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Everyman Builds his own Castle

No one in Richard Hurbain's wide circle of friends in the bustling Parisian suburb of Montfermeil could understand why he did not know that he was the happiest man in the world. He was young, vigorous, incurably optimistic, a good worker where who had made his fast way up in the electric company from climbing poles as a lineman to a prestigious job counseling new businesses on how to design their electrical installations, a job that involved a steady round of champagne lunches. His wife Françoise had a good job as a pediatric nurse. They had three sturdy little boys, they had recently built a handsome house with all the modern comforts, they had a brand-new station wagon, they had a spanking new bungalow on the Brittany coast that Richard had constructed single-handed out of the ruins of an old stone house. In the France of 1982, what more could any one ask?

Yet Richard Hurbain was growing unhappier every day in Montfermeil. It was not longer the Montfermeil he had grown up in, the pleasant little town a whole 15 miles from the big city, where a boy like Richard Hurbain could become an expert gardener by the age of 11 and learn how to construct a beehive and make plum brandy in a wooden barrel. It had turned into just another featureless extension of the metropolis, full of stress and noise and dirty air, with traffic-choked streets running monotonously through identical blocks of concrete. It had become a place where there was no room for a man to raise a rabbit, where there were no stars shining in the polluted sky.

He dreamed of a house in the country, with animals and fresh vegetables, and sometimes he dreamed of the medieval castles hulking on the hilltops he had so admired as a little boy when his family drove down the Rhone valley to visit grandma near the Mediterranean coast. He was always stopping off at real estate offices on his way home from work to consult brochures about stately country homes, restful rustic retreats, shady rural hideaways.

And then one day in November 1982, in a publication called Indicateur Lagrange, he found all that he was looking for and more: "Feudal castle constructed in the 14th century (exceptional architecture), 2 hectares, 790,000 francs," read the headline. Beneath it was a photograph showing a view through an entrance gate of an immense donjon with round towers at each of its corners, dominating open countryside for miles around. The very next Sunday he loaded his wife and their three young sons into the station wagon and headed due south to the village of Sarzay, located in almost the dead center of France. They were still several miles short of their goal when at a turn in the road at the top of a hill they all five uttered one collective gasp of awe and admiration at the sight of the distant towers glittering the in the noonday sun, soaring a hundred feet and more over the wheatfields and hedgerows and woodland of the quiet countryside. The closer they got, the more enthusiastic they became. Yes, there were holes in the roofs and cracks in the walls, and piles of debris at the foot of the towers, and a general air of abandonment and decay. But the walls were so massive and rose up so royally into the bright blue sky that Richard could not believe that the elderly couple who were visiting the chateau at the same time were not as eager as he was to snatch it up at such a bargain price. "I'm buying this place!" he shouted at the lady who offered to show them around.

There was not a moment of doubt or hesitation. "One look was enough,;I signed a contract within an hour of seeing the property," he says all these years later. "I knew I was right."

The boys, Vincent, Luc and Gilles, then 11, 8 and 5, were all as thrilled as he was at the idea of moving to a genuine castle that might have popped out of a story-book. Françoise, on the other hand, was aghast. As a practical Frenchwoman, she could see all kinds of practical difficulties ahead.

But she also knew her husband. She knew that he was the kind of man who, once he had made his mind up, never looked back. "Go straight for your goal,' he likes to say. In the end Françoise always stays by her husband, and by the day before Christmas, the papers were signed and notarized.

The first of the practical difficulties, and in some ways the easiest to solve, was raising the money, about 150,000 1982 U.S. dollars. They solved it by taking out a bank loan at the usurious rates current in the early 1980's, and by selling almost everything they owned - the house in Montfermeil and the place in Brittany, plus a modest inheritance from Richard's grandmother.

Then came the wrenching task of uprooting the family from the lively urban life, the only life they had ever known, and moving the to a somnolent rural village still barely aware of the arrival of the 20th century. There was no lack of friends and relatives to tell them that the whole idea was pure folly, a leap from comfort and security into a black hole discomforts and dangers. How were they going to live? How were they going to pay the bills?

But off they went.

