A Romantic Retreat Fit for a Pioneering Auto Maker

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HERQUEVILLE, FRANCE -- The Château de Herqueville is perched on the brow of a wooded bluff in Normandy. Below, the Seine river loops around two leafy islands. A picturesque village on the opposite bank completes the panorama.

Designed by André-Louis Arfvidson, creator of the Art Nouveau pavilion at the 1900 World's Fair in Paris, and built at the end of that decade, the house resembles a stately Anglo-Norman-style manor. The interiors, however, still have the stamp of the original owner, Louis Renault, the pioneer automaker who founded the French car empire that still bears his name.

Often called "The Henry Ford of France," Mr. Renault was only 21 when he invented the revolutionary direct drive transmission that improved gear shifting and transformed automobile design. It made his fortune.

He was equally imaginative at home. After Mr. Renault, then 29, spotted the idyllic hilltop from the deck of his yacht, he commissioned the house as a romantic retreat for himself and his mistress, the opera star Jeanne Hatto. Herqueville is about 90 kilometers, or 56 miles, from Paris.

The 800-square-meter, or 8,600-square-foot, mansion was conceived on a grand scale, with large reception rooms and an entire floor devoted to the master and mistress suites. Broad river views can be seen from four of the house's five levels.

The interior finishes were completed under the direction of Émile Boulangeot, a master cabinet maker. Floors in Versailles parquet, stone, marble and mosaics; marble fireplaces; oil landscapes over the White Salon's doorways, and four large crystal chandeliers are just some of the details.

In the mid-1920s, the industrialist, married and the father of a young son by that time, added a 700-square-meter guest annex whose most attractive feature is an indoor Art Deco swimming pool of gold-flecked blue and green mosaic tiles.

After Mr. Renault's death in 1944, his son Jean-Louis tried a few business ventures at Herqueville but they all proved unsuccessful. He sold off most of the estate's land bit by bit in the 1970s.

Yet much of Mr. Renault's lavish château decor and avant-garde installations are still intact, thanks to the current owner, David Salamone, a Briton who is a former race car driver and movie stunt driver.

"I bought the château and annex in 1998 as a 50th birthday present to myself," he said. "The château had been empty for 30 years and the pool hadn't had water in it for almost 50 years.

"Water was running down the walls; windows and panes of glass in the doors were broken. Everything had to be redone: the plumbing, the electricity, and the restoration of the mosaic tiles in the pool and in the château's gallery."

A vintage car collector and daredevil driver whose career highlight was the role of Dominic in the 1969 film "The Italian Job" with Michael Caine, Mr. Salamone was inspired by the Renault connection to the estate. Renovations took 10 years "and cost more than what I paid for the house," he recalled.

Mr. Salamone has decided to put the property on the market and a friend who now owns the guest annex is doing the same. The two residences, linked by a windowed corridor, are surrounded by almost nine hectares, or 22 acres, of park and woodland. The asking price for the entire ensemble is €3 million, or $3.8 million. The château with about six hectares is €1.7 million; the annex with about two hectares is €1.3 million.

The château has two entrances: On the park side, a small domed oval entry area has a powder room and one-person elevator; on the river side, a formal entry opens into a mosaic-tiled gallery. A marble entrance hall beyond connects to the double-height White Salon, named for its white paneling; a large dining room; a library/television room; and Mr. Renault's atelier.

A carved oak staircase and balustrade leads to the master and mistress suites, each with their own sitting room and bathroom; a tower room and a small kitchen. On the top floor, there are four bedroom suites and a large office/studio.

There are two lower levels to the mansion. On the first, a small modern kitchen and breakfast room were created in part of the original kitchen; there also are a workshop, boiler room and laundry. A steel door opens on a tunnel, once used by servants to reach the road without crossing the garden. The lowest level is a three-part wine cellar.

In the 1970s the guest annex was reconfigured as a family home. The ground floor has a large living room with a balcony overlooking the river, a dining room, kitchen, four bedrooms and three bathrooms. The upper floor contains four bedrooms, a playroom and bathroom. On the lower level, the Art Deco pool, a parquet-floored gym and Italian mosaic showers are all original.

"The Château de Herqueville is a legendary property with exceptional interiors in perfect condition, a fabulous swimming pool and sumptuous views on the Seine," said Damien Hyest, who is handling the sale for the Cabinet Le Nail, a real estate agency based in the western Loire region.

Mr. Salamone said he initially was attracted to the house by the high ceilings of the White Salon, seeing it as the perfect location for his large music system. "When I had the chandeliers rewired and cleaned, I found out why they hadn't been stolen," he said. "It took eight men to get them down." (The chandeliers are included in the asking price; the sale of furnishings may be negotiated.)

In the mosaic-tiled gallery, he pointed to a sculpted wooden gargoyle in goggles and driving helmet, a quirky memorial to Marcel Renault, Mr. Renault's older brother, who was killed in the 1903 Paris-Madrid auto race.

The huge oak cabinet that dominates Mr. Renault's atelier is the inventor's version of a tool bench, with drawers specially designed for plans and drawings and compartments for tools, a lathe and vice. The industrialist, known for sleeping only five hours a night, had a bell system in the guest rooms and sometimes summoned his engineers in the middle of the night to discuss a sudden inspiration.

Other features include early versions of double-paned windows and under-floor heating. There also is a 1920s record player that Mr. Renault altered so it would change 78 records automatically.

The château's view also is intact, a solitary barge slowly chugging up river one recent afternoon. "I could take the same photograph now as the one I have of the view on a vintage postcard," Mr. Salamone said. "Only when Louis Renault looked out of this window, everything in sight belonged to him."

"I've loved living here," he said, with just a tinge of regret. "People who come here are blown away. It's a treasure house of 20th Century history."


This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published June 29, 2012 1:00 PM


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