Château De Villette Is The Ultimate French Vacation Experience

Château de Villette

Photo Credit: Bruno Ehrs

In 1999, Haute Living’s publisher, Olivia Hsu Decker, became the owner of the legendary Château de Villette, a stunning property outside the center of Paris. Located Northwest of the city about 35 minutes from The Champs Elysées and 15 minutes from Versailles, Château de Villette was built in the 17th-century between 1660 to 1696.

The team who built Versailles, architect Francois Mansart (1598-1666) and his nephew, Jules Hardouin-Mansart (1646-1708), also designed Villette, a French historical monument. The splendid gardens were designed by Andre Le Notre, who created the gardens at Versailles. Its classic and elegant design, which mimicked Versailles, earned Château de Villette the nickname of “Le Petit Versailles.”

A guest bedroom

Photo Credit: Bruno Ehrs

Château de Villette was initially built for the Count of Aufflay, Jean Dyell II, who served as ambassador to Italy for King Louis XIV. In the 19th-century, the owners Sophie de Grouchy and Marquess de Condorcet hosted many prominent guests at Villette. These included Thomas Jefferson, who was the American ambassador to France at the time, the Marquis de Lafayette, who helped George Washington battle the British during the American Revolution, the poet and writer, Voltaire, and the doctor and philosopher, Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis

When Hsu Decker purchased the grand estate, she became a part of a small group of people to call the illustrious château home. For 12 years, Hsu Decker enjoyed the magnificent residence. With an octagonal grand salon, a majestic dining room with a carved stone buffet and wine cooling fountains, an elegant music room with magnificent boiseries, a stately library, a stone foyer with grand staircase, and 200 acres of gardens, Villette is one of the most significant and sumptuous châteaux in France.

Olivia Hsu Decker

Photo Credit: Bruno Ehrs

Currently, Château de Villette has seven luxury suites in the main wing and seven additional bedrooms in the left wing. Amenities include a heated outdoor swimming pool, fully equipped gym, internet, integrated audio and visual systems in each bedroom, fully equipped professional kitchen, security system, ample parking, a chapel, helipad, and a full staff that takes care of meals, cleaning, and other services.

During her tenure as owner, Hsu Decker renovated and decorated the space turning it into a celebrity vacation rental where stars like Lenny Kravitz and John Travolta would relax on extended stays. She hosted prestigious guests and events like retreats and cooking classes. In 2006, Sony Pictures and director Ron Howard rented Château de Villette to film the movie version of the best-selling novel, The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown. Howard wanted to stay faithful to the book and film it at the real places referred to in the novel—one of these locations was Villette. Over the years, dozens of movies were filmed at the château including the 1967 movie Two For the Road starring Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney and French classics Le Comte de Monte Cristo and Casanova.

The dining room features a pair of carved stone wine cooling fountains, one is pictured above to the left

Photo Credit: Bruno Ehrs

In 2011, Hsu Decker sold the château to its current owner who decided to restore the château to its original glory. The owner worked with world-renowned French designer, Jacques Garcia, to realize the château’s €41 million transformation. Set in a French woodland park of approximately 200 acres, the entire property including its extensive gardens, two lakes, 16th-century wine press, cascade fountain, glass house, and orangery has been renovated to the highest standards of quality. Now the fantastic destination is rentable for vacations, weddings, photo shoots, filming, seminars, and anything else your heart desires.

Last September, French historian Guillaume Picon wrote the book Château de Villette: The Splendor of French Decor, published by Flammarion, that chronicles the history of the château. Swedish photographer, Bruno Ehrs, who specializes in architecture and lifestyle imagery, showcases Jacques Garcia’s transformation. After the renovation was completed, Hsu Decker was the first guest invited to experience the new Château de Villette. Here she shares a glimpse of what it was like to own such a historical and luxurious estate.

The property has a lake

Photo Credit: Bruno Ehrs

Haute Living: You are a luxury property specialist in the  San Francisco Bay Area. What made you buy a château in France?

Olivia Hsu Decker: I bought Château de Grimaldi in Aix-en-Provence in 1995 when I visited a client in Provence. I had fun restoring it. I added a pool and tennis court and decorated it. I operated it as a culinary retreat with vacation packages, cooking classes, and weddings. Three years later, I decided to buy a château in the Paris area because I love the architectural beauty of Paris.

HL: How did you find a château that was so close to the city?

OHD: I visited several châteaux, but most of them were far from Paris in the Normandy area. Almost all the 15th- and 16th-century châteaux have dark rooms with small windows. I wanted a 17th-century château with tall, majestic windows and rooms with plenty of natural light. I finally found photos of Villette in my agent’s drawer and pursued it until I was able to buy it. Friends and family thought I was crazy because the renovation and upkeep of one château is enough to make you go bankrupt, so the thought of owning two châteaux seemed ridiculous. However, by Fall 1998, I was under contract to buy Château de Villette.

A guest bedroom

Photo Credit: Bruno Ehrs

HL: You didn’t know any craftsmen or construction workers in Paris and didn’t speak French. How did you handle such a large project?

OHD: I didn’t know anyone in Paris at the time! I had to deal with the French Historic Monument and the Chief Architect of France whose office is in Versailles. When they heard I bought Villette, they sent a certified letter demanding an official meeting to discuss exactly what I was going to do to the estate. Before me, Michael Jackson wanted to buy the château and the French were terrified that he would turn the château into Never Never Land. Since I am Chinese, they feared I would give it an Asian makeover. I had to get a reference letter from the seller of my Provence château. This letter assured the Chief Architect that I would preserve Château Villette in 17th-century style as I did at Château Grimaldi. At the meeting, I promised a proper restoration with all the necessary repairs and upgrades, with traditional French design. Although I didn’t speak much French, I wrote a lot of French checks during my ownership!

