How a Swiss architect bought and renovated a castle in France
- Sibylle Thomke, a Swiss architect, bought a 19th-century chateau in France with her savings in 2017.
- She spent three years renovating it and the property’s outbuildings, which she lists on Airbnb.
- After opening the castle in June 2021, she now rents rooms for between $190 and $600 a night.
Sibylle Thomke, Swiss architect, first laid eyes on Sibra Castle in Lagarde, Occitanie, France, in January 2017. When she told her French friends she was looking for a holiday home, they said they knew the perfect property for her – if she was willing to work. Her plans for a simple vacation spot changed when she saw the building.
“The garden hadn’t been tended for 50 years,” Thomke told Insider. “The land had turned into jungle and the lakes had dried up.” When she entered the hallway of the 19th century castle, she found it to be equally dilapidated – wallpaper was peeling off the walls and owls were living in the roof.
Despite all of this, Thomke saw the potential. “Everything was original,” Thomke said. “Even though the castle was in poor condition, it was a huge archive, which was quite amazing.”
Thomke declined to split the purchase price, but said the property was a bargain. “You could buy a three-bedroom apartment in Zurich for the price I paid for this property,” Thomke said. “It was in a sorry state. A lot of people were scared of it.” Thomke bought Château de Sibra that spring with his savings and began renovating the property in the fall of 2018.
On June 18, 2021, Thomke and her team opened the grounds to guests, and she now rents rooms in the castle and apartments for between $190 and $600 a night. She shared what the renovation process was like with Insider.
Find a “red thread” to tie it
Thomke first decided to turn the property’s two outbuildings into holiday apartments so he could spend more time working on the castle. “My biggest concern was how to make sense of the castle,” Thomke said. “At first it felt like a collage of so many different disparate elements. I needed to find that ‘red thread’ that would tie it all together.”
She took the time to analyze the building. During his research, Thomke learned that the railway baron Joseph Villary de Fajac and his wife, Pauline, had transformed a tiny 13th century estate into a large estate with the castle when they purchased the land in 1878 Their goal was to marry agriculture and beauty – they wanted a practical farm in a picturesque park. Thomke’s goal soon became to take the tired property and turn it into a place the De Fajacs would have recognized.
While Thomke had a strong network of artisans back home, she needed to find new contacts in France. “It became an adventurous journey and I met some really amazing people,” Thomke said. From local plasterer Monsieur Denis – who, according to Thomke, became the “ghost of the house” because he spent 18 months walking from room to room still covered in white plaster – to mural restorer Madame Lafitte, the renovation was a joint project from the start.
Get started with renovations
Thomke began by reworking the flow of the castle and giving it a hall, rather than using the kitchen door as an entrance. She also wanted to make sure the footprint and changes were as light as possible to keep the property close to its original form – for example, when she installed bathrooms in the suites she chose to place the shower, sink and toilet in freestanding structures that can be removed in the future if someone wanted to return the property to its original condition.
As a furniture collector, it didn’t take long for Thomke to furnish the castle. She restored two sofas that each of her grandmothers once owned, which she brought from Switzerland to France and mixed with more modern furniture from Switzerland, France and Italy. It was the purchase of a wood heating system that surprised her the most. “I thought it was outrageously expensive, because it cost 50% more than in Switzerland,” she said. She bought it anyway because it’s environmentally friendly.
One of the most unique parts of the castle is a mural in the dining room which the De Fajacs commissioned an artist to paint in 1883. The De Fajacs asked the artist to paint a landscape image of this at what the park might look like in the future, Thomke told me.
Seeing it as a blueprint for his renovation, Thomke chose the Berlin landscape architect Thilo Folkerts bring the painting to life. The team took three years to transform the 37-acre land into an elegant park with the foliage depicted in the painting. “We found a heritage tree that Joseph Villary de Fajac wrote about the plantation,” Thomke said. “We also found a small pavilion that was completely overgrown, which we restored.”
The castle is available for reservation with the boutique hotel company Welcome Beyondand apartments are listed on Airbnb. As they offer the luxury of dinner service four nights a week at the chateau, Thomke opted not to place it on Airbnb. To publicize the launch, Thomke said, she spoke to French and Swiss publications, ran campaigns on instagramand collaborated with the tourist offices of the region.
She found the housekeeper, gardener, chef, and host of the property through referrals. To increase enrollment during the busy summer months, she also reached out to local hotel schools in the area to offer internships to their students.
During the first three months, the Château de Sibra welcomed 150 guests. Thomke said when COVID-19 numbers started to rise in July and August 2021, there was a threat the fear lockdown could happen again, so their apartments appeared to be the suites of choice. However, now the castle rooms are full again, she said, and the property currently only has available spaces in apartments.
It wasn’t just the guests who saw how much of a difference Thomke made. “My neighbor came by a few weeks ago when I was at the property for the summer and he said, ‘I feel like it wasn’t just you who found this property, but this property. found you. “”