When freelance writer Taira Norris LeClere and her husband Eric decided to move to France from the US, it was with their four children’s prospects in mind.
“We wanted to give them the chance to speak multiple languages fluently,” says 36-year-old Taira.
How appropriate, then, that the property the couple finally settled on as their new home was – in part – a former school.
Love at first sight
“It was the tenth property we visited when we came over in 2018 from Florida to house-hunt,” says Taira.
“We fell in love instantly. The building was actually both the old mairie and school in one, so it was well placed – just a minute’s walk from the village centre.
“The main building – the former mairie office – is charming, simple and elegant. It was already partially converted, meaning it had four bedrooms and plenty of living space for our growing family.”
The couple paid under €200,000 for the property in Rancon, Haute-Vienne, which comprises the partially converted mairie of around 300m², with the attached schoolhouse giving an additional 70m². The property sits in a garden of about an acre, and there is another two-acre field behind.
It was previously owned by a retired British man as a holiday home and he had carried out much of the conversion himself.
“When we moved in, we discovered the house needed a new roof, and although we were told the heating system was functioning, it actually needed to be ripped out and replaced,” says Taira.
“We have also had the six chimneys capped, have restructured the main wall and have cut back a great deal of ivy. There were lots of other jobs, including plastering and tiling, but it was liveable.”
So far, the work has been carried out by the couple themselves, although they are employing artisans to reroof the main house and install a new pellet burner heating system.
Tracing its history
Evidence of the building’s former use is still visible in the high windows and ceiling, flagstone foyer and the wooden beams bearing marks where former doorways have been removed.
For those in the know, the roof is another way of deducing the property’s history.
“They say in France that the number of tile layers around the outside of the roof tells the social rank of the property’s owners,” says Taira.
“As a true property of the people, there is only one layer on ours.”
The schoolhouse was in use during the 19th century, and remains untouched for the moment, although Eric, 37, and Taira eventually plan to convert it into a large summer kitchen.
As little work had been done to this part of the property, interesting historical artefacts were discovered when the family moved here in August 2018.
“We found about 500 vintage magazines, dating from about 1820 to 1970 in the schoolhouse,” says Taira.
“We also found a giant weather vane in the attic and some invitations to formal events in Paris left behind by the former mayor.
“There were even menus from those events, which, as a chef, Eric was interested to study.”
As the property had been privately owned for 15 years, and for the most part had been locked up, the family have had a lot of interest from locals who remember the building from their childhood.
“When we first moved in, some people who were attending a festival just walked through the gates and around the house like it was no big deal, even though we had signs up.
“Even now, we often get people stopping to talk to us and find out what renovations we are doing. It’s nice to live in such an interesting building!”
Settled into new life
Now settled, Taira has found work as a freelance writer, while husband Eric works as a self-employed chef de cuisine. Both feel they have integrated well into life in their village.
“We used to be called ‘the Americans’ but now people refer to us by our names,” says Taira.
“We use local businesses and participate in activities, so that helps. My husband has even catered some of the commune meals held by the mayor.”
The children have also adjusted well to their new life in France.
“Our older children are class president, an eco delegate and involved in the theatre,” says Taira, and they all take part in school activities.
“All in all, it has been quite a learning curve, but despite living in a mairie and schoolhouse, we feel completely at home.”