Making an Alpine Holiday Home Their Permanent Homestead

WENGEN, Switzerland — In 2014, Philip and Mary Ellen Röntgen sold their three-bedroom colonial home outside New York City and relocated to their holiday farmhouse in the Swiss ski village of Wengen. In their early 60s and finding themselves laid off from career jobs in banking and real estate, they decided retirement in Switzerland was the best option.

The Röntgens wanted a lifestyle that would be less hectic — and less expensive. Property tax on their Mamaroneck, N.Y., home, for instance, was $24,000; in Wengen, it is less than $2,400. “Things like homeowners’ insurance and utilities are also much less than half of what we had to pay in New York,” Mrs. Röntgen said.

Mr. Röntgen, a 30-year United States resident from the Netherlands, had inherited his family’s 2,400-square-foot farmhouse in 1993. For the next 22 years, he and his American wife had spent roughly 10 days there twice a year. They enjoyed the fresh mountain air and the change of pace; both are avid hikers, and Mr. Röntgen is a keen skier. During that time, they re-clad the pine exterior, installed energy-efficient windows and made minor improvements in the kitchen.

Wengen is on a dramatic mountain shelf in the Bernese Highlands. Towering above are the majestic Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau mountains. With a resident population of 1,120, it’s known for hosting the annual Lauberhorn World Cup ski race. Because it’s relatively car-free — only trades and service workers have vehicles — visitors must leave their cars in the valley and make the 15-minute ascent on a cog railway. It’s the second stop on the way to the famous Jungfraujoch that connects the Jungfrau and the Mönch.

A snapshot of the home, known as Campanula, in the 1920s or ’30s. It has been in Mr. Röntgen’s family since 1924.CreditJane A. Peterson for The New York Times

The Röntgens’ homestead, called Campanula, is a 10-minute walk downhill from the train station. Originally built by a farmer in 1904, the rustic dwelling housed pigs on the lower level, which opened to his 40-square-meter patch of sun-dappled grassland. The house overlooks the stunning expanse of the Lauterbrunnen Valley, which may have inspired Tolkien’s fictional elven realm of Rivendell.

Mr. Röntgen’s German-born maternal grandmother bought Campanula as a vacation property from its second owner, the Swiss artist Anna Spühler, in 1924. Mr. Röntgen fondly recalls regular boyhood visits, when the home featured a big ceramic stove in the living room. He befriended local children, took ski lessons and spent hours at the municipal pool.

In April 2016, six months after relocating to Wengen, the Röntgens began an extensive renovation. The couple hired the same local architect they once used for kitchen remodeling and moved to a rental apartment in a chalet on Wengen’s main street for seven months. They were particularly keen to remove an interior wall that blocked the Jungfrau, which they could see only from the porch. They decided to raise the heights of their ceilings on two floors, vault the ceiling on the third and replace the outside balcony. Their open-plan living space design included a galley kitchen from the Dutch Mandemakers Group. They also mapped out four bedrooms, three and a half bathrooms, a laundry and a vestibule.

At the time, the cost estimate was $700,000, which included a number of helicopter deliveries. Wood ceiling beams were too long to fit around the curve of the mountain railway tunnel. Helicopters also hauled away debris, which was too unwieldy to take to the rail station in an electric cart. Because local laws prevented tampering with the exterior footprint, the Röntgens kept the lower terrace level entrance separate with no internal connecting staircase. As a guest bedroom with its own bathroom, it would be reached from the descending staircase in the porch.


The Röntgens in their Dutch-designed galley kitchen. Construction costs to renovate and expand the home came in at just over $1 million, they said.CreditJane A. Peterson for The New York Times

The terrace level had been a study for Mr. Röntgen’s grandfather, a doctor. During reinforcement of the stone foundation, workers uncovered a century-old manure pit, which was pumped out and the contents sent through a sewer pipe to Lauterbrunnen. The smell was so putrid that workers called ahead to alert the municipal authorities when it would arrive.