HL: How long did the restoration process take?

OHD: We started in October 1999. I gave my contractor a deadline with a grand opening party planned for April 1, 2000. In case the renovation was not done in time, I would tell the guests that the party was an April Fool’s Day joke. Luckily, the contractor specialized in historic château restoration and was excited when I hired him for Villette. He got everything done at the main château within six months. The sensational opening night party was held as planned! The rest of the château’s buildings took another 18 months to restore.

The master bedroom

Photo Credit: Bruno Ehrs

HL: What changes did you make during the renovation?

OHD: All the public rooms had to stay the same due to the Historic Monument designation. I reconfigured the bedrooms to make spaces to build 20 new bathrooms so that each of the 20 bedrooms would have an adjoining bathroom. I created two service kitchens and remodeled the grand kitchen. I restored the chapel, built a new tennis court, and cleaned the two lakes. I installed a new heating system, WiFi, new electricity and plumbing. I repaired the mile-long stone walls that run around the château and updated some outbuildings.

HL: What did you do with the château when you owned it?

OHD: It was rented for vacations, filming, weddings, birthday parties, fashion shoots for Vogue and other magazines, marketing events for luxury car brands, and business retreats for Merrill Lynch and other companies. I also taught cooking classes. Some renters were long term—John Travolta and his family rented for three months. I also donated the use of the château to many charity events that supported nonprofit organizations.

The music salon

Photo Credit: Bruno Ehrs

HL: What was your most unexpected experience?

OHD: One day in 2003, I was contacted by a woman named Blythe. She told me her husband, Dan Brown, loved Villette when he visited, so he used it as the location for his new novel The Da Vinci Code. She asked if they could rent the château for the book launch party. I was not familiar with Dan Brown and didn’t expect much out of the event. I told her to stay in touch and confirm the rental dates. A few months later, The Da Vinci Code came out and instantly became a sensational best seller, so Blythe cancelled the party as the book didn’t need the promotion.

HL: How did the book change your life at the château?

OHD: A large portion of the story—from chapter 52 to 92—took place at the château. In 2004, Sony Pictures contacted me asking if they could film the movie at Villette. Between the book and the movie, Villette became world famous. I had tourists outside of my gate every day and dozens of journalists requesting interviews. For a couple of years, there were Da Vinci Code tours at the Louvre, the church Saint-Sulpice and Château de Villette. I met director Ron Howard a few times. I stayed during the filming and got to know the cast. Ian McKellen asked me to give him a tour, and Tom Hanks told me he grew up in Oakland before he moved to LA to pursue his acting career. Sony Pictures invited me to the film’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. I walked the red carpet with the director, the producers, the cast, and Dan Brown.

Another bedroom

Photo Credit: Bruno Ehrs

HL: Did you have any other interesting guests?

OHD: I had some very interesting renters and guests. The Prime Minister of Russia under President Boris Yeltsin rented the house for his birthday celebration. In 2000, I had an unexpected visit from Bernard Arnault and his wife, Helene. Arnault is the wealthiest man in France and owner of LVMH and many other luxury brands. He was interested in purchasing the château. I gave them a tour but told them I was not ready to sell as I wanted to complete my renovation. Another surprise was Michael Jackson! He came and sang in the grand salon to test the acoustics.

HL: Why did you sell the château? Do you regret it?

OHD: When my partner Bill and I acquired the Sotheby’s International Realty franchise in 2007, my real estate company in San Francisco expanded exponentially. I became too busy to operate the châteaux in France while I worked full time in the Bay Area. Also, one evening, I started feeling a sense of guilt while I hosted an event with guests in Marie Antoinette-style costumes, opera singers and fireworks. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, no wonder there was a French Revolution.’ There was also the pressure of keeping up such a historical monument. I decided to go back to my simple life in the San Francisco Bay Area with no regret.

A newly installed formal French garden in front of the Andre Le Notre designed cascade fountain

Photo Credit: Bruno Ehrs

HL: What attractions near Villette do you recommend to visitors?

OHD: In Paris, you’ll find endless beautiful sights and museums, not to mention fabulous designer shopping and delicious restaurants. I loved visiting the house and gardens of Claude Monet in Giverny and Vincent Van Gogh’s room at the Auberge Ravoux in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise. This is where Van Gogh lived and died; it’s now a small museum, and you can visit the little cemetery where he was buried. Auberge Ravoux is also a wonderful place for lunch. Normandy, one of France’s most recognizable regions, is about 80 minutes away. The beaches, the sea, and Mont Saint-Michel are visited by more than three million people each year. 

HL: What do you think of Jacques Garcia’s updates?

OHD: I like the extremely high quality and opulent details he added. Although some furnishings are too ornate for my taste, they fit the château’s historic style. He installed the French garden and built the pool which I didn’t do, and these are fantastic additions. He also combined the 11 bedrooms in the main château to create seven grand rooms and suites. I was told each of these seven bathrooms in the main château cost about €1 millon. Everything is incredibly refined and elegant.

Learn more about Villette by reading Picon’s book, “Château de Villette: The Splendor of French Decor,” which is available on Amazon. Interested in renting the château? Visit: www.LuxuryLifestyleCollection.com

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