It was supposed to be the start of a fairy tale when a Canadian couple purchased a Gilded Age Main Line mansion with plans to restore the aging palace and make co-owner Julie Charbonneau as famous for her interior-design wizardry in America as she is back home.
Then, on April 4, 2012, a fast-moving fire gutted much of the Bloomfield mansion and triggered dark subplots involving ultimately disproved allegations of arson and insurance fraud against Charbonneau and her partner and co-owner, the business-turnaround specialist Dean Topolinski.
Finally out from beneath that cloud, Charbonneau and Topolinski insist they are hitting the reset button on their plans to restore the 22,000-square-foot, 19-bedroom French chateau in Villanova, and maybe their singed reputations in the process.
"The first time I walked up here, it was exactly as I imagined. This was my dream house," said the petite and glamorous Charbonneau, who has appeared on HGTV home-decorating shows and is a certified Porsche driving instructor in her spare time.
On a tour of the gutted house - which looks like a movie set with an intact facade hiding a burned-out shell - Charbonneau, 43, and Topolinski, 46, spoke for the first time since the inferno and a subsequent lawsuit by former owner Jerald Batoff, who accused the couple of scheming to buy and then burn down the estate for the insurance money. The suit was dropped in April after fire investigators found no evidence of arson and Chartis, the insurance company, concluded that the fire was accidental.
The couple acknowledge it will take many years and many millions to rebuild what is left of Bloomfield. Yet Charbonneau said she never considered abandoning her plans to make the home a showplace that would bring her recognition in the United States.
Loving the place
"It's too late now. I'm in love with this place," she said, standing in front of the ravaged estate redesigned in 1923 by noted architect Horace Trumbauer, on a parcel cultivated by the legendary landscape architects the Olmsted brothers.
With the lawsuit over, the jet-setting couple, who exude an easygoing charm, say they are eager to set the record straight. They came to the interview with photo albums featuring Charbonneau's designs, which are elegant with a hint of French provincial style.
"Her work is quite beautiful," said Linda Reeves, publisher of House & Home magazine, which has featured her high-end interiors.
As for Batoff's allegations that they set the fire, Topolinski said: "Ultimately the facts helped with bringing the truth out. . . . [The fire] was thoroughly investigated by local and federal authorities and Chartis, who has a clear financial interest, and it was determined to be accidental."
The couple had emerged seemingly out of nowhere as potential buyers in January 2011.
By March they had a lease/purchase deal with Batoff on Bloomfield for $5.2 million. After the fire, Batoff accused them of setting the fire to collect $20 million in insurance money and control of the valuable Main Line parcel for development.
The civil case seemed headed for trial when a settlement was reached. Charbonneau and Topolinski collected $11 million of the $18.5 insurance payout - plus the burned-out, seven-acre property - and Batoff kept more than $7 million.
Batoff did not return calls for comment.
The couple say the negative publicity hurt their reputations.
"It was very troubling to read all these things about us, that we were tenants with a scheme," Charbonneau said.
They won over neighbors, however, with improvements they made to the formal gardens and pond out back before the fire, as well as their offer to host the annual block party.
"They are a delightful young couple," said Lou Scheinfeld, president of the Trianon homeowners association, based in the development next to Bloomfield.
"Dean was joking that people refer to them as Bonnie and Clyde. . . . They are adorable. Both of them are charming and nice. I'm taking them at face value," he said.
The couple said they always intended to make Bloomfield their family home and had enrolled Charbonneau's daughter, Alexia, now 8, in Agnes Irwin, the elite girls' school across the street.
Then the fire took nearly everything - the handpicked furniture from France, the family photos, the letters Charbonneau's late husband wrote to their daughter before he died five years ago.
Investigators said the blaze originated in electrical wiring in the basement. Flames shot to the roof through a dumbwaiter, creating a sizzling oven under the building's slate roof.
The couple said they were in the house at the time. Charboneau was in the master suite in front of a floor-to-ceiling window when the alarm sounded. She thought it was set off by renovations at the nearby school. As she was trying to turn it off, Topolinski told her he smelled smoke and to get out.
They escaped with a nanny, houseman, and their pets but no possessions.
"I grabbed my cellphone and thought, I'm going to have some roof repairs. I never thought I'd be watching it burn for eight hours," she said. "We ended up on the street with nothing."
The massive rebuilding will take three to four years and cost "considerably" more than the $11 million insurance money, Topolinski said.
They started with clearing out two stories of debris and salvaging ironworks, crown molding, millwork, and oak parquet floors. Now stacked on pallets, the floors will be painstakingly sanded, refinished, and reinstalled, said Brian Speckhals, president of Doozer Construction, which is handling the project.
The entire third floor of the once-magnificent house is completely gone, exposing a marble tub, shower, and vanity on the second floor. Speckhals said he was considering enclosing the house in a giant tent to protect it in winter.
After the fire, the couple retreated to their Euro-sleek penthouse in Montreal, and they are renovating another historic home in Toronto, where they will live until Bloomfield is done. They plan to manage the project from an apartment over the garage that did not burn.
Before the fire, Charbonneau fervently hoped the mansion would land her in the ultimate shelter magazine, Architectural Digest. She's had to switch gears - and media.
"If someone wants to do a show about this," she said, "I think that would be interesting."
Julie Charbonneau and Dean Topolinski talk about the fire and the plan forward for the 19-bedroom French chateau in Villanova: www.inquirer.com/bloomfield