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Restoring an Age-Old Ernen House

Diana Pavlicek has long had a passion for historic architecture, and the stories that buildings tell of the people who once lived and worked in them. While curator of a major corporate art collection in her daily job, she has a keen eye for design, and an ability to juggle a lot of moving organizational parts. In 2013, she renovated an 18th century hay stall in a scenic Swiss canton of Graubünden, working with an architect to make a cozy holiday retreat, and learning more about the demands of historic restoration as she went. Here in Ernen, she recently began a major restoration project on a house that has been authenticated as one of the oldest dwellings in the village. Located right below the scenic parish church, “Uf dr Flüe” was built on an outcropping of granite that gives it the most solid of foundations. The house was last in the hands of Jules Carlen, an elderly “Erner” who was born and had lived in it all of his life.

Even at an old age, Jules wasn’t bothered by having no hot running water, nor having to use an unheated outhouse off the south side of his simple bedroom. He had never known anything else at home. Long retired from his job, he took lunch every day with his sister at her house in the village, in no small part because his own kitchen had only a woodburning stove – inscribed with the date 1576 – that needed firing up, and the few electrical implements he owned were, by today’s standards, entirely antiquated. By all accounts, the life he led would seem a time warp for many of us, but his humor and common sense made him good company, and they certainly spoke well for the values and generous spirit that marked this Walliser village in times gone by. And while he himself knew little about the house’s structural history, Jules took a keen interest in the project that a young woman from Zurich conceived of for his home, namely, bringing it back to its original state, for however far back that might go.

Nobody knew exactly how old the house was until Diana commissioned an archeologist to do a dendrochronological examination of the wooden beams and planks used in it. No fewer than 22 samples were taken from cellar to attic, and the laboratory results were startling: parts of the house could be dated definitively to 1453, almost half a century before Columbus discovered America. Even more surprising was that much of the original structure was still entirely intact. The door frames had been raised by some 7 or 8 inches − people have gained in height through the centuries − and the living space had been rearranged to accommodate different numbers of children, but only modest renovations had been done over the four centuries.

Remaining in situ on what was once an outside wall was a “Heidechriz,” the crucifix typically used by the people of Wallis to safeguard their homes. Near it, another elongated cross had also been pierced through the planks, making a slim vent (a “Seelenglotz”) by which the souls of the dead were to leave the dwelling. While a badly charred area found behind one oven tells of the ever-pending threat of fire in villages such as these; a large breakthrough in the wall at knee level shows the place another oven once stood to heat both the kitchen on one side of the wall, and the smaller, single sleeping chamber on the other. Further, a hollow beam, or “Balkenkopfkamin,” running the full length of the uppermost ceiling funneled the kitchen smoke out of the house, but left the beams and ceiling covered in an oily stain that is still clearly visible today. “All these details tell stories,” says Diana, “which is why I find this project – as big as it is − so rewarding.” In the cellar, too, are a handful of niches with pediments that resemble cult altars of much earlier settlements. Last used here for cheese storage, the carefully constructed niches might, I thought, have been used to house votive objects that “supported” the foundations of the house, as is also debated on the oldest dwelling in nearby Mühlebach. 

From his offices in Visp it was architect Pascal Abgottpon – resident of Ernen and with specialized in historic restoration − who showed Diana the house and introduced her to Jules and his family. Restoration work began at the end of 2015, uncovering unexpected “finds” from the very beginning. In the smallest room off the kitchen, for example − soon to be a bathroom on the first floor − wall paneling had been applied over an insulating layer of newspaper whose pages carry dates in the 1890s. Likewise, in the largest living space, installing modern electrical, water and heating cables revealed an almost 500-year old floor that was in fairly good shape, but had been covered up by other floorboards just to suit an owner’s fancy.

Tackling a job such as this one presupposed doing lots of archival and architectural history research, which Diana has done tirelessly to support the project. But she was only able to share some of the discoveries she made with Jules. He settled into an old people’s home in 2014, but sadly, died this past February, so never saw the greater part of the work accomplished. The good news, though, is that in the past year, Diana and her husband Michael became the parents of a healthy bouncing boy, so the roster of children in the house expands yet again.

Diana’s purchase of the property included a classic Walliser “Spycher” (a hay loft on “stilts”) whose usage, given its location in the zone so near the historic church, cannot be transformed in any way. The great fortune is that the lot around in front of the house is off limits to new building projects of any kind, meaning that the spectacular views the house enjoys can in no way be compromised. Looking down the full length of the Rhone valley − the broad flank of the Binntal beneath the towering Breithorn to the south − the view stretches all the way to the alps, a good many miles away. With that, and the house’s prime location in town so close to the principal venue of the Musikdorf Ernen’s annual summer festival, a stay in the “Uf dr Flüe” would be nothing short of a stay in a true alpine paradise.

Monday, 1 August 2016, by Sarah Batschelet

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To make enquires about spending a holiday in “Uf dr Flüe” – one of the oldest houses in Ernen − contact Diana directly through her website. Two 3.5-room flats will be available from the spring of 2016; taking both together might be a perfect arrangement for an extended family.

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