation! I can’t wait to see the transformation. I’m sure it will be amazing. And I think it’s super cool that you have property in a foreign country that you’ll eventually be able to visit whenever you’d like.

    Swoon …

  14. I couldn’t find a place where you say how old the cottage is (although I’ll admit I didn’t read too closely). I know you have the photo of it circa 1900, but it looks old even then. Do you know when it was built?

    1. Good question! “Old” is relative in France. I remember learning that the house had original stone floors in the kitchen that were from the 1600s — older than America! I believe this house is about 115 years old (practically a baby, hah!), but I don’t remember exactly. Next time I have our paperwork in front of me, I’ll be sure to make a note.

  15. I guess my main questions would be:

    How do you add windows in structure like this? It seems like it might be like a Jenga game with the walls crashing down if windows were added :)

    And do you connect the rooms through the original walls or do you have to create a new structure (like a hallway) to do so? (Again – a sort of Jenga scenario)

    I can’t wait to see what you and your architect decide! The ‘befores’ and ‘afters’ will have to be amazing!

  16. Yes, it looks daunting, and it will be a lot of work (and money) but it will be gorgeous! We started a similar project 3.5 years ago, when we bought an old (more than 100 years) farm house in a tiny village in Greece and had it renovated from a distance. We literally gutted the whole house and redesigned the rooms distribution, moving out cubic meters of soil from the bottom level (it was used for animals!) to gain ceiling height. We created stairs between top and bottom level, a new door, a kitchen, bathrooms, several terraces and even a guest house in the goat shed! The careful planning was a major phase, as it is super important to consider all your options, and take time to think about what will work best. One thing to keep in mind: if you are not there to check everything all the time, be prepared to have things slightly different from what you had pictured in your head (even if you give super precise instructions to your architect!). At least that was our experience, and it is okay eventually. We have kept a rustic touch to our house, but just this last month as we finished the outside work with an additional terrace, we can say we have turned it into a wonderful holiday house. We love to go there. The clock ticks differently, the people, the food, the landscape and the climate are awesome! Now we have to get enough furniture for it to be really cosy and pretty… and I will be able to contact you for a “living with kids” tour! Have fun with your cottage, I can’t wait to see the big metamorphosis!

      1. Thanks, Gabrielle. You know, with your professionalism, your talent as designer, and your taste, it is obvious that you guys are going to do something fantastic with the cottage! But overall, you will have fun! We were ‘just’ amateurs, but we did it with our heart and we enjoyed it 100%! After all, that is the most important thing!

  17. Have you ever read “A Year in Provence”? If not you need to. I think renovations just take a very long time in France, no matter.

    Your cottage is lovely.

    1. Yes. Such a good book! And you’re right. I’m sure I need to adjust my timeline. The house we rented while in France took something like 10 years to restore!

  18. Do you follow the restoration of the Chateau de Gudanes on Insta or their blog? A fairy tale come to life!

      1. I was going to suggest this, too. It has been an amazing journey for this Australian couple. You can follow on Instagram, Facebook, or their blog. A much bigger endeavor than yours….but will give you hope of good things to come. http://www.chateaugudanes.com

  19. Oh how totally stunning is your cottage… I love the details, I love the troughs…. Oh I just love it and can’t wait to see what you guys create with your space!!!

  20. I loved seeing the pictures, and it’s very charming. However, I’m glad it’s you and not me doing the renovating…. I would find that super stressful! Although perhaps in this case being a continent away helps… no pressure to try to do parts of it yourself, just consult with your architect about “this needs to be done next and it will cost _____” and then watch the crews transform it. :-)

    1. Distance does seem to make a difference. I think I stress less about it because it’s not right in front of me. I’m forced to let the control go, which is a good thing for my personality type.

  21. Amanda Robinson

    This is so amazing!!! As a designer, I love that this is a blank canvas (in a sense) and has such amazing rustic charm and opportunity for incredible things! I would be stressed to watch the constructiong phase of this project, but getting to select the finishes and furnishings would keep me going to the end to a completion! Wish you the best in this cottage! What a wonderful opportunity for you and your family!

  22. To me the biggest challenge seems to be adding doorways or windows without compromising the beautiful stonework (although I’m sure your architect is a pro about those things). I’m sure it will be beautiful when it’s done, but all renovations take longer than you think, and that’s doubly true in France!

    My family has had a house in the Languedoc for over 4 years now, and we’ve pretty much just finished with the boring stuff without much visual impact (electrical, plumbing etc). But so much more fulfilling to redesign a house yourself and be able to preserve the historical charm.

