dimanche 14 septembre 2008

The mailbox, pondering the past

The found mailbox

"Madame de Floris, venez voir ce qu'on a trouvé en sous du crépi. On a trouvé la boite aux lettres!"

Georges was enthralled. I went to look, and there it was, the original mailbox in oak and iron, the day of the week and day of the last levée de la poste, or mail pickup.

"Georges, can we keep it? Can we stucco around it?"

"Bien sur, Madame de Floris."

That evening, I told Audouin what they had found, and he headed right back out the door to go around to the street side of the house to look. A moment later, he reappeared.

"On peut la garder?"

"Bien sur."

The next day, Eric Aubrun made another appearance -- and, I still haven't figured out if Joachim was making it up when he said that Eric is not involved in their company, that he wanted to be, but Joachim himself had decided it wasn't advantageous to him, and that I should not call Eric anymore to put pressure on him because it hurt his sensibilities, and I am not asking Eric because if it works better for me to believe each of them independently of the other (for now), then so be it.

"Eric allez voir ce George et José ont trouvé... non, non, là, sur la rue... un peu plus loin."

"Une boite aux lettres! Vous allez la garder?"

"Oui, bien sur."

That set him to speculating. Perhaps the house was older than we thought (1865), perhaps it had actually been a postal relay that was transformed into a house. That seemed like an awfully big jump to make from the presence of an old mailbox, especially one so small. Small even for a small rural village, it seemed to me. It also seemed likely that in the countryside, in particular, it would make sense to have a way to indicate the last time the letter carrier had passed.

When Audouin came home that evening, I said, "Tu sais, Eric est passé aujourd'hui, et quand il a vu la boite aux lettres, il s'est demandé si la maison ne fut pas un relai de poste."

Which got Audouin thinking.

There were the windows that had been blocked in along the street facade, but more to the point, there was the large central opening, big enough for a wagon, la porte cochère. It certainly does indicate a different usage of the original building on the site, or at least an older version of the present building.

"En plus," I said to him, "il y a la même chose du côté du jardin." The present opening for the French doors into the house was once a good deal larger. It, too, had nearly filled the space between the two central transversal beams and been made smaller to provide an opening for people, and not vehicules.


I can't use the word "originally" with any comfort because I don't know what preceded what I can see, but I can say "before the house became what it is now."

I also can't say when the changes were made. The mairie told Audouin that the house appears on the cadastre, or land register, from 1865, but in what form? The way it appears today, or as it appeared at least just prior?

Was there a farm building on the site previous to that? Something that shows on an older land register?

If you look carefully at the photo to the right, you can make out the porte cochère in the middle of the street facade, between the traffic cones at the crosswalk, and below the existing window in the center of the upper level.

Peer more closely still, and you can distinguish the blocked in windows to either side, with matching windows above at the bedroom level.

There's the old iron and oak mail box, just to the nearer side of the blocked in window closest to where I was standing to take the picture.

Then, there is the blocked in window on what is the entry courtyard side of the house today. It is at mid-floor, right where the floor of our bedroom meets the exterior wall, like only a stairwell window could be, and, interestingly, it is not filled in with the same material as the others. It also would have conflicted with the present location of the door into the kitchen, right under the little roof.

What's more. Look closer. C'est ça, regarde de plus près encore. Qu'est-ce qu'on voit là? Another change of materials. To the left of the previous opening filled in with ceramic blocks, there is the indication of a previous one further toward the corner of the house, and it finds its twin to the very right of the picture, at the corner on the street. Look here at the picture on the right, and you can see where an opening in the brick was fille with the local silica stone. It appears to be a door below that continued up into a window above.

Given that there is a chimney in the middle, it makes sense that the windows were at the sides.

Take one further detail. The base of the house was once higher. The windows on the street side rested on top of it, and the mail box was set into the top of it. You can see the change in materials. Up to the top of the base, the building was constructed of silica and mortar with great corner stones, or pierres de coin, visible in the lower right corner of the lower picture, at the lower corners, which supported the bulk of the structure's weight.

