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Beaming with Paris Poutres

“Poutres.” It’s not a ‘pretty’ word in French. At least, not to my ears. It reminds me of the sound one might inadvertently make having indigestion. (Wink.)

Never mind. “Poutres” are “beams.” The kind of beams you find holding up the ceiling…exposed wooden beams…old, original beams, from the 17th or 18th centuries. According to the authorities, they add value to a French property.

Walk around Le Marais and look up into the apartment windows. Can you see some apartments with exposed beams? If they’ve been painted (often painted white) and are no longer the natural wood, they lose value — at least in the eyes of the appraiser, if not the purchaser.

There are 17th-century beams under my newly painted white ceiling. The appraiser who recently wrote an evaluation of the property advised to open them and gain height. I decided against that — for time, money and decor reasons — it simply wouldn’t have fit the style of the apartment. But in most other situations, there is nothing that adds more charm than exposing the ancient beams (except perhaps, exposing the original stone walls — but that’s another story!).

I once heard an American boast of the ‘fake’ beams he had installed in his U.S. home and how beautiful they were. A Frenchman in the party responded with, “Oh Lord. If I were you, I’d

never admit that to anyone!” That drew a big laugh as we witnessed the obvious culture clash.

One of our clients recently signed the title deed on an apartment a stone’s throw from me at the corner of rue Debelleyme and rue de Bretagne. The walls and ceiling were clearly hiding poutres, some of which hinted of being large and substantial. From first sight of the apartment, the plan was to remove the ceiling and expose the beams, but you never know what you’re really going to find unless you take a peak.

A demolition crew was sent in, first to open a few points to verify they were there and in a good-enough condition to go ‘all the way!’ ‘All the way’ means fully removing the old plaster, sanding, sandblasting, removing embedded nails and decayed wood and then finally treating the wood against insects. Even if the beams look pretty dismal from having been in the ‘guts’ of the apartment, they can still be very solid and result in a beautiful state.

Beams can be made of different kind of wood, but are mostly of oak. Poplar beams are softer and more vulnerable to being eaten right through by insects. There is an art to testing the condition of the beams and knowing whether they are solid for support and worth refinishing. The refinishing process can take quite a long time and add quite a lot of expense to a renovation project, but be well worth it.

Le Provençal,” my little rental studio, was just a plain box with no character until we opened the ceiling and exposed the beams. Most of them were old, but a few were new, for what reason we didn’t know. Even so, the contractor did an impressive job of refinishing them all to match each other and it’s hard to see the difference between them. There is no question that it totally changed the look and feel of the apartment, adding 1000% more old-world charm.

The apartment on rue Debelleyme, once the ceiling was removed exposing the 18th-century beams, drew gasps of delight from all those who witnessed it! One enormous beam ran the length of the apartment and others crossed in a variety of directions. They were stunning, even in their raw state. Once the work is done, about six inches in height will be gained, even though new insulation and plaster will be set between the beams. So the result will be beautiful, natural original wood beams, striped and crisscrossed punctuated by a white ceiling between them.

The owner is planning to decorate with a “wine/vignoble” theme — with the colors of grapes and the oak of the barrels. How beautiful to discover what had been hidden for so long…and guess what? They’re the real thing. She will have no problem admitting it to anyone.

Adrian LeedsA la prochaine…

Adrian Leeds
Editor, Parler Paris

P.S. If you would like to learn more about having your own “poutres” in Paris(!), visit /frenchproperty/consultation or contact us at [email protected] about our Property Consultation Services. Don’t forget, you can take advantage of the old U.S. dollar rates just by booking any service by March 31, 2008 and scheduling it prior to June 30, 2008.


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