France's Loire Valley is, of course, famous for its regal chateaux. One can meander through the more than 500 rooms of the Chateau de Blois, see Leonardo da Vinci's tomb in the Chateau d'Amboise or simply behold the river-spanning architecture of Catherine de Medici's Chenonceau.
But there is one estate that sits quietly behind gates seldom opened to anyone. A reclusive philanthropist's personal trophy, it is the valley's only fully privately held royal chateau--a stone structure with nearly 200,000 square feet of living space on 118 acres of sculpted gardens on the banks of the Loire River. It is known as Chateau de Menars.
Menars is owned by a 76-year-old press-shy introvert named Edmond Baysari. For Baysari the chateau is the ultimate labor of love, costing him three decades and more than $100 million to restore. More important, it's a tribute to his lifelong muse: Madame de Pompadour, a renowned grande dame of the arts and the chateau's former inhabitant (as well as the chief mistress of King Louis XV, Marie Antoinette's father-in-law). Baysari refers to his chateau as "Palace Pompadour."
The estate at Menars was among her last works, acquired in 1760. Pompadour enlisted court architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel--who designed Paris's Place de la Concorde--to build her dream home, refurbishing the original chateau, which had been built in 1642. Pompadour never saw Menars to completion; she died in 1764, at age 42, from tuberculosis. Her brother completed an addition; then the chateau sat quietly, weathering the French Revolution and thwarting the attentions of property developers and would-be tourists, for the next two centuries.
Forbes was able to take a rare look around inside the chateau. Yahoo! Homes is publishing an abbreviated version of the story and photos here; to see even more, visit Forbes.com:
In 1980, when Baysari heard from the chairman of Sotheby's that the chateau was for sale, he pounced.
He mulled over what to do with Menars before inspiration struck in 1989. "I decided I wanted to make a gift to Madame de Pompadour and put it back to the way she would have it if alive today," he says. But "restoration" doesn't fully encompass his painstaking efforts. It wasn't enough to refinish the intricate wood paneling adorning the walls of rooms or to touch up the gold leafing gleaming from ceilings; Baysari set out to revive Menars by employing the very same methods utilized by Pompadour.
Baysari returned the wings' large galleries to their original purposes of displaying artwork. He furnished the estate in original 18th century French antiques and employed artisans to authentically restore rooms and their finishes in the style utilized during Pompadour's time. Rather than adorn the walls with historical works from the time period, however, he has commissioned up-and-coming artists to paint and sculpt new works, just as Pompadour originally did:
More than two decades later, Palace Pompadour is finally finished (or as close as it will ever be). Among Baysari's favorite spaces is an ornately carved library paneled in two kinds of wood, situated on the second floor:
The endless layout includes more than 50 bedrooms, a series of intimate drawing rooms and a regally appointed dining room with an underground passage to a separate kitchen building, one of the estate's two kitchens (Pompadour is said to have loathed the smell of cooking):
The estate has a lush array of gardens. The great terrace, stretching from the chateau to the river, is a geometric presentation of square grassy lawns hugged by squat hedgerows and studded with 18th-century statues of Roman emperors:
The royal terrace ends at a ramp guarded by two stone sphinxes, each bearing Pompadour's face, that leads down to the banks of the Loire River.
Baysari uses the palace as a summer retreat, occupying it sporadically in the months of July and August. He once experimented with opening Chateau de Menars to the public for tours, until the estate was burglarized. Still, if a group wishes to arrange a tour, he often obliges them.
Now Baysari is looking to the future. He has no heir. He says he has already turned down several nine-figure offers from Russian and Middle Eastern billionaires looking for a trophy home. But that's not what he has in mind. Ideally, Palace Pompadour will be gifted to an arts institution, like the Getty Museum or the Hermitage, that "brings all of the assurances that it will be safe for a long, long time." And it will require some deep pockets: Annual upkeep on the chateau is roughly $1 million.
A new owner will also find three rooms that Baysari has purposely left unrestored: the ground-floor apartments that served as Madame de Pompadour's bedrooms. "I don't want to do it. I don't think I'm qualified," he says, laughing shyly. "I would rather that when she comes back, she does it herself."
To see the full story and even more pictures of Palace Pompadour, visit Forbes.com:
- Arts & Entertainment
- Madame de Pompadour