If there is one building which is an icon of rural French architecture it is the pigeonnier (pronounced pi-j'on-ee-ay). Sought after as a component of a grand country estate or even as a property in its own right a pigeonnier will always create extra interest when included as part of a property for sale, regardless of the condition it is in. But why were they built and why was so much importance attached to them in the first place?
Formal pigeonniers were built to house pigeons (unsurprisingly) from the early middle ages onwards. The birds nested and bred inside them in little compartments, or pigeon holes, which lined the walls and there were pigeon sized entrances to allow them to fly in and out of the building high up, away from predators. The birds themselves provided meat, but another bonus was the guano, or pigeon droppings which was highly valuable as ferlilizer. The right to construct a distinctive, detached pigeonnier, usually standing some distance from an important manoir or chateau, was granted as a mark of status and was usually the indication that the property was the home of a nobleman or influential land owner. Because of this role as a status symbol they tended to become more and more fanciful, reflecting the wealth and influence of the owner. The ordinary tenant farmer or paysan would not be allowed to construct a pigeonnier of this style but would make do with a few holes high in the walls of their barn, or in the side of a pig sty.
The well known polygon shaped pigeonnier at Chateau de Vigiers, in the Dordogne.
The 'standard' pigeonnier has a square footprint and rises two or three storeys with a door and windows to each of the four walls. The top floor has smaller windows and above or around them are the tiny entrances allowing the birds to fly in and out. The roof usually rose to a point from the four sides and was constructed from beautiful oak beams with clay tiles on top. This construction translates well into a small house or holiday cottage (gite) and from time to time you find lovely examples of them on the market or available to let for your holidays. They do present a challenge to the developer as there is normally only room for one room on each floor so you will get, say, a living room/kitchen on the ground floor and stairs to a bedroom/bathroom which has stairs from that to a second bedroom and maybe bathroom on the top floor. An alternative it to build one or two wings onto the original structure which gives you more space.
A beautiful conversion
But to get back to the original design - throughout France you will see wonderfully elaborate designs, indicating both the status of the owner and the range of local materials and building skills available. Sometimes they were built on stone legs, reminiscent of the British staddle stones and fulfilling the same function - deterring vermin.
An example of legs and columbage
In areas with plentiful limestone they would be built of that characteristic pale stone. In highly wooded areas you might get columbage, or timber framing with wattle and daub infill and where the property (or the landowner) was particularly grand you could get something very fanciful indeed....