    A few questions out of curiosity: did you have trouble getting permission to convert an agricultural building into a living space? Did the previous owners get permission before selling?

  23. Cela est fantastique! Votre chalet est tout simplement magnifique! I envision the old adorable family who lived there (circa 1900) watching on as the renovations and remodeling are taking place to their old home! I think it is wonderful you are maintaining the original charm and character of the home – that is exactly what makes it unique! This reminds me of the House Hunters International episode where they renovated a historical estate in Spain. It was just the shell and ruins inside, but it’s all worth it in the end! I admire you for taking on this project! This will soon be a cherished family abode where you can make many happy memories for years to come! What a fantastic idea to buy when you did! Yes, it takes time for such a project. No hurry. I cannot wait to see the upcoming changes. If anyone can do it YOU can!! You are superwoman who can take on and balance many arduous tasks with such ease! Je vous admire! Felicitations encore sur une si belle maison a l’etranger!

  24. Thank you for being a mom of 6 and a wife and an author and writing your inspiring blog, while keeping it real. I think you probably get more done in 2 hours than I do in a week but this has been my experience with most LDS women. I am always enriched by your posts. Oh and, thank you for protecting this treasure. We, as a culture, are far to quick to tear down and fail to preserve what could be lovely!

  25. So exciting to see more pics of the cottage! It’s going to be magical! I couldn’t help brainstorming a new long addition on the rear side of cottage which would be the length of the house and like a long wide stone floored hall with tall windows at either end connecting all the rooms from the hallway so you wouldn’t have to disturb the existing row of spaces too much, also the new area could make it easier to add baths and kitchen….so many fun possibilities. I can’t wait to see what you create.

    1. Yes! I love talking to architects about our house because immediately their problem solving skills kick in and they start brainstorming solutions. I LOVE hearing idea. Now that the roof and overall structure are secure (we had the chimney repaired as well), we get to start tackling the room-to-room issues. Very exciting!

  26. I am excited for you!!!! And I can see that cottage done beautifully. 13 years ago we bought a run down 150 year old house in the little town of Spring City. You did an Olive Us episode with our across the street neighbor Joe the Potter. 5 years after we thought we’d be long done, the house and granary were finally restored. Five long years of a crew working 5 days a week. It was way beyond our expertise. No heat or electricity in parts. 24 inch thick interior and exterior walls. Try getting wiring and heat ducts in there. Now it’s a beautiful limestone historic home. Would we do it again? I WOULD in a heartbeat, not sure about my husband. I for one am excited to Follow along with you on your journey. I see your vision, and I am excited for
    you!!!! Don’t get discouraged. It will have lots of ups and downs but you are rescuing a part of history.

  27. Your cottage is dreamy and beautiful, and just waiting for your love and attention. So excited to see your progress! There is a wonderful decorating book called Classic Country by Kathryn Ireland. She did a renovation similar to this, trough and all. Bet you would find it very inspiring. Good luck!!!

  28. Laura Ferry-Jimenez

    I love the potential! I know you’ve got lots of comments to read and ideas but thought I just throw this out there. :)

    Have you looked into designs of New Orleans shotgun houses? I was raised in Nola and have always been intrigued by their layouts. As soon as you described the cottage as 5 rooms that weren’t connected I thought of a “shotgun house!”

    Anyway, just a thought!

  29. I can see just a teeny bit of your vision and I love it! The beams in the ceiling, the stonework, the light! I’m envisioning white-washed plaster walls and lovely floors – wood, brick? Either would be nice!

    The new roof gives it such a charming look. It’s going to be a long haul – but worth it in the end. :)

  30. Man, I LOVE those patterned brick floors. I hope you can save them, though they look really uneven. Perhaps the floor can be leveled and you can lay down reclaimed bricks in the same pattern? I hope you’re able to save lots of the original details, like the brick and stone walls and beams and even that old trough–maybe it could be a giant kitchen sink. I’m excited to see your progress and vision.

      1. Kate the Great

        I can’t tell how tall the water trough is, or how tall your kids will be when the project is complete, but why not have a kid-sized sink? They can help do the dishes. Or you could put a bench cover onto the trough and make it benched seating, like in your current living room.

  31. What an amazing life project for a designer! How incredible for your children to participate in and to understand your work! How cool are you?

  32. Can’t wait to see more! I love that you say you want to keep it very “French”. Otherwise, what’s the point, right? Please keep us updated!
    Ok, now going to figure out how we can find and renovate a house in the European countryside . . .

