It is August 2006 and we are on vacation, staying for the third consecutive year at Tre Querce, an agriturismo that we have come to love in our town in Le Marche. Just two months ago, my husband Jesse signed the deed to our own property in this town, a dilapidated old farmhouse on a country road, on the other side of the centro. I described in a previous column my first view of the house– the old tiled roof visible from the road above, tucked into a valley– the mountains in the distance; the rolling farm land surrounding the house. That first view was one of those life-defining moments we will never forget.
We’re at the same time exhilarated and intimidated by this house. It is thrilling to own a tiny piece of Italy, a country that the world and we too have romanticized, with good reason. We feel somewhat safe knowing that we earn our money in the U.S. and only need to spend it in Italy. Thus we can be tourists in this venture, and not worry so much about the economic crises. And we’ve already set up our daughter’s college fund. Though it’s far from adequate yet, we feel confident if we are disciplined about ongoing deposits, we can afford the extravagance of a house in Italy.
It will be two years before we can actually stay in the house. But now that it’s ours, we can’t stay away from it. We go to the house almost every day during this vacation. Having been a museum director for most of my career, I’ve got a healthy respect for preserving what’s there, both from its physical appearance and from its functional side. As we fight through the weeds to get closer to the house and get inside, it’s clear right away that the house’s big box shape and its openings– the windows and doors– should stay where, and basically as, they are. Obviously we won’t be restoring the trough that runs the long way along the big, open space that housed the animals. But it is immediately clear to me that this is the kitchen. A big long dining table will go alongside the trough. An island will go horizontally, separating the dining area from the cooking area. There will be counters along the far wall and part of the trough wall; the kitchen sink will go under the far window, the fridge will fit right into the niche that served formerly as a water trough, and just past that, in a separate little room for the pig, with a tiny window, we will have a tidy pantry.
We try to wander through the rooms of the house as much as we can. The upstairs is unsafe– the crumbling floorboards could collapse at any moment. And there are many bats in residence. But most windows seem to define a room, so we can surmise that there will be four bedrooms on the upper level and at least one bath, which is exactly what we want. There’s an attic too– that could become more bedrooms, but do we really want that many rooms to clean? On the ground floor, the living room should be the space to the right of the kitchen and Jesse envisions an arch leading to it, but the staircase to reach the upper floor is blocking the way. And going further to the right, there’s what might be a den, but it is completely collapsed and growing into the adjacent hill. It also seems to be separate from the rest of the house, evidence that this was a multi-family dwelling.
We have hired the engineers Pasquale and Serenella to work with us in designing and building the house. For the first of what will be many, many meetings over the next two years, we troop over to their studio in their parents’ house and gather round the conference table. Poor Sophie– eight years old and bored, she sat at the drafting table for hours– reading patiently until she was released from purgatory and we could make lunch and spend the afternoon at the Tre Querce pool. I think it was at that first meeting that Pasquale introduced the idea that became key to the layout and flow of the rooms in the house. By moving the existing staircase to the other side of the building, the living room was now adjacent to the kitchen/dining area. The first floor would be a spacious living space that also included a den, bathroom, utility room and entryway. The upstairs would have its four bedrooms and two baths. We would dispense with that attic, except in Sophie’s room, where it became a loft– a perfect space to play, and later write and study– over a walk-in closet. The remaining bedrooms would have nice high ceilings. Once that crucial step of moving the stairs was decided, the project became a viable living space– a real home where we could have lots of guests and cook for neighbors and friends.
We were able to keep the existing openings of the house as I’d hoped. Pasquale and Serenella also had a reverence for the traditions of these old farmhouses, and having grown up there, had deep knowledge of the reasons these houses were built as they were. The small, high windows in the former animal space brought in light but couldn’t be kicked in by an ox or cow. These were the only windows we altered– lengthening them to bring more light into the kitchen. The big double door that accessed this room, to bring the animals in from outside, became a big, folding glass door for us– we wanted minimal transition between indoors and outdoors– no steps, no porch, no portico. Just open the door and be outside. I’d experienced this on a long-ago trip to New Mexico, and wanted to recreate that feeling in our own house. Where the stairway was moved, we left what had been the front door to the house as it was intended, and made it into a tall, door-shaped window, which fills the living room with light, but retains the original look of the house. And the tiny window in the pantry– that stayed just as it is. It brings soft natural light into the dispensa, but keeps it remarkably cool and dry. Nuts, flour, tea, spices and coffee will stay fresh for years in this magic pantry.
There were other traditions in restoring these old structures that we also embraced. We wanted whenever possible to re-use the house’s old beams and lintels. And we wanted at least one wall in every room left original stone. The old ceiling tiles, which resembled pale pink bricks about an inch thick, were re-used, re-creating the pattern of beams/joists/tiles that is traditional for old farmhouses. The old wooden lintels over the windows, worm eaten and weather-beaten, were sturdy enough to stay in all but a few cases. After the roof was rebuilt with concrete and a moisture proof membrane, and reinforced with a concrete ring that followed the roofline all around the house to prevent damage from earthquakes, the original terra cotta roof tiles would also be reused. This of course, to maintain the look of an old farmhouse. But I’m jumping ahead of myself– restoring the roof was well over a year away.
Planning as much as we could for the layout of the house was our goal that summer. Once those basic plans were completed, drawings could be filed with the commune, the builder could start to phase the work, and materials could be quantified and sourced. And because we were about midway down the side of a valley, water diversion was a big issue. Mud had been washing down that slope and landing at the front door for decades. Once it was dug out, we gained a full 18 inches in height to the front and kitchen doorways. Keeping that water rolling down the hill and not seeping into our house was always front and center in Pasquale’s mind. We were very glad to have the expertise of engineers working with us on this project.
What a summer that was! It was only our third in the area and we suddenly owned property. When friends from Brooklyn visited after stops in Barcelona and London, they toasted our “bravery” (or rather recklessness) and our vision. Because frankly, when they looked at that old ruin, that’s exactly what they saw– an old, falling down, wreck of a house in the middle of nowhere. But we’d seen so many examples of ruined structures transformed into comfortable, beautiful homes, and our team was so competent and inspired such confidence, we never looked back or harbored any doubts. In the end, the horror stories we’d heard about building in Italy did not materialize for us, in large part due to the integrity and honesty of our team. The only thing that nailed us was the euro/dollar exchange rate, which hit its highest point when we had the most bills to pay. Bene, no one could’ve foreseen that.