The family moved definitively into the new cold and leaky abode in 1983. Françoise, as a trained nurse, found it fairly easy to get work. But Electricité de France did not take kindly to the idea of one of its employees setting himself up as 14th-century nobleman, and it took them15 months to find something for him to do in the boondocks, and when they did it meant a brutal drop in seniority. After eleven years of climbing the employment ladder, he had to start all over again at the bottom, as a meter reader, driving daily over the countryside 20 miles around, reading 52,000 meters twice a year.

Still, here was Richard Hurbain, ensconced now as chatelain of Sarzay in the old province of Berry, successor to the noble knight Guillaume de Barbançois who had started to build the castle in the darkest days of the Hundred Years War, to defend the heartland of France against English invaders.

There was not a drop of blue in the blood of the Hurbains; as far back as any one could remember, they had been ordinary working people. The only time the wings of history touched them was during the German Occupation in World War II, when Richard's father served for some months as driver for a local resistance leader named François Mitterrand, later to become President of the French Republic. No matter. The new chatelain was going to be worthy of his chateau. When he read in an old book that the Knights of the Order of the Golden Fleece never swore a mighty oath except in the presence of a noble bird like a peacock or a pheasant, he bought some peacocks for his courtyard, and in the presence of one of them he swore that he would restore Sarzay to at least an approximation of its ancient glory.

The glory days were long gone from the castle he had purchased. It was in fact an utter wreck. With its battlemented towers and its chapel and its outhouses and stables and courtyards and moats and drawbridges and portcullises and two great defensive circular walls with their 38 turrets, it had once covered more than 10 acres, and was endowed with all the sophisticated refinements of 14th-century architecture. But it was barely finished before the introduction of artillery into warfare made it obsolete. The next 500 years were a history of slow decay. After 200 years the Barbançois family had to sell the property, which gradually became nothing more than a rambling group of abandoned farm buildings with the giant donjon standing awkward and useless in the middle. The 19th-century novelist George Sand, who lived only a few miles away, used it as the background for one of her novels, describing it as the pitiful wreck of ancient grandeur. .

Eventually, the French government declared it a monument historique, a national treasure, and in 1967 it was put on an a danger list. But the government's Office for Historic Monuments had neither the money or the will to be doing anything about saving monuments, and, except for a brief roof-repair job in the 1930s left it strictly alone. By the time the Hurbains were ready to move in, most of the circular outer walls had been pillaged by local farmers for stone to build houses and fences. The chapel had become a chicken coop, the donjon's upper stories a granary, its ground floor a pigpen; the moat that once surrounded it had been filled in. Clumps of ivy had sprouted out of the walls and caused huge cracks. The fireplaces were broken, the floorboards and ceilings and doors were either rotting or completely rotted away. The windows from which knights and ladies used to lean, and archers used to look out for English marauders to shoot at, were now blocked up or had become empty jagged holes through which crows and pigeons flocked to build their nests.

A cottage built next door in the early 19th century was not in much better shape, its roof open to rain, the wind whirling through gaps in walls which had never seen an electrical wire or a water pipe.

Elie Bonnin, who was born just across the road, remembers the chateau of Sarzay fro the time when he was growing up in the 1960's. He and his playmates had no idea that the place was a national monument or anything at all but a tempting, if dangerous, heap of stones to play in. They used to throw ancient stones at each other, and cut off pieces of ancient woodwork to make swords and bows and arrows for bloodcurdling war games. Lacking boiling oil, these defenders of Sarzay would pour pots of dirty water from the battlements on the attacking English below.

Bonnin remembers how the previous owner, a prosperous farmer, used to complain to anyone who would listen that his towers were nothing but an eyesore and a burden, taking up what could be valuable land, and how he came by one day smiling from ear to ear to boast that he had at last found a pigeon, a sucker, who was going to pay good money to take them off his hands.

Most of Richard Hurbain's new neighbors in the village of Sarzay were inclined to agree that the "foreigner" (even today, if you come from more than 20 miles away from Sarzay, you are a foreigner and a suspicious character) had made a ludicrously bad bargain. Every one knew that the old hulk looking down on the village was a worthless ruin. A government architect had once estimated that just digging out the moat would four and a half million francs. Where was a solitary. interloper from Paris, a mere workingman, going to get that kind of money?

