Life in the picturesque village of Rasteau, located in the foothills of the French Alps, revolves around winemaking. Most of the town’s 700 residents tend the vineyards that produce the region’s famous Côtes du Rhône wines.
The search for a vacation home in Provence led American Holly Glass and her Dutch husband, Jan Grent, to this sleepy outpost. Grent, who had recently retired, and Glass, a public relations consultant who works from home, were hoping to split their time between their Virginia residence and a home in France. Grent recalls the day a real estate agent invited them to tour a centuries-old house that had been built into Rasteau’s original fortification walls. “We went to the top floor and out on the terrace and saw the views. I pinched Holly and she pinched me. We said, ‘This is it,’ and we bought it."
With the patchwork of terracotta rooftops and vineyards unfolding below, it was easy to overlook the minor fact that the house was more or less unlivable. The previous owner, a 92-year-old woman, utilized only one of the home’s five levels, where a bathroom doubled as a kitchenette. Not only was the layout convoluted, but the roof leaked and the infrastructure was a shambles.
Immediately, the couple flew in Washington-based architect Ernesto Santalla to give the home a once-over. “Initially, they asked me to spend a couple of days with them and design a ‘quickie renovation,’” recalls Santalla, who had completed two DC-area projects for the couple. “Famous last words.”
After touring the home with Santalla and local contractor Patrice Blanc, the couple came to realize that the house—parts of which date back to the 12th century—needed a full restoration. “Everything had to be redone,” says Glass, “from the plumbing and electricity to the heating, the walls, the fireplace and the floors.”
Luckily, Blanc was well-versed in the region’s building methods. “Patrice could immediately identify what was original and what was not Provençal detailing,” says Santalla. “He could see through all the layers and point out what was not authentic.”
Once the property was measured and blueprints drawn, Santalla returned to the States and formulated a plan that would upgrade the home and rework its layout while carefully preserving its historic legacy. He devised a logical floor plan that would give purpose to every level of the home. “The plan was recreated in a way that made it much more feasible to live in the house the way we live now,” Santalla explains.
The main level is accessible from the front door and now houses the master suite, a library and a cozy living room. The relocated kitchen and dining room on the top floor spill out onto the rebuilt terrace, where the couple enjoys meals during the warmer months. Descending from the main level, visitors reach a floor housing three guest rooms and a central kitchenette, which leads out to the new pool behind the house. Below the guest level is a media room and wine cellar and below that a party room where Grent, a musician, often plays the piano.
Since he would be orchestrating the project remotely, Santalla kept the design simple. “In a way, it was about stripping back many layers to get to a point where there was this common denominator that we could build from,” the architect explains. “I had to minimize the amount of details the contractor needed to produce because I wasn’t there. I had to have an approach that would work everywhere.”
Keeping the material palette as minimalistic as possible plays up the home’s architectural treasures—including centuries-old wooden beams, terracotta roof tiles and a weathered stone exterior. “We really worked hard to preserve what was considered original and took away everything that we knew was additive,” Santalla says. “I wanted to emphasize all the really magnificent timbers that are almost magically holding up the structure.”
Santalla selected large-format terracotta floor tiles, cable lighting and dark-stained steel railings to create the clean, modern look his clients favored. They also decided to order furniture exclusively from BoConcept since products they could test in the store’s DC showroom are also available in France.
Construction began in September 2007. What Glass and Grent expected would be a seven-month process ultimately took twice as long. “Things move slowly in France,” Grent admits.
Glass did not share her husband’s relaxed view when she visited in January 2008 and found the house still open to the elements, without floors or walls in place. “I stood on the terrace and cried,” she recalls. “I was overwhelmed and was having difficulty seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”
The couple also had to contend with the village mayor, who oversees architectural changes. He eventually granted permission for the pool—but not without protest from residents whose families have lived in Rasteau for generations. “It was a very unusual concept to build a pool in the middle of a medieval village,” says Glass. “It had to be exactly in spec because we didn’t want to infringe on our neighbors.”
Though Grent and Glass were able to live in the home by the summer of 2008, it wasn’t officially completed until 2010. Now settled into the rhythm of Rasteau, they couldn’t be happier. “Ernesto kept it simple—but still the old spirit is there,” Grent says. “He is extremely talented in that regard, mixing the ancient with the modern. He created a very thorough and thoughtful design.”
The couple enjoys daily bike rides through Provence and visits to wineries with their frequent houseguests. A self-taught artist, Grent has taken up watercolor painting and drawing with India ink.
“When I’m here,” says Glass, “I can’t wait to get out of bed in the morning and look out the window. It’s that kind of magic that Ernesto and Jan and I tried to envision in the very beginning. We finally have it.”
Geoffrey Hodgdon is a photographer in Deale, Maryland.
RENOVATION AND INTERIOR DESIGN: ERNESTO SANTALLA, AIA, LEED AP, Studio Santalla Inc., Washington, DC. RENOVATION CONTRACTOR: PATRICE BLANC, Roussillon, France.