CORSIER-SUR-VEVEY, Switzerland — In this picturesque Swiss town, overlooking the snow-covered Alps on the other side of Lake Geneva, sits a large 19th-century manor surrounded by vineyards.
On weekends, paying no heed to the “Beware of the dog” sign, visitors and tourists attempt to peer through the large metal gate and trees to catch a glimpse of the white building.
The manor, which has been unoccupied for the past two years, was the home of Charlie Chaplin, his wife, Oona, and their eight children from 1953 until his death on Christmas Day at age 88 in 1977.
“The memory of the house is really my father, but with my mother,” Eugene Chaplin, Chaplin’s fifth child with Oona, said in an interview in a hotel cafe in Vevey.
“There are three parts to my father’s life,” he said. “The first part is the childhood, which was difficult. Then there was Hollywood with all the creative side but also problems with women, politics. And then there’s the third part, when he arrived in Switzerland, which is total happiness with my mother.”
And next spring, barring any major administrative challenges, construction will begin to transform the home into a museum dedicated to the great actor.
The 55 million Swiss franc ($53 million) project, run by a Canadian specialized in the use of multimedia technology in museums and a Swiss architect, is now nearly 10 years old and is expected to be completed in 2012. Essentially, it consists of refurbishing the manor where Chaplin “the man” will be presented, and creating a new building where the garage and vegetable garden is located to present “the artist.”
“This manor and garden will be protected, to preserve the integrity that was his environment when he was living here,” said Yves Durand, the Canadian museologist, during a visit to the manor. “His piano, his desk, his furniture, his bed, his letters . . . all will be here.
“Here we will talk of the man, the son, the husband, the father and friend,” Durand said, visibly passionate about the project. “Visitors will take advantage of the house as if they were a guest.” Both Durand and Eugene Chaplin say the manor was frequented by many celebrities, including Truman Capote, Graham Greene and even Michael Jackson, but after Chaplin’s death.
The new building will focus on the works of Chaplin, and will include a movie theater where a 15-minute clip will be shown and reconstructions of a movie studio and sets from his movies.
A native of London, Chaplin was an actor, director and producer and appeared in many memorable films, including “The Gold Rush,” “City Lights,” “Modern Times” and “Limelight.”
“It will all be done with state-of-the-art technology,” Durand said. Construction on the project took a long time to start due to the Swiss administrative practice of allowing private individuals to delay and even block major construction projects, with the idea of forcing consensus among key partners.
“What happened is that only one citizen opposed the project,” Durand said. “We negotiated with the village, the state, the federal government, with 72 private associations, like Greenpeace. And everybody agreed, except for one person, the neighbor right next door, who said, ‘I don’t want this project in front of my house.’ So he opposed the project, and we lost 2 1/2 years.” The issue was eventually settled in court.
“As a North American, for me this was surreal,” Durand said.
The museum, which expects up to 300,000 visitors per year, is keen to attract Japanese tourists.
“The ties my father had with Japan were very strong,” said son Eugene, who now works as a documentary filmmaker and an artistic consultant to a Swiss circus. “I was in Japan recently, and to tell you the truth, I was touched to see how much my father was in people’s hearts there.”
He said the project has the full support of the Chaplin family, which deemed it necessary to have a place dedicated to the artist’s memory. “I think it is important that people remember Chaplin. You can use Charlie Chaplin and explain the 20th century,” he said.
“In every media you have a person who becomes the person for that media. In theaters you had Shakespeare. Suddenly the film industry came out, and Chaplin managed to express the same problems as Shakespeare, but in his own way. And he did it very well,” he added.
Chaplin came to Switzerland in 1952 after he was denied re-entry into the United States during the McCarthy witch hunts. Eugene said that when his mother was pregnant with him, they were staying in a hotel in Lausanne, when someone told him to visit the property.
“He fell in love with the nature and the peace and tranquillity of the place,” said Eugene, who was born shortly afterward in the manor.
“He managed to have a normal life in Switzerland,” he added. “His doctor, dentist, hairdresser were locals. He would come every Wednesday and Saturday to the local market. He loved it, he could go for walks and no one would bother him.”