On Patmos, in Greece, a Very Old House Gets a Colorful New Life

THEY CALL IT the Island of the Apocalypse, for it was here on Patmos, in the southeastern corner of what’s today Greece, that John the Apostle foretold the end of the world — or at least the version recorded in the Bible’s Book of Revelation. John had been exiled in A.D. 95 to this speck of land not far from where the Aegean meets the Mediterranean by the Romans, who weren’t only threatened by the rising influence of Christianity but believed it to be a cult. The Byzantine Empire nonetheless took hold, and with it Greek Orthodoxy — and then, in 1088, rose the monastery dedicated to St. John, a fortified structure of marble and native andesite (a volcanic rock), built on one of the highest points on Patmos, that would forever change the island’s fortunes.

In the entrance hall off the courtyard, an Italian Chiavari chair, a wooden Tuscan lantern and wide oak floorboards, which complement the original ceilings in the oldest part of the house.Credit…Bastian Achard
In the study, the Athenian designer Dimitris Pantazopoulos added a three-tiered northern Greek Epirus fireplace with antique painted Italian tiles, a 16th-century İznik plate on the mantelpiece and a 19th-century icon on the wall.Credit…Bastian Achard

For a few hundred years, money poured in from the church, which was eager to expand its influence in the Dodecanese, this group of islands so close to Turkey that on a map it looks like a jeweled choker wrapped around the country’s southwestern coast. Pilgrims seeking either enlightenment or refuge — from the fall of Constantinople, the waning influence of Crete — soon settled this island’s Chora (“town” in Greek) in the shadow of the monastery. Patmos continued to grow into the modern era as a locus of cross-cultural currents and commerce: Prosperity and geography made it ideal for seafaring, as boats brought back wooden furniture from Venice and crafts from Istanbul and Cairo. By the 15th century, both immigrants and rich merchants were building the small churches and blocky mansions that still crowd Chora’s narrow, steep pathways. Although throughout history various interlopers — pirates, Ottoman expansionists and Nazis among them — have claimed this territory as their own, Patmos has belonged to Greece since the late 1940s. Greeks and tourists alike appreciate it not only for its preserved architecture and Christian traditions (dozens of monks and nuns still worship here) but also for its pebbly coves and quiet beaches, goat-thronged hills and seemingly infinite blueness, where sky gives in to sea.

A petroleum blue wall panel — in the style of a traditional Ottoman-era mousandra, or built-in cupboard — divides the kitchen and provides cabinet space for crockery.Credit…Bastian Achard

So pristine is Patmos, in fact, that rich families from across Europe and Asia have in recent years begun choosing it as the site for their vacation homes. The Aga Khan’s family owns property in the UNESCO-protected Chora, the most desirable enclave, with its hundred or so centuries-old stone dwellings, all of which get whitewashed each summer in chalk paint that has antibacterial and cooling properties. Many local families who had moved in after the Second World War have sold their homes to those from Athens and farther away who wait for years to find the right Chora houses, which the new owners often combine to create sprawling villas.

A pair of safari chairs and a Turkish tin tray table sit under a large pine, which shades a terrace off the living room.Credit…Bastian Achard
The passage to a small guest room is hung with a collection of rare old terra-cotta jar lids from the island of Chios. On the left, a wellhead covers the house’s original cistern, still in use.Credit…Bastian Achard

The Athenian interior designer Dimitris Pantazopoulos, 60, started visiting Patmos regularly in 2001, after becoming “mesmerized by the houses’ indigenous architecture,” he says. He befriended the Greek-born, Italian-based architect Themistocle Antoniadis, 73, a respected elder in the Patmian restoration scene, and they eventually started collaborating. “Our partnership flows like a river,” says Antoniadis, and around a decade ago, the two decided to take on “one of the biggest and most important houses on Patmos,” as he calls it, owned by a European family for whom Pantazopoulos has reconceived and redecorated several projects throughout Greece. At over 7,500 square feet, including a two-bedroom guest annex across the street, the property is notable for its size and location: Situated just beneath the monastery, it’s one of the highest and tallest structures on Patmos, and has unobstructed, panoramic views of the mountainous southern coastline from its terraces. With its gabled tile roof — one of three in Chora — it’s also among the oldest properties, with parts dating to the 16th century.

