The Desert Fox walked its steps. German officers prepared their defense of the Normandy coast in its hallways. Paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne fought on the terrain nearby, not far from D-Day’s Utah Beach.
Now the nonprofit Normandy Institute wants to convert the Chateau de Bernaville and its 50 surrounding acres into a nonprofit campus and conference center, where students, scholars, policymakers, and military leaders can come to bask in the French countryside and consider the bloody history that unfolded there—and ways to prevent a recurrence.
The institute, incorporated in 2016, is raising money (normandyinstitute.org/support-us) for a planned $25-million makeover of the property, including the construction of a 60-room residence hall. Much of the work will involve restoring the chateau into an 11-room guesthouse, putting 30 guest rooms in the estate’s carriage house, and transforming the conservatory into a dining room and conference hall that can hold 350. A small chapel is also available for weddings and other gatherings.
Dorothea de La Houssaye, chair of the institute, says the location is perfect for conferences and educational retreats—beautiful countryside with a deep history. But the surrounding area is bereft of significant hotel capacity. So the Normandy Institute hopes to fill the gap and attract conference goers from, say, NATO headquarters in Brussels, 360 miles to the north, to discuss military strategy and diplomacy. “We want to leave something behind that future generations can forever use and enjoy,” she said.
Occupying German forces used the chat-eau as a headquarters as they braced for the Allied invasion that would come on June 6, 1944; there’s a photograph of German general Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, descending the steps of the chateau three weeks before D-Day. (Rommel wasn’t around when the fighting started, having returned to Germany for his wife’s birthday.)
The Normandy Institute has long pursued D-Day-related projects. It’s raising money for a documentary about retired U.S. Army Colonel Keith Nightingale’s Normandy tours with D-Day veterans, and last year it released a short film about the 2005 reunion in Normandy, the Netherlands, and Belgium of the Band of Brothers—the men of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, whose story was told in Stephen Ambrose’s 1992 book and HBO’s 2001 miniseries.
The Chateau de Bernaville is a three-hour drive from Paris and can be reached by train on the Paris-Cherbourg line.