How Mr. Mac Restored His 11th Century Dreamhouse in France

“I wanted something Donald could do after he was 70—something that would be a passion for him.”

Thus Charlotte MacJannet explained their purchase of the abandoned and badly rundown thousand-year-old Benedictine priory of Talloires. The MacJannets started looking for a location for their post-camp enterprises in the mid-1950s. The Prieuré, though in wretched shape, with a roof mostly fallen in and dirt and debris everywhere, had a large room that Charlotte envisioned for conferences and other activities.

Home Improvement: Charlotte and Donald rescued a ruin that is now an educational landmark thanks to their generosity and vision.

Home Improvement: Charlotte and Donald rescued a ruin that is now an educational landmark thanks to their generosity and vision.

At first the Prieuré seemed unavailable. But in 1958 Donald learned that it was for sale and bought it for $10,000 following an auction that failed to attract any bidders. For his money Mr. Mac got 1.65 acres, a decrepit building, a large garden enclosed by an encircling wall, and plenty of history (including the ancient right to water his cow at the well located in the nearby abbey).

The Priory was purchased by the MacJannets in a state of near ruin in 1958 and dutifully restored by Donald starting in his early 70’s and lasting over nearly a twenty year period with the help of dozens of workers and volunteers. The MacJannets donated the 30 room facility to Tufts University in 1978 and the The Tufts University European Center was established shortly after that in 1979.

The Priory has a rich history dating back almost 1,000 years. The building was consecrated with the original church in 1031, and has played a pivotal role in the history of Talloires and Annecy Region of France.  Ever since the Benedictine monks were driven out by the revolution in 1793, a succession of owners had possessed the Prieuré before the MacJannets bought it, but apparently did little to maintain the building.  A Quaker acquaintance who looked at the Prieuré returned to Geneva and told friends, “Charlotte has gone mad.” Charlotte herself gave this bleak description:

“There was only one toilet, outside, without water, and one spigot of water at the end of the building.  The room we had to use for a kitchen had rotten floorboards, and a cellar underneath, filled with empty wine bottles.  The “shower” consisted of a pail with holes in it, and you had to fill another pail, empty it into the leaky pail, and pull a string, to make it work.  The former garden inside the perimeter wall was simply a wilderness, a jungle of nettles.  Rotten rabbit hutches hung on a wall near the veranda, and stagnant rainwater, a paradise for mosquitoes, stood near a corner under the veranda.”

There was little time for any serious construction until the MacJannets closed the camp at Angon after the 1963 season. Major work then got underway when Donald discovered some Italian masons and carpenters, residing in Geneva on work permits for foreigners, who jumped at the chance for extra money and something to do on weekends. After several tons of rubble had been cleared from the cellars, Donald was able to lay permanent floors to replace the old pounded earth.  He got marble chips and broken bits of marble free from an Annecy tombstone carver, put them in the bottom of a low-square frame he made, poured concrete on top, and then turned them over on a bed of sand to create a mosaic-like marble floor.

The place Charlotte wanted restored as soon as possible was the big room on the second floor, which the monks had used as an assembly chamber.  Donald needed help getting the enormous ceiling beams back into place, but these big pieces of oak, as well as the smaller ceiling rafters, dating from the 15th Century, were still in good shape.

Donald did most of the electric wiring himself. But as a constant stream of former campers, their parents, descendants or friends walked up the elegant outside staircase of the Prieuré to renew acquaintance and talk over old times, Donald smilingly inveigled those who seemed to have any skills to try their hands.

Into his late 70s, Donald traumatized old friends—and Charlotte—with the sight of him teetering on tall ladders to replace tiles on the roof. He poured tens of thousands of dollars into hired help and the purchase of building materials, plumbing and electrical features.

The Prieuré’s old tower, rising two-and-a-half stories above the big assembly hall, bears a marble plaque noting that the Prieuré was “Restored by Donald R. MacJannet”— the only recognition in the building of Mr. Mac’s enormous effort. And today, the ancient edifice, with its thriving second life, stands as testimony to the MacJannets’ dogged optimism, thrift, and power to inspire converts to their cause.

For a complete history of le Prieuré visit:  http://macjannet.org/about-the-macjannet-foundation/le-prieure/