This Irish family’s Puglia renovation is a gorgeous combination of old and new
The house, which dates from the 1700s, didn’t have much in the way of modern conveniences, but its beautiful features were enough to draw them in.
When travelling, it’s easy to admire the architecture of the places we visit, often so different from our own. It’s quite another thing, however, to take on the project of bringing one of these beautiful old buildings into the 21st century.
That is exactly what Michelle and Brian Bennett did, after falling in love with the town of Monopoli in Puglia, on the coast of southern Italy. On a holiday to escape rainy Dublin, everything from the food to the ancient streets captivated them, Michelle explains.
“One day was a bit wet, so we started looking at the ‘for sale’ signs in the historic centre,” she says. “Of course we saw one we loved the position of, and got an appointment with the agent that afternoon and then made a call to a local architect practice and went to see them as well.”
Although they didn’t end up buying that particular house, it had sparked an idea, and for the next few months they kept their eye on houses for sale in the area, and bought their chosen one in June 2019.
“The appeal of the house was instant for me,” Michelle says. “It was a corner house with 2 rooms on the ground floor, which is quite unique in Monopoli. In addition, the neighbouring San Lorenzo church and the magnificent Palazzo to the right made for a beautiful atmosphere. On entering the house the barrel ceilings sealed the deal.”
The next stage, or “the fun bit” as Michelle describes it, was how to turn this shell of a house into a habitable home. Although the structure of the house was beautiful, with vaulted barrel ceilings and stonework, it needed new plumbing and electricity.
The original part of the house dates from the 1700s, and more additions were added over the years, so the design also needed to bring these various aspects together, as well as restore some of its original features like the stone ceilings which had been covered with plaster.
Michelle and Brian worked with local architects Bruschi Esposito, whose advice on design, but also the practicalities of the project like the strict local planning rules, were invaluable. As the pandemic hit during the project, they were only able to visit the site once, which meant making a lot of decisions over Zoom.
“I have to say though,” Michelle says, “the design process and all that it entailed was so much fun, and during Covid it was a great distraction. We lived for the regular on-site progress photos.”
The design involved creating a comfortable two-bed, two-bath home, with the cellar to be a flexible ‘pop-up’ third bedroom when required.
“Due to the vertical nature of these historic houses, the stone stairs can prove challenging on a daily basis,” Michelle explains.
“The brief outlined the need to create two zones in the house to minimise the need to keep going up and down the steep steps, and create a more comfortable flow. To this end the upper two floors have a bed, bath and terrace kitchenette with the ground floor having the same facilities. It’s also great when guests are staying, as it ensures privacy and comfort.”
The house has been beautifully finished throughout, but Michelle has a soft spot for the ground floor. “With the backdrop of the stone throughout, it feels calm, cool and unique. The kitchen island which doubles as a seating and cooking area is a particularly comfortable and social space. Our architects did a phenomenal job designing it, a clever use of space when it’s at a premium.”
She also loves the naturally occurring wall indents, which provide nooks to place special items. A favourite bird ornament reminds her of the pigeons that live in the local church walls.
Brian and Michelle are delighted with the finished home, and their new base within this town they love. Close to the sea, as well as allowing them to explore more of the area, it’s everything they could have hoped for. “Most of all, the neighbours are so genuine and caring,” Michelle adds, “though my Italian needs to improve, as they don’t speak any English!”