After parting ways with their first architect because of construction delays, the Röntgens managed contractors themselves for three months. A second architect, Heinz Kammer, eventually joined the team and revamped the plan.

“His ideas were very good on the interior finishes,” Mrs. Röntgen recalled, noting Mr. Kammer’s help in building a coat closet that would avoid a sanitary pipe. “He looked at it for about a minute and said the closet should be oriented with the doors facing the room, and the dead space at the back should be cubbyholes for storage — Brilliant!”

The renovation project is nearly finished. The outside railings were fixed in December, and soon the Swiss cabinet maker Frutiger will install the last remaining custom-made storage cabinets. Construction costs came in at just over $1 million, with an estimated $200,000 for interior decoration. The Röntgens attribute the cost overruns to unrealistic initial projections, delays on the balcony installation, the manure pit and some wood replacement for termite damage.


After renovation, the interior now receives far more sunlight.CreditJane A. Peterson for The New York Times

The couple managed their own interior decoration. Among their choices: Farmhouse-style furnishings from Neptune, a furniture company in Britain; bathroom fixtures from Villeroy & Boch in Germany; and light fixtures from Restoration Hardware in California.

On a tour around the home, the Röntgens appeared pleased with the final results. Mrs. Röntgen said the interior now receives far more sunlight, though in winter it’s limited.

They’ve hung several special pieces of artwork, including the Röntgen family crest and an heirloom painting of Mr. Röntgen’s German ancestor, Johan Nicolaus Weber, who accompanied Capt. James Cook on a sea voyage during the mid-1700s.

They have also displayed several Wengen landscape paintings by Ms. Spühler.

To become “resident retirees” in Switzerland, the Röntgens registered with the Lauterbrunnen municipality in October 2015. Officials checked their passports, bank statements and health insurance, as well as a signed letter justifying their request. The cantonal office in Bern sent its final approval two and a half months later. If the couple chooses to sell Campanula, they now have a permit to buy another Swiss chalet, but only as a primary residence.


Campanula overlooks the Lauterbrunnen Valley, which may have inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional elven realm of Rivendell.CreditJane A. Peterson for The New York Times

Foreigners who want to buy Swiss vacation property face restrictions. A 2012 federal law prohibits further holiday home building in popular resorts and limits the types of properties available to nonresident foreigners. In April, properties listed as available to foreign buyers included 12 holiday apartments and one entire chalet; prices average around $10,000 per square meter.

Kim and Ernest Craige, an American couple who moved to Wengen last summer, are among Wengen’s prospective buyers. They are renting a chalet apartment to test whether they want to make Wengen their permanent home. They love the active mountain life, but they feel somewhat limited by not speaking Swiss German and miss having more cultural options. “We’d like to join book clubs, singing groups and painting classes,” Mr. Craige said, “but these activities are in cities far from here.”

The Röntgens admit that becoming friends with Swiss locals, known for their reserve, will take time. While Mr. Röntgen speaks German and has several boyhood friends, Mrs. Röntgen speaks at an elementary level.

Still, they no longer hanker for an alternative to Wengen life and have shelved the idea of building a second home in the United States. They are pleased with the medical clinic, and Swiss health insurance guarantees coverage of pre-existing conditions and also covers physiotherapy. Mr. Röntgen tries to ski most days, and Mrs. Röntgen enjoys reading and regular morning meet-ups with other expat women.

The couple’s shared activities include golf at the Interlaken Golf Club and long walks — their favorite being a gradual incline on the other side of the valley that leads to the ski village of Mürren. They also travel to various European cities regularly by train or in their car, which is kept in Lauterbrunnen.

If the Röntgens want to become Swiss citizens, they can apply after holding resident permits for 10 years. “For us,” Mrs. Röntgen said, “that decision will be seven years down the road.”

Published at Thu, 09 May 2019 08:03:33 +0000