Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

22 Rooms to Renovate and 700 Years of History to Protect ; Dutch Couple Safeguards Belgian Castle's Rich Past While Creating New Home

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

22 Rooms to Renovate and 700 Years of History to Protect ; Dutch Couple Safeguards Belgian Castle's Rich Past While Creating New Home

Article excerpt

It took years for the de Gruyters to finish work on the Castle de Rameyen, in northern Belgium.

It has all the makings of a fairytale: A handsome man marries the beautiful girl next door and whisks her off to his castle in a land far away.

And it feels like entering a fairytale to pass through the iron gates of Castle de Rameyen on a damp winter morning, the pathways blanketed in yellow leaves sparkling from the rain.

But this is no fantasy. Joseph and Claartje de Gruyter were born and raised across the street from each other in the southern Dutch town of 's-Hertogenbosch. And they now live in the 700-year-old castle, which they bought in 1995.

"It was love at first sight," Mrs. de Gruyter recalled of the castle, near Antwerp in northern Belgium. But the moated chateau, while livable, desperately needed modernizing. So shortly after moving in, the couple sought help from Rutger Steenmeijer, of R. Steenmeijer & H. Baksteen architects, and Axel Vervoordt, who had designed interiors for their previous home in 's-Hertogenbosch.

For the first three years, the de Gruyters set up house in the main part of the castle to familiarize themselves with the space while the renovation team worked on the outlying buildings, which included private stables, a coach house and caretaker's cottage. They then moved into the coach house while Mr. Steenmeijer and Mr. Vervoordt turned to the main dwelling.

The work involved in renovating a building from the early 1300s is tricky. "A house is like an old lady," Mr. de Gruyter said. "You can easily destroy her. So we took a modern approach, aiming to do no more than necessary."

The biggest challenge, he explained, was determining how to renovate the castle's 22 rooms and which period best suited each one. "The house has seen so much construction and renovation over the years -- from the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Empire, 18th century," he said. "How do you restore a room that was last restored in the 18th century but built in the Middle Ages?"

The salon, for example, was in the Empire style when the de Gruyters moved in. The original Renaissance stained glass had been replaced with enormous clear-glass windows, but the Renaissance ceiling remained.

The couple, with the help of the design team, removed traces of such "mismatches," as Mr. de Gruyter calls them.

The salon was reworked to suit the Empire renovation. ("You can't get rid of the windows," Mr. de Gruyter said, "so there is no way to bring it back to the Renaissance.") Idealized landscapes, measuring three meters high, or nearly 10 feet, by the 18th-century painter Hubert Robert now cover two of the walls, blending comfortably with contemporary works by the Belgian artist Jef Verheyen; coffee tables topped with burgundy-violet porphyry and lapis lazuli, a custom design by Mr. Vervoordt, who also created the couches; and an 18th- dynasty Egyptian Sekhmet dating to the 14th century B.C.

Throughout the castle, similar decisions were made as modern conveniences were installed.

In the lower dungeon, which now serves as the couple's main dining room, underfloor heating runs beneath the floor of pastellone, a composite of marble and resin. …

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