In the main room of the adjacent guesthouse, a large archway connects the bedroom area to a sitting room and bathroom, where a green cabinet contains a toilet, shower and wardrobe.Credit…Bastian Achard
The guesthouse includes an unconsecrated chapel, which was transformed into a library and loft with a wooden structure painted in shades of ocher, designed in homage to the so-called women’s mezzanine of the Megali Panagia church on Patmos.Credit…Bastian Achard

“NO ONE KNOWS how the house used to be,” says Pantazopoulos one September afternoon as he unlatches the main dwelling’s interior wooden shutters, filling it with hot afternoon light. When his clients purchased both buildings together last decade, their layouts were cluttered and labyrinthine, like Chora itself. Pantazopoulos focused the structures around a few outdoor spaces and open-ended rectangular rooms, removing the French tiles and plastered, painted walls that the previous owners had installed in the 1990s. Local artisans stripped and lime washed all the interior stone surfaces and, for the main building’s downstairs floors and kitchen countertops, Pantazopoulos sourced and installed hundreds of original 20th-century terra-cotta Patmian tiles, which have either finger waves or hand-stamped patterns, and a variegated black, red and brown patina from being cured in a wood oven. Although there’s one iron forge on the 13-square-mile island, which has a population of 3,000 or so, Pantazopoulos had to fabricate the nine-foot-tall arched glass-and-metal door leading out from the living room to the central courtyard back in Athens, where he also found a 1,100-pound slab of marble to create an outdoor dining table.

In the primary suite, a custom bed made in Florence by Pantazopoulos, a pair of neo-Classical mirrors, a Spitha fabric hung on the wall and Anatolian kilims.Credit…Bastian Achard
The guesthouse looks over the kitchen chimney and beyond to the church of Profitis Ilias, located on Patmos’s highest point.Credit…Bastian Achard

“It’s hard work to make it look ancient,” he says — particularly because Chora’s preservation status meant that they couldn’t move any walls. Instead, architectural interventions largely came in the form of salvaged wood, long considered a rarefied material on an island lacking forests. In a guest bedroom in the annex, as well as on the ground floor of the main building, there are distressed raw fir platforms upon which Pantazopoulos placed tufted mattresses in faded fabrics. For the snug library on the annex’s first floor, he designed a lofted staircase, painted in glossy ochers and inspired by the so-called women’s mezzanine at an old Patmian church, to give the domed room (an unconsecrated chapel) some structure. But the most impressive of these additions is an Ottoman-era carved wood panel that, although it separates the small front kitchen in the main house from the two sitting areas beyond, doesn’t quite reach the 20-foot-high ceiling. It’s a moody petroleum blue, one of many colors used sparingly but boldly throughout the space that are evocative of the island’s maritime era, back when homes were painted using the leftovers from fishing boats.

Nineteenth-century Santorini chairs around a red lacquer dining room table designed by Pantazopoulos, a marble transom from the island of Tinos and an iron-framed glass door that can be folded away in the warmer months.Credit…Bastian Achard

The decoration also reflects the confluence of culture and ideas that could result only from centuries of conquest, travel and trade. In the primary suite, for example, there’s a four-poster Florentine bed with a vintage canopy that Pantazopoulos had embroidered locally, a trio of 18th-century Turkish silver hand mirrors, a chest from Corfu, an Italian Directoire armchair, a custom corner sofa upholstered in striped Robert Kime textiles from England and several worn Anatolian kilims puzzled together across the wood floor. “For a house to have soul,” says Pantazopoulos, “you build and you wait.”

In the primary bathroom, Pantazopoulos created three smaller “cabins” for the closet, shower and toilet, all inspired by the innermost rooms of Greek Orthodox churches.Credit…Bastian Achard
The kitchen table, in front of the original wood-burning ovens, is one of the few pieces of furniture that remain from before the renovation. Throughout, the designer used lime-based paint and reclaimed Patmian tiles.Credit…Bastian Achard

And though there’s a certain formality — “an austerity,” he calls it — it’s above all a place to relax and do nothing. In most rooms, there’s seating that’s both very low and deep, with comfortable cushions. “If you want a traditional house, you never sit on sofas, you lie on them,” Pantazopoulos says. “Because after you arrive [inside], you’re tired,” especially during the hot, harried summer months. But the homeowners also like to come in the winter, when Chora is ghostlike: empty and cold. They enjoy napping by the tearoom’s narrow, squat fireplace, inspired by old-fashioned versions in the Epirus region between Greece and Albania, which the architects needed special permission from the conservation authorities to install. “The objective is to do what the building tells you,” Pantazopoulos says. “But a house should make you dream. That’s it.”

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