In France, the word château (castle) is still full of magic. Even if aristocracy lost influence and wealth after the French Revolution, their luxurious large homes remained very attractive for the society. Whereas a lot of castles were destroyed at the end of the 18th century, the French way of life have never lost the taste for this aristocratic experience.
Once the monarchy was restored, French aristocracy had considered a reconstruction of their castles as a symbol of their triumph over democrats ideas. At the same time, in the middle of the 19th century, the development of historical researches encouraged the study of medieval architecture. This brought, for example, to the complete reconstruction of the ruins of the Pierrefonds Castle (Château de Pierrefonds) by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-Le-Duc – a specialist who restored several Gothic cathedrals – for the Emperor Napoleon III. This work, archaeologically meticulous and aesthetically imaginative, remains till today an extraordinary reconstruction.
While most of aristocrats were struggling financially to save their family properties, restoring their castles step by step, the members of the new bourgeois elite wanted to exhibit their new social position through their habitat. This desire for external signs of wealth launched in mass the construction of new castles. So for French architects, the bourgeois “château” had become an interesting program, serving a wealthy clientele. The chosen style had generally mixed some memories of the Renaissance with the constructive simplicity of the brick and stone castles used during the reign of Louis XIII. This aesthetics had several advantages: first, a not too high cost price, then these forms had adapted quite well to the new criteria of domestic comfort, and finally they recalled glorious periods of national history … However, at the beginning of the 20th century, the combined effect of increasing industrialization, destroying traditional French culture, and weariness with repetitive architectures, resulted in the appearance of a nostalgia for regional landscapes.
This tendency brought some landlords to demand the transformation of their mundane bourgeois houses into fake neo-Gothic castles.
In Normandy, the architect Henri Jacquelin (1872-1940) was specializing in this type of somewhat strange constructions. Graduated from the School of Fine Arts (Ecole des Beaux-Arts) in Paris, Jacquelin had been able to maintain a good network in his native region while he was usefully approaching industrialists active at the national level. This strategy let him to obtain a large order in Louviers in 1907: to completely reshape the facades of an ordinary residence to give it more aristocratic and poetic allure of a manor in Norman Gothic style… Thus a sad recent building now seems a medieval dream, thanks to a simple collage on the existing walls. Curious metamorphosis, which makes of Saint-Hilaire Castle (Château Saint-Hilaire) a timeless fantasy!
This first success offered Jacquelin the attention of several distinguished families, or those wishing to conquer a better social position, who in their turn asked him to change the appearance of their habitat.
So the architect carried out other similar works in Normandy, then in Loiret and Lorraine. Not long before the First World War, after a fire, he rebuilt the fairly cold neoclassical Grip mansion by surrounding it with fortified towers imitated from the Gothic castles in the region. Actually, in the 20th century, he made a false Loire castle, appearing more true than its local models! In this case the d'Andignés, an old aristocratic family, intentionally erased the banality of the original building in order to give it a medieval solidity, better reflecting their ancient origins, reaffirming their status as lords.
Jacquelin continued this type of nostalgic creation after 1918. On the place of a fortified house that had disappeared a few centuries earlier, he built Hattonchâtel's castle for the American Belle Skinner. There, among the ruins of this Lorraine village devastated during the war, he conducted archaeological excavations, which served as a foundation for imagining a whimsical neo-Gothic castle, certainly more romantic than the original building.
During the interwar period, the architect alternated between this kind of poetic commission, and the construction of large new villas – which he built in the same Gothic-Norman style! It was his aesthetic signature, appealing to customers wishing to escape the hustle and bustle of the modern world by living in an enchanting setting, worthy of the valiant knights and gorgeous princesses of the past.
In Normandy, the redesign in Saint-Victor-l'Abbaye of an agricultural barn as a fake Gothic mansion let a liquor merchant to live in a medieval dream, making him the new lord of the village. Finally, around 1930 – when the recent Wall Street crash began to hit the French economy – Jacquelin transformed again a simple neoclassical house in Houetteville into a medieval castle, with astonishing fantasy. In an economically paralyzed country, Houetteville was perhaps the last French neo-Gothic castle. Extravagant building, preferring to ignore its time and artificially continue a way of life gone long time ago.
With his rejection of industrial methods and his keen sense of craftsmanship, Jacquelin was undoubtedly a marginal architect. Indeed, the architectural establishment saw in him only a forger, and consequently his works were almost never published by the specialized press.
Despite this, thanks to the trust of his wealthy clients, he knew how to make from his constructions a small imaginary world – responding to the upheavals of modernity by creating the reassuring bubbles of nostalgic legend.