  33. This is gonna be amazing. I am really looking forward to seeing how the farmhouse’s future life unfolds under your guidance. I loved all the posts that Stephmodo did on her blog years ago about renovating their French cottage. Have you seen them? Love all the gorgeous stonework used in these old French buildings!

  34. Can’t wait to see your renovations and how it shaping up! We talk a lot about buying my parents home/the home I grew up in from them (they need to downsize) and restoring it. It’s a farm that was used as a hospital after Pickett’s charge in the Battle of Gettysburg…lots of historic feel, but in need of a lot of TLC. Not quite as much as your place though. Have you seen/heard of this renovation going on in France as well. I think they took it to a whole new level, but wow, the history and architecture they get to work with! https://www.facebook.com/chateaudegudanes?fref=nf

  35. Yay! Thanks so much for sharing! What an amazing space – and opportunity! I have no ideas to offer, but I know it’s going to be incredible when you’re done with it. Good luck with everything!

  36. Catherine Hoskin

    Dear Gabrielle,
    Perhaps your next book should be about the restoration of this lovely old farmhouse you get to call home. How romantic to think that one day you will celebrate holidays, birthdays, summer vacations, family reunions, and that special alone time all spouses need. Can you imagine preparing your first meal in the country kitchen you lovingly designed from a collection of photos you kept for inspiration?

  37. Kate the Great

    My comment is somewhere around #72, so you may not get around to reading it, but I’m most inspired by the brick wall room. I remember looking at apartment tours on ApartmentTherapy.com, back when I spent hours and hours online with lots of dream room, and being particularly inspired by a man’s apartment with the longest wall there being made of brick. The brick just gave it such character and texture and he did so much with it!

    The pics are here: http://www.apartmenttherapy.com/house-tour-toms-sequel-to-his-40561#_

    I love the stone floor of your cottage as well. I hope you keep some of it. We recently had a triangle-shaped brick porch installed on the front of our house, and I love the texture it brings to the space. I chose a blueish stone that is local to the Northwest (where I live) and the pattern we chose, and the quality with which is was laid…

  38. All those doors. It reminded me of a gameshow, “And behind door number three…”

    On a more serious note…good luck. From my experience in college, working with my contractor father in the summers, it looks like a lot of work. I can imagine so many happy possibilities though. :)

  39. This reminds me of a friend’s summer place in Bourgogne. She’s made hers the best of both traditional and modern, with just very simple renovations. I totally echo Sarah’s idea that the troughs could become something cool. I just know you will create something wonderful and totally Blair here, while keeping the sense of place. These buildings are so solid. And having a local architect, he will know how to find the right craftspeople to do it justice. You could have a wonderful wild French garden with pea gravel and rose bushes and eat outside every day in the summer.

    Looking at these pictures of this old farm property, I was having flashbacks to Annie Ernaux’s powerful “La Place”, a book she wrote in memory of her father, who came from very humble and difficult peasant roots. A.E. explores the painful distance that separates her from her parents as education made it possible to leave their world and become a teacher. She tries to conjure her father’s world, now that he’s gone. And this cottage in its unrenovated state evokes her unsentimental evocation of what she can find about her father’s childhood — the hard life of the rural poor in France in the early 20th c. (Note that there are often adult themes that you might like to preview in Annie Ernaux’s books before sharing them with any of your kids; also, although deceptively simple and spare, it’s complicated emotionally. I find really perfect for late h.s. and college, but too intense for the younger ones — and will seem shapeless to them anyway).

  40. Yes, there is a lot of work to be done, but when it is finally finished you will have an adorable place in Normandy! I think it is fantastic that you have the vision and the passion to take on a project like this. Bravo!

  41. We own a 140 year old log cabin that once served as the only hotel in a small mining town. It has three doors on the rear side that directly accessed the boarding rooms. We have kept two of the doors as they were and the middle room door has been changed to a window. This middle room is now a large bathroom with a claw foot tub and an old wood stove.
    The front rooms of the hotel include a living room with a stone fireplace, a dining/family room with a fireplace and a kitchen with the original cast iron stove.
    The property also includes an outdoor chapel where a Sunday service is held May through October. We already have a wedding booked for next summer! There is another log cabin on the property that we refer to as the Honeymoon cabin and it serves as a place for the bride to ready herself.
    We have kept the decorating true to the period of the hotel in it’s heyday. Someday I would love to share photographs of our summer sanctuary with your readers.

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