As he set out to fix up his castle, Hurbain's daily job turned out to be a blessing in disguise, for meter reading is about the only occupation left in modern life which allows you to walk openly and regularly into people's houses and chat with them if they are so disposed.. With this entrée, Richard could both pick up and deliver the latest gossip. It also gave him advance knowledge of when old houses were to be torn down, giving him a chance to salvage old stones, old beams, old pieces of furniture, not to mentions old nails which he could not afford to buy in antique stores what which he needed for his restoration efforts. In the course of time , the wall of local reserve and suspicion began to crumble. In the course of time , the wall of local reserve and suspicion began to crumble.

He was a repairer and a rebuilder born, a good carpenter, a good mason, a good digger and delver, and he loved to work..He soon learned he would have to do most of the work himself. The Monuments hsitoriques people in Chateauroux, the administrative center of the department, were required by law to pay up to half of the cost of repairs necessary to save the precious patrimony of France, but these repairs had to be done by licensed enterprises, including the private offices of the official architects who were on the monuments historiques staff, at prices befitting their exalted position. They were all civil servants of the classical kind,, required by law and custom to spend most of their time moving papers around, drawing up their own reports and scratching objections on the reports of their colleagues, pulling strings to get authorizations, pulling strings to get appropriations, reviewing, appraising, reporting, revising, filing. A recent minister of Culture, observing that enormous amounts of time were being taken up by corrections and invective being passed back and forth between the financial and cultural debarments of his ministry tried to speed things up by putting the cultural bureau above the financial. Now instead of quarreling and backbiting going on simultaneously in both departments, they now had to go on in each apartment in turn, doubling the time necessary to reach a decision to go up to a higher level. At the end of that time, it is often discovered that the prices of material have gone up substantially, so the whole process has be begin over again. These devoted civil servants had worked all their lives to acquire their specialized knowledge and their grade in the administration, and they could hardly be expected to understand what a penniless outsider, with no university degree and no officially recognized expertise,, was doing on their turf. On one occasion they gave Richard a small sum of money to repair the roof of his chapel, but most of the time they filed away his letters, didn't bother to answer his phone calls, and waited for him to go away.

For eight years he worked modestly and methodically, with hammer and shovel and ax and pickax and wheelbarrow, though he eventually bought a tractor and a backhoe, secondhand. As the boys grew up, he counted on them to dig and cart away the rubbish, and help him lift heavy objects, and feed the animals. On meter-reading days he would he would be up at dawn and work a couple of hours till it was time to start his rounds, and after a full eight hours of doing that, he would work three or four or five more hours on the chateau. On weekends and holidays and vacations he would work about twelve hours. He is an orderly man, and likes nothing better than to chart out in bed at night just how many stones he is going to lay or how many cubic yards of dirt and debris he is going to move the next day. Day after day, in seedtime and harvest, in good weather and bad (fortunately for him, these were years of drought, so the rains only rarely undid his day's work), he shoveled and plastered, filled up chinks, rebuilt retaining walls, rebuilt fireplaces, replaced doors and floors and windows, cleared away 5 centuries' accumulation of muck..

Was he ever discouraged by the sheer size of his self-imposed task? He doesn't understand the question. He had a job to do and he did it. Of course, some phases of the work posed more problems than others. It was not always easy to get 150-pound stones or 250-pound oak beams into place. Once when he was paving his courtyard, he was too busy to notice that the tips of his gloves were worn away, and so were his fingernails. It took a year, but they grew back.

He spent most of the year 1984 with shovel and wheel-barrow cleaning out some 80 tons of the pigeons droppings and assorted debris the clogged the rooms and the spiral staircase in the donjon. Over the next three years he restored the floors -- scouring the countryside to find old planks - and the fireplaces He tore up a concrete floor that had been put in for the pigs and replaced it with 4,500 tiles which he found, a few here a few there, around the region.

1988 was the year of the chapel roof.

1989 was the year he made the gatehouse into a welcome center, where he could sell tickets for visitor and postcards.

One day he noticed a spot of green in the middle of some dead weeds in the castle courtyard. He dug into and discovered signs of an ancient well. He cleared out its walls down through 35 feet of rubbish to reach a spring that had kept Sarzay provided with fresh water 500 years before; as it does again today.

