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Exploring Château d'Hérouville: The French mansion touched by Van Gogh, David Bowie and more

@SamWKemp

To wander around the grounds of Château d’Hérouville is to walk in the shadow of more than 200 years of cultural history. There is perhaps no place on earth that has been touched by so many influential artists and musicians – or, in fact, that has touched so many in return. 

If it’s true that some buildings are like sponges, soaking up the life of those who reside within their walls, then I wouldn’t be surprised if this French 18th-century château – located in the village of Hérouville, just outside Paris – is about to start crumbling under the weight of its own history. Indeed, during one of the Château’s many chapters, it was transformed into one of the most illustrious and unique recording studios of the 1960s and ’70s, at which time it was visited by the likes of Jerry Garcia, The Bee Gees, Elton John and, of course, David Bowie – who recorded his iconic albums Pin-Ups and Low at there in 1973. But that’s just one chapter. To paint a full picture of one of the most fascinating buildings in Europe, we need to start at the beginning.

When French architect Gaudot cast his eye over the village of Hérouville in the 1730s, he saw a landscape that hadn’t changed since medieval times. The people who lived there still resided in the poorly-constructed thatched huts that had been the homes of not only their grandparents but also their grandparents’ grandparents. The land was lush and fertile and – over the centuries – had been carved into a patchwork of neat fields filled with barley. Come August, the whole village would venture out, with the men cutting the crop with tall scythes and the women and children trailing behind to collect the fallen sheaths into bushels.

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But Gaudot had a dream for Hérouville, one that would see him lay down the blueprints for a grand château overlooking the village. It would be built in the Romanesque style – on the grounds of a previous mansion built in the 1500s – and comprise two wings and several outbuildings. He envisioned 30 ornate bed chambers and numerous libraries, a kitchen, and a grand dining room, all of which would be set in 1.7 hectares of lush parkland. 

Following its completion in 1740, just 48 years before the revolution that would remove many of their heads, the château became the residency of the French aristocracy, some of whom decided to make numerous additions to the structure. That’s why, if you visit it today, you’ll notice that the château is something of an architectural chimaera, one that wears its 300-year history on its sleeve. But, even before you notice the architecture, you’ll likely be struck by something much more challenging to place, a sense that you are never entirely alone, that – to put it bluntly – you are being haunted. You would be right to feel that way. In the mid-19th century, Château d’Hérouville was visited by two of the most important innovators in their field: Vincent Van Gogh – who painted the château’s exterior entirely by hand – and the Polish composer Frédéric Chopin, who left something equally enduring behind; his ghost.

Chopin escaped to Château d’Hérouville to be with his mistress, the French novelist George Sands in the mid-1800s. They lived there together for some time, and, according to legend, Chopin liked it so much he never left. Today, his ghost is said to haunt the master bedroom in what is known as The Sand wing. A hundred years or so later, the château would see countless other musicians pass along its winding corridors, the first of whom was the French film composer Michel Magne. He bought the property in 1969 after it had spent nearly 70 years falling into disrepair.

Over the next few years, he gradually transformed it into his personal studio, funding the project by working on scores for films such as Les Tontons FlingueursFantômas, and Gigot. The moment he gazed upon the château, Magne found himself lost in the same reverie that had possessed Gaudot back in the 1730s. Magne’s dream was to utilise the structure’s natural acoustics while renovating it into a space where musicians and composers could collaborate. As Magne’s second wife once recalled in an interview: “There were certain rooms used as echo chambers. This was a revolution…in the beginning, the studio was there to record [Magne’s] music. But word of mouth spread quickly and after doing the rounds in Paris…the whole world came here. It became the destination for the biggest groups”.

By 1970, the château was being visited by some of rock’s most important musicians, including The Grateful Dead, who decided to throw an impromptu show there in 1971. “We went over there to do a big festival, a free festival they were gonna have, but the festival was rained out,” Jerry Garcia once remembered. “It flooded. We stayed at this little château which is owned by a film score composer. We were there with nothing to do: France, a 16-track recording studio upstairs, all our gear, ready to play, and nothing to do. So, we decided to play at the château itself, out in the back, in the grass, with a swimming pool, just play into the hills. We didn’t even play to hippies, we played to a handful of townspeople in Auvers. We played and the people came – the chief of police, the fire department, just everybody. It was an event and everybody just had a hell of a time – got drunk, fell in the pool. It was great.”

The restored Château d’Hérouville. (Credit: YouTube)

Over the next seven years or so, the walls of the Château d’Hérouville soaked up the music of the likes of T-Rex, The Rolling Stones, Canned Heat, Fleetwood Mac, and Elton John – all of whom, at one point or another, stayed in the château to record their albums. Despite being a site of untold hedonism (it was the ’70s, after all), the building’s long history continued to resurface, refusing to be drowned out by the sound of wailing guitars. Indeed, by the time David Bowie, Tony Visconti, and Brian Eno arrived to record Low in 1978, there was no escaping it. As Visconti later said: “There was certainly some strange energy in that château. On the first day, David took one look at the master bedroom and said, ‘I’m not sleeping in there!’ He took the room next door. The master bedroom had a very dark corner, right next to the window, ironically, that seem to just suck light into it. It was colder in that corner too.” Eno also experienced things he couldn’t explain. He once recalled waking up to the feeling of something shaking his shoulder, but on opening his eyes, he found himself entirely alone. None of this perturbed David Bowie, though; he’d stayed in the château on his own when he was self-producing his album Pin-Ups in 1973.

Magne was many things, but a businessman was not one of them. In 1979, he went bankrupt and was forced to sell the property to his creditors. The subsequent owners had enough respect for what had gone on inside their new home to allow the studio to remain while they went about pursuing plans to renovate the building into (surprise surprise) luxury flats. But, after the development was denied, the building was abandoned and has been left to decay for the last 30 years. 

Back in 2013, Château d’Hérouville was up for sale for around £1.12 million. As well as the asking price, the owner would have needed to supply an additional £300,000 for renovation costs to keep the place from falling in on itself. For some time, nobody took the bait. Then, in 2015, a group of three music professionals working in film scoring and audio engineering bought the property and rebuilt the recording studio. Today, it serves the very same purpose it did when Michel Magne opened it to recording artists all those decades ago: to provide a space to live and to create music. I just hope today’s visitors understand the importance of where they are standing.

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