Restoration of the Château and Village
The Château de Belcastel was nominated by the French Ministry of Culture to be listed as an historic monument in 1928. When Fernand Pouillon first visited Belcastel in 1973, he fell in love with the abandoned ruin. Throughout his celebrated career, Pouillon had been searching for an extraordinary historical property to transform into the home of his dreams. When the architect came upon the Château de Belcastel, he knew instantly that it was the very property he had been seeking. Pouillon bought the Château in 1974 for 150,000 new Francs, which is just over 20,000 Euros in today’s market. It would take him from 1974 to 1982 to complete the restoration. On July 6th, 1984, Pouillon officially invited the world to view his new home.
To find stones for rebuilding the walls, Pouillon created a quarry in the mountain behind the castle where he collected shale. For the decorative masonry, the architect used limestone and Marcillac pink sandstone. He chose chestnut wood for the floorboards. Although Pouillon was determined to use as many original elements as he could, he incorporated modern materials for style and practicality. For instance, in recreating most of the 450 steps in the Château, including the Great Stair, the stonemasons used concrete. Pouillon incorporated large glass casements to protect rooms and original ruins.
After purchasing the ruins, Fernand Pouillon began the arduous task of restoring the Château de Belcastel to its former glory. He enlisted the help of ten Algerian master-craftsmen, with whom he had worked in Algeria. He paid their salaries and all the building costs from his own pocket.
In order to get a sense of what the Château looked like prior to its ruin, Pouillon studied the remaining structure carefully and referenced the architecture of other castles of the same time period. He realized that he would have to decide which architectural form he would recreate, that of the original 11th century fortress or of the more elegant 15th century château. He also had the choice of reinventing the Château into a meld of ancient and ultra-modern elements, as was popular in the 1970s. Pouillon’s ideas shifted as he researched the history of the property. In the Rodez library, Pouillon discovered a book containing drawings of the Château’s interior before it became a ruin. These drawings provided him with the correct layout of many of the rooms. Fascinated with the medieval architecture, he resolved to integrate modern materials with elements drawn from the 11th century and 15th century designs.
When Pouillon began his restoration, the castle was a pile of rubble. There were large oak trees growing out of the Keep and the ruins of some of the rooms. What had once been grand windows were now vast holes in crumbling walls. According to his wife, Vera, the biggest challenge for Pouillon was keeping the surviving walls upright. He did so by allowing the overgrown ivy to remain, for the foliage was literally holding up the walls.
Pouillon decided that he and his team of stonemasons and glaziers would use only medieval building techniques during the restoration. Rejecting cranes and modern machinery and braving the forty meter drop of the northern face, the architect and his intrepid crew manually hoisted the enormous beams, arches, and chimneys into place as they rebuilt the castle stone by stone, pane by pane.
Pouillon restored many parts of the castle to their original state; the moat, drawbridge, and inner gateway were all painstakingly recreated. It would take more than eight years for Pouillon and his team to resurrect the piles of stones into a majestic château, which would serve as both a livable home and a monument to the past.
The Château de Belcastel remained the private residence of Fernand Pouillon until he died in Belcastel on July 24, 1986. In 2005, an American gallerist, Heidi Leigh, purchased the Château and opened it to the public as both a gallery and a historical monument. She has since embellished the interior with a collection of original armor and created numerous art galleries within the Château, while still allowing the medieval fortress and remarkable architecture of Fernand Pouillon to remain undisturbed. In 2017 the French Ministry of Culture honored Madame Leigh with a medal, and the title Chevalier of Arts and Letters, for her efforts in bringing art, music and masterclasses to France through the Chateau de Belcastel.
After restoring the Château to its former glory, Fernand Pouillon decided to help the villagers to renovate the village of Belcastel as well, so that it might reflect the castle’s recovered elegance. Many village homes lay in ruin, with collapsed roofs and dilapidated walls. The acclaimed architect worked together with the mayor of Belcastel to realize this ambitious project, focusing on six particularly neglected houses which still stand in the heart of the village today. Given that the majority of these houses were in an even worse condition than the Château had been, Pouillon’s experience reconstructing villages, gained during his employment as one of the French government’s architectes reconstructeurs after the Second World War, was essential.
Pouillon worked together with the inhabitants of the village to help revive Belcastel as he had revived the Château before it, and was warmly welcomed among them. He drew architectural plans to convey his idea of a new Belcastel, remaining true to the village’s original style and design. Pouillon’s renovation gave the people of Belcastel a renewed sense of pride in their home, and created a visible architectural harmony between the village and the castle that surmounts it.
Unfortunately, Pouillon died before the restoration of the village was completed, but the architects and builders who continued his legacy in Belcastel did so using the ideas and plans Pouillon himself had developed. The renovation program continued with the Roc d’Anglars, an ancient fort from the 5th century located just outside Belcastel that was restored in 1988, two years after Pouillon’s death.
Today, Belcastel is a lively and charming village, renowned for its authentic charm, and host to night markets and a popular annual fête with fireworks set off with the chateau as a backdrop. The village is home to approximately 30 permanent residents and 250 more throughout the surrounding area. Thanks to Pouillon’s extensive restorations, Belcastel is known today as a historic landmark and a popular destination for tourists and travellers in the Averyon. The village’s designation as one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France stands as a testament to an exceptional architect whose work in Belcastel made this distinguished classification possible.