Three more years went into cleaning out the north and west sides of the moat. It had been used to by its thrifty proprietors for the past century and a half as a garbage dump, and its retaining walls on both sides had been pulled down by scavenging peasants. Day by day, with pick and shovel and wheel-barrow, he cleared out the mess of dead trees and dead animals and rusted bicycles, broken crockery and defunct tires, and he sifted out the old stones, painstakingly using them to build up the walls to a height of 16 feet. When at last he had dug his moat down to its original level, he was delighted to see it fill up with water seeping in from the neighboring marsh, and it was all sparkling clean. It was time to stock it with carp.

He cleaned out the horse stables and cow stalls and turned them into a lofty medieval hall where people could come and play medieval music and have medieval banquets. He turned a 1750 farmhouse into a big airy residence with a computer to help keep up with Sarzay's voluminous correspondence, as well as an 1841 grand piano and a Louis XIII staircase that he noticed on one of his meter-reading rounds when it was about to be done in by a house-wrecker. He planted fruit trees, flowers and vegetables. He raised ducks and geese and chickens and rabbits and goats and no end of dogs and cats, and of course peacocks. He collected ancient books and ancient carts and ancient tools.

The last living descendant of the Barbançois family, an elderly widowed baroness, came to see her ancestral property and was deeply moved by the way the sad old wreck was being transformed. As a parting gift, she left the motto that was written on the family escutcheon: Audaces Fortuna juvat timidosque repellit. Fortune favors the bold and scorns the fearful.

"Bold" was always the word for Richard Hurbain. He worked with passion. But he also worked with care. Nothing was done at random. He studied medieval architecture and medieval building techniques, he consulted old archives, he studied an oil painting done on the spot in the 1870's by George Sand's son . He learned from daily experience how to work without machines of bluepoints - never knowing when a piece of junk he had picked out of dump might turn out to fit perfectly into the jigsaw puzzle of his castle - but always with a clear picture of the whole structure in his head. Every one who has seen him at work regards him as an expert, but he will admit to this day that there are some things neither books nor experience have been able to teach him, such as how to keep peacocks fro flying over hedges and fences with no regard for scarecrows, eating tomatoes and strawberries in his garden and annoying mourners at a nearby cemetery.

The suspicions of the villagers have slowly begun to give way to curiosity and, for some, even to frank admiration. Sarzay is a typical contemporary French village, abandoned by most of its productive citizens, where all signs of commerce have disappeared except for a small café. But thanks to Richard Hurbain, new traffic has begun to break its deathly silence.

Passersby who happened to be driving through the countryside stopped to see what was going on at that castle. There was no money for an advertising budget, but word began spreading from mouth to mouth. Tourists began making a detour to find it, tourists from Paris, from England, from Holland, from the ends of the earth.

Hurbain started charging 10 francs, later 25, for admission and a tout of all five floors of the castle and the chapel and the grounds, conducted by the very knowledgeable guides who were his sons. The people who came to Sarzay were the kind that local authorities are generally glad to see (though not necessarily the authorities of Sarzay who have been known to complain that there were too many parked cars along the side of the highway) because to get there they had to venture far off the usual routes of French tourism, to a land without autoroutes or fast-food restaurants, and they came not out of a sense of duty but because they were genuinely interested, unfailingly delighted and stimulated by what they saw. It wasn't every day they could see something like medieval life going on right in front of them.

Visitors might find the chatelain himself raising the wall of the moat stone by stone. A volunteer from Illinois collecting stones for him. A volunteer from the Czech Republic sharpening his ax on a medieval grindstone. A medieval pot boiling potatoes over a wood fire to feed the geese, Bread thrown in the moat for the carp and the ducks to fight over. Girlfriends of the Hurbain boys sifting through hundreds of pottery fragments from the bottom of the moat, to reconstruct the dishes which were thrown out when the Barbançois had to move out three centuries before. Squads of volunteer Boy and Girl Scouts digging down through centuries of accumulated weeds and dirt to uncover beautifully regular stone paving in the courtyard. Cocks crowing, ducks gabbling, roses flowering, peahens teaching their chicks how to flutter up the woodpile from log to log.

Before they go, most of the visitors will sign Richard's livre d'or (guestbook), which now consists of dozens and dozens of large school notebooks of 96 pages apiece, each filled with comments, in French, English, Dutch, German, Polish, Japanese, Hebrew, Spanish, Arabic, Italian and other languages. In all their different styles and dialects they almost all say the same thing over and over again: Bravo! Magnifique! Eblouissant! Epoustouflant! Titanesque! Superbe! Wonderful! Het is erg mooi! Idealisten wie Sie sind selten geworden in dieser Welt! Entrando qui sembre de revivere un'altra opoca - Compplimenti! Bravo! Courage! Courage! Courage!