The walls above the base were built of lighter but sturdy brick. Likely, there was a paster of Paris band that wrapped around the house, capping the base. You can see it very clearly, the white band to either side of the mailbox. It was sheared off to lower the new visual base and increase the area of the yellow walls.

The base and the rest of the structure were probably stuccoed just as they are today, although not necessarily with the same or even similar motifs.


As if, but here goes.

At an earlier time, the structure allowed the entry of vehicules from the street, and out again onto the side of the building whose land dropped off down to the fields and the Seine. We know, incidentally, that in older times, those fields were vineyards, where now they produce grains, corn alternating with barley, mainly.

There were five windows on the street side, one to either side of the porte cochère, one above each of those and above the porte cochère.

There was possibly a pedestrian door into the house on the left side, with a window above and their symmetrical counterparts in windows to the left.

Additionally, there was a window at mid-height, indicating that there was once a stairwell against this exterior wall.

The rear of the house certainly featured the exit of the porte cochère onto the working side of the building. There were very likely smaller windows in the place of today's windows and French doors to the balcony.

This building might have been a working farm building that also housed people, as many did. Whether it lived a transformation or not is uncertain, however it is certain that it underwent a significant one at some point around 1865, or later.

Someone bought the property and made a decision that would alter it significantly. Its portes cochères would be closed and the street windows filled in and stuccoed over. No more working vehicules would enter it, and it would forever turn its back to the street and open out over the fields and the river, which can only be made out in the winter, when the trees that line it drop their leaves and we can see the péniches motor up and down. The building became a home, concerned with private life and aesthetics.

It was possibly at that time that the smaller part that was intended to function as an entry and a small parlor (our petit salon) with a bedroom above was added. We know it was not part of the first structure.

Then, someone decided to treat the hillside sloping down to the fields and flood plain with terraces and made a garden.

Some "improvements" (a matter of taste and opinion) were made as recently as 1991. Those include the yellow brick edging on the planting borders, some aspects of the entry court, like the low pillars and walls, as well as the detestable arcing ceramic tile paving from the gate to the kitchen entry, the Barbeque, and, probably, the pool and the petite maison.

Oh, and the fountain with the three tiers, capped by the angel that Audouin demolished and turned into the basin de poissons with reeds, grasses and lily pads.

The history of the mail box

I went looking to see what I could find out about our old mail box, to see if it is older than 1865, as Audouin and Eric thought it could be, and whether it might be associated with a postal relay rather than a private residence, and I found the Musée privé itinérant de la boîte aux lettres, du facteur et du courrier.

I can't copy the photo of the boite aux lettres from 1868, but you can see it by clicking here. It shows mail boxes from 1868 to today. Ours corresponds to the model fabricated in 1868 by Foucher.

Le dernier cri quand nos précédents ici l'ont installée!

I'm going to make further inquiries at the mairie next week.

The Texan

I have heard that a movie producer lived in this house as a weekend residence, and that a Texan did some 50 years ago. His grandson came knocking on the door one day, when Audouin was first living here about 10 years ago. He introduced himself and said that he used to come here to spend vacations with his grandfather and wondered if Audouin would mind if he came in to visit the house.

He pointed to the beam that now traverses the living room in front of the fireplace, near the original weight-bearing exterior wall that now separates the petit salon from the séjour, or living room, and said that he remembered when his grandfather had opened the street wall to slide it through to rest on the two long walls. I supposed that the additional weight of the addition, its seconnd floor and roof on the old wall were too much, and the Texan decided to shore the original second floor in the old part of the house up with the beam.

I told Georges, and he said, "Oui, c'est sur que c'est cela."

I also told him that I was not the first American to live in this house -- his eyes opened very wide; he loves America --, "There was a Texan here some 50 years ago."

"Ah!," said Georges, "il a du faire la guerre et il a aimé le coin, alors, il est resté ou retourné vivre."

Yeah, maybe that Texan did cross the Seine 4 kilometers from here in Rolleboise that August 24, 1944 to fight in the battle in Mantes, and perhaps he did decide that he would make his home here.

I wish Audouin had asked his grandson for his phone number. Little did he know he'd marry me, and I'd want to know. And Georges, too.

Quel romantique, ce Georges

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