By Dan Rottenberg
The day the MacJannets made a ruin sing again
Like Donald and Charlotte MacJannets themselves, the 1,000-year-old Prieuré of Talloires reinvented itself several times before the building and the MacJannets finally discovered each other. It was chartered as a Benedictine abbey in 1018, and for centuries it governed Talloires, first as the seat of the Benedictine prior and after the 14th Century through a long line of lay priors chosen from the region’s aristocratic families. But during the French Revolution, angry mobs ransacked the building, leaving it a ruin for nearly two centuries.
Now fast-forward to the late 1950s and the MacJannet Camps just down the road in Angon, where Donald MacJannet was contemplating his next chapter. As Charlotte later explained, “I wanted something Donald could do after he was 70— something that would be a passion for him.” She found the solution in the ruined Prieuré, which Donald acquired at auction in 1958 for just $10,000.
“I felt that this active man would have to have something that would keep him busy for a long time, so as to keep him happy and creative,” she said. “This was the reason why I persuaded him to buy the Prieuré.” But she added: “It was in such bad shape that a Quaker friend of mine came and had a look at it, and on returning to Geneva said to our friend, ‘Charlotte has gone mad.’ She was right in a way, when you consider that there was only one toilet outside, without water, and one spigot of running water on the other end of the house in what had been used as a kitchen. Below it, the floor was rotten. The ingenious shower arrangement in one of the bathrooms was a pail with holes below it.
“Hundreds of empty wine bottles were stacked on the ground floor and even in the crypt.
“The inner garden was a jungle of nestles, and stagnant rainwater— paradise for mosquitoes— was in a corner under the veranda.
“The big hall had been cut in two by a wall by the former owner, which made for a very dark large salon on one side, with windows to the north, but a sunny one— the dining room it had been— toward the lake.