François Léotard, the French Minister of Culture, sent a note of commendation and an assurance that he would try to get some money allocated to help with the work on the chateau. ("Fine words," wrote Hurbain on the margin, for he was never to see any of that money.) The Ministry of Tourism presented Richard Hurbain with a bronze star in January 1993.

There was a single discordant note in the chorus of praise. One day in 1994 a gendarme drove up with a summons to appear in court. It turned out that government officials in charge of preserving the national heritage had had their eye on Richard Hurbain for years, suspecting criminal activity on his part, and now they had caught him in the act. He had been repairing walls and clearing out moats without filling out all the necessary papers and getting the necessary official approval. He had compounded this crime by doing all the work himself, instead of getting it done by government-licensed contractors. In short, he was in wilful disregard of articles 9, 13b, 13c, 30 and 3ob of the law of December 31, 1913, and articles 1 and 20 of the law of September 27, 1941.

By digging up all that garbage in the moat, Maryvonne de Saint-Pulgent, president of the Office for Historic Monuments, explained to the press,"he might have been undermining the walls of the chateau." Through one of those coincidences which would provoke critical derision if they appeared in a movie, 48 hours after the gendarme had delivered his warrant in Sarzay, the authorities sent a bulldozer to the nearby village of Montipouret to dig a ditch for a retaining wall to help "consolidate and preserve" a 12th-century church; and at 7.30 that evening the north wall of the church transept had all fallen down, eventually requiring repair at the cost of 1.4 million francs of the taxpayers' money by the private firm of the government architect who had ordered the bulldozer in to begin with.

As any one but Maryvonne de Saint-Pulgent could have foretold, the news of this event was greeted with raucous laughter and indignation all over France and even beyond the frontiers. Private citizens and organizations devot4ed to the preservation of old buildings and historic sites rallied to the defense of Richard Hurbain. How did it come about, they asked, that an agency responsible for overseeing 38,879 historic monuments, 18,988 of them in private hands - of which a depressingly large number are falling to pieces for lack of adequate care - should decide to concentrate all its wrath on this single man? Especially, as Anne-Marie Lecoq, head of MOMUS, an organization devote to saving monuments and museums in peril, put it, a self-taught man with a genius for reconstruction, who saved his monument with "an astonishing mixture of skill and good taste," almost entirely with his own hands, paying for it almost entirely out of his meager resources? If Richard Hurbain were in Japan, she said, the government would declare him a national treasure and encourage people to go learn from him, not drag him into court for what are at worst very ,minor infractions of very complicated rules and regulations. The Marquis de Breteuill, head of an association of private owners of chateaus, chimed in: "You," he told the defendant, "deserve congratulations, not a condemnation."

The legal action caused Hurbain precious time and money. He admits, though that he could not have asked for better publicity. The sight of this ordinary citizen fighting through all those physical and administrative obstacles has quickened the hearts of people everywhere. He has m made regular appearances on French television. His chateau is in the guide-books. He has appeared in the Sunday Times of London. The trickle of tourists has swelled into a torrent, 8,000 a year in 1996 and on upwards.

The case of the French Republic against Richard Hurbain came to trial in January 1996. Since there was no doubt that he had failed to fill out all the great heap of proper forms, the court had to find him guilty. He was fined 10,000 francs. The fine was then suspended, meaning that he was getting little more than a slap on the wrist, though the conviction stands in his record

That year he was able to take early retirement from Electricité de France, giving him forty extra hours a week to devote to his restoration work and to filling out the forms demanded by the Office of Historic Monuments.

A man who all by himself cleared out 80 tons of garbage from the moat of Sarzay is not likely to be bullied by towers of papers and legions of bureaucrats;

He has a large audience now, and he knows that audience is with him. His livre d'or keeps filling up more and more with sentiments like those expressed by two young visitors one August day: "Ne lâchez pas le morceau." "Don't let go." And of course he never will.

Fortune favors the bold.

©1997 Robert Wernick

Smithsonian Magazine January 1997

Since the above was published, the number of visitors to Sarzay has risen to over 30,000 a year.