When naval officer turned architect Luís Bernardo Brito e Abreu returned to his centuries-old family manor—on the remote Azorean island of São Miguel in Portugal—in 2006 after a six-year absence, he faced a number of design challenges familiar to those who inherit ancestral homes and significant historical properties. How do you pay respect to the legacy of the past while adapting it to modern tastes and sensibilities? And, when almost everything in the house has been painstakingly handmade by artists and artisans, some of them family members, how do you decide what stays and what goes? According to Brito e Abreu, it’s a craft, much like writing a novel where one is constantly editing, taking passages away and then adding something new and surprising in the right places.
“It is about defining what is essential and what is superfluous,” says Brito e Abreu, who recently earned a degree in architecture and is now working on another property on São Miguel owned by his brother. “You can get rid of a lot of things and still maintain the spirit of a place.”
The son of a well-known Portuguese sculptor, Luísa Constantina, and a navy admiral, Brito e Abreu comes from a long line of artists: Both his great-grandfather and grandmother on his mother’s side were accomplished painters. When his mother moved her young brood to this 16th-century hilltop estate in the 1970s, it was little more than a ruin, last used by her family as a tea plantation and orange orchard. (Brito e Abreu’s grandparents owned and resided in a grand former convent nearby, filled with religious antiquities.) It took more than a year to complete the renovation, and for much of it, they lived without water or electricity.
“I remember that a mule cart would bring us 50-liter milk cans filled with hot water,” recalls Brito e Abreu, who was about three years old at the time. “Our TV was connected to a car battery, and we used oil lamps at night. When we first moved in, the locals thought the house was haunted.”
When his mother died in the 1990s, the young Brito e Abreu, not quite finished with high school, followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Portuguese navy. After two decades at sea, Brito e Abreu felt a strong pull toward home. In the mid-aughts, he got himself stationed on São Miguel and started to renovate the estate, which also included several historical agricultural buildings at the bottom of the hill and a rural hotel, which he now manages. As an artist who loved natural materials like wood and stone, his mother had left uneven bands of raw stone surrounding the interior doorways unpainted and exposed the ceiling’s ancient wood beams. “For her, revealing the essence of the house meant revealing its raw materials,” says Brito e Abreu. “And it was something I kept because she was right.”
LEFT: Acacia and Japanese-cedar shelves in the guest room are lined with books inherited from Brito e Abreu’s great-grandfather. RIGHT: An 18th-century ship figurehead in a corner of the living room mixes with a 19th-century cannon from a Portuguese civil war and a copper cauldron filled with a Monstera deliciosa plant.
Some of her other decorative flourishes didn’t fare as well: One of the first things Brito e Abreu did was declutter, eliminating Constantina’s velvet curtains, throne-like leather chairs, and some of her larger religious antiquities. He also replaced the windowpanes with bigger slats of glass so that the views of the sea and the surrounding landscape were as commanding as the art objects. “I wanted to make the space lighter and see the ocean from every room,” he explains.
The spirit of family still abounds: Mixing with a dramatic carved wooden figurehead of a maiden from the 18th century on a living room wall are several of his mother’s sculptures, paintings that belonged to his grandmother, and maritime-themed pieces that remind Brito e Abreu of his father and his own career. In the dining room is a metal diving helmet from the early 1900s that he was given by a family friend, and his office is filled with an extensive library of vintage nautical books.
Over the fireplace is a wooden fragment of a ship from the 16th century, on which is sculpted, according to Brito e Abreu, figure of a mermaid. In almost every room, he replaced one or two heavy antique chairs and side tables with vintage midcentury furniture.
The result is that each of the objects in the house has a profound, almost vibrating presence. There’s a sense throughout that the specters of Brito e Abreu’s ancestors still reside in the house’s quarters.
“I had a friend visit me here after the renovation who claimed she was able to read the energy and aura of a place,” says Brito e Abreu. “She came with a pendulum and went through the rooms. I thought she might find a ghost or two, but when she finished, she said, ‘It’s clean! There’s no bad energy here.’”