When Dutch-born interior designer Dorothea de La Houssaye first saw the Château de l’Isle-Marie on a cold and foggy night in 1993, it had been abandoned for decades and suffered badly from neglect. She surprised her husband, the late art historian and scholar Gilles de La Houssaye (he passed away in 2004), by deciding then and there that she would undertake the enormous task of restoring his family’s ancestral home, located 30 minutes from Utah Beach, to its former splendor, befitting its rich and eventful past. Originally a weapons and armor depot, in the Middle Ages the château consisted of four towers surrounding a courtyard. Over time the owners, the aristocratic D’Aigneaux and Aux Epaules families, turned it into an imposing stronghold and built a smaller, Italianate château. In the 17th century, the property passed to the renowned Maréchal de Bellefonds, who added a Palladian manor house and a chapel. The maréchal boasted of the protection of the dauphin, the heir to the throne, but his taste for splendor landed him deeply in debt, and he fell from royal grace on several occasions. In the end, the Sun King ordered him to “go plant his cabbages elsewhere.” Following this, L’Isle-Marie gradually fell into oblivion. Under the pseudonym Château des Saules, or “Château of the Willows,” it was depicted in the 1883 novel Ce qui ne meurt pas (What Never Dies), by Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, the French Edgar Allan Poe.
Urged on by the enthusiasm of Simon Rock de Besombes, Gilles’s English cousin, who is currently one of the château’s hosts, Dorothea began working day and night, completing many of the tasks—cleaning ceilings, sanding paneling, painting walls—herself. Rummaging through attics and outbuildings, she unearthed a treasure trove of armchairs, canopied beds and decorative objects. Gilles provided a large number of ancestral family portraits and a set of Gien tableware engraved with the de La Houssaye coat of arms. Crucial support came from designer Laura Ashley, who supplied the wallpaper and fabrics for the curtains and even offered to reupholster the furniture. Finally, the renovations were completed in time for the 50th anniversary of D-Day, in June 1994. Just a stone’s throw from Sainte-Mère-Eglise, the first village to be liberated by the Allied Forces, L’Isle-Marie was able to open its doors to World War II veterans who gathered there from around the world. The newly decorated château was so well-received that Dorothea made plans to convert it into the hotel it is today.
After 18 years of work, Dorothea has created a welcoming and authentic family house. Keeping an eye on every detail, from the beds covered in toile de Jouy that she sewed herself to the engravings and portraits that line the walls, she has built a place where those who visit feel they had been eagerly awaited by an old friend and welcomed with open arms on the steps of the portico.
This article was adapted from the forthcoming book Château Style, by Barbara and René Stoeltie, available in May in a limited edition of 1,000 (to order, go to chateaustyle.com). The Château de l’Isle-Marie is a three-hour drive from Paris (rooms, from $250; islemarie.com).