Hôtel de la Marine: Monument to the Art of French Living

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Commissioned by King Louis XV and designed by the royal architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel between 1758 and 1770, the Hôtel de la Marine on the Place de la Concorde is one of the architectural jewels of 18th-century Paris.

You’ve seen the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and Notre Dame on your visits to Paris.  Ditto for the Arc de Triomphe, Montmartre and the Musée d’Orsay and so, you would be justified in feeling that you’ve covered the main attractions in the City of Light.  Well, brace yourself for there is one dazzling site, closed to the public for more than two centuries, which will shortly fling its doors open, captivating young and old alike.  Once home to priceless objects that constituted the pinnacle of French craftsmanship, the palatial Hôtel de la Marine is currently undergoing a €100 million renovation and will again, in the spring of 2020, begin showcasing the French “art de vivre.”

“It is nothing less than a mini Versailles in the middle of Paris,” says Jacqueline von Hammerstein-Loxten, a member of the prestigious Campaign Committee for the Center for National Monuments, the government organization overseeing the Hôtel’s restoration.  Taking up the breadth of an entire block on the Place de la Concorde, the 700-room Hôtel was in fact built as a palace by Louis XV towards the end of his reign.  It was meant to be a bookend for Paris, demarcating the city’s limit which at the time, was the Tuileries Garden, explains Bénédicte Lefeuvre, Director General of the Center for National Monuments.  Louis XV, she goes on to say, was keen to erect aggrandizing backdrops around Paris’ large public squares.  So, he actually commissioned not one but two buildings, putting up an identical structure across the Rue Royale, directly opposite the Hôtel de la Marine.  That building now houses the Hôtel de Crillon.

The Place de la Concorde with the building housing the Hôtel de Crillon on the left and the Hôtel de la Marine on the right. Commissioned by Louis XV and built in the mid-eighteenth century, these twin palaces were erected during the French Enlightenment, an age when the lasting foundations of France’s world-wide influence were being laid: her philosophical evolution, the birth of a sophisticated gastronomy and a refinement across all the arts including architecture, furniture and fashion.

To be clear, the Hôtel de la Marine is not a public hotel as the Crillon is today.  It is a hôtel particulier, meaning a grand house.  The name is indicative of the building’s use as the seat of the French navy for more than two centuries.  But its significance is much greater than that due to the Hôtel’s front-and-center role in France’s tumultuous history.

The Hôtel’s grand salons are modeled after the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles.

Louis XV did not know how these neoclassical palaces would be used when he commissioned them from Ange-Jacques Gabriel, the architect of the Petit Trianon.  He simply wanted something impressive to frame the Place de la Concorde (formerly the Place Louis XV), according to Bénédicte.  It wasn’t until a decade after the cornerstone was laid that the king assigned the palace to the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne, an institution dedicated to the preservation and storage of royal furniture, art, rugs, tapestries, weapons, suits of armor, porcelain, objets d’art and the crown jewels.  With the Louvre’s public accessibility half a century away, the Hôtel then, became a symbol of the king’s role as guardian of French art and craftsmanship.

With that goal, the king appointed Pierre-Elisabeth de Fontanieu as steward of the collection.  Perks of the job included an apartment on the premises furnished from the royal collection.  During his tenure (1771-1784), de Fontanieu enlisted rising young talents to decorate it, like the avant-garde designer Jacques Gondoin and the cabinetmaker Jean-Henri Riesener, who designer a jewel box of a boudoir for his patron, lined with mirrors depicting amorous scenes.  At de Fontanieu’s request, the king granted him the right to open the Garde-Meuble to the public on the first Tuesday of every month.  Thus is born France’s first museum.

A mirrored boudoir designed by royal ébéniste, Jean-Henri Riesner.

Marc-Antoine Thierry de Ville-d’Avray succeeded de Fontanieu in 1784, commissioning new private apartments and introducing changes to the building and its décor.  From here, the palace’s genteel origins give way to the winds of history.  In 1789 revolutionary mobs stormed the Garde-Meuble, looting the monarchy’s weapons.  The same year, the French navy and its top command co-opted it for its headquarters and three years after that, in 1792, the crown jewels disappeared (a few were later recovered and are now on display at the Louvre).

Jacqueline von Hammerstein-Loxten and Delia von Neuschatz on the so-called Balcony of History from where Marie Antoinette’s execution was witnessed.  Today, the loggia offers panoramic views of several Parisian landmarks including the Eiffel Tower, the Luxor obelisk and the Grand Palais.

It is in one of the Hôtel’s front-facing salons that Marie Antoinette’s death certificate was signed and her execution witnessed from the colonnaded terrace, aptly known as the Balcony of History.  Later, the palace serviced imperial ambitions when in 1804 Napoleon I and Josephine held their coronation ball there and again in 1810 when Napoleon, desirous of a legitimate heir, celebrated his marriage to his second wife, 19-year-old Marie-Louise, Archduchess of Austria, and a great-niece of Marie Antoinette.  In 1848, the act that abolished slavery in France was signed there too.  The building was witness to history again during the German occupation of France (1940 – 1944), when Hitler’s navy took over the building and cut small spy holes in the window shutters in the corner room overlooking the Rue de Rivoli and the Place de la Concorde.

Bénédicte Lefeuvre, Director General of the Center for National Monuments, showing where the Nazis had cut out a spy hole in the Hôtel de la Marine.  The Center for National Monuments restores and maintains nearly 100 important buildings spread out across France including the Arc de Triomphe and the Abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel.

Fast forward to the present day.  The navy decamped for the “French Pentagon” in Balard in 2015, and the palace came under the auspices of the Center for National Monuments.  An ambitious restoration is now underway.

The Escalier d’Honneur or the Stairs of Honor – the building’s main staircase.
L’Escalier de l’Intendant or the Steward’s Staircase.

The focus of the project are the steward’s sumptuous apartments and the vast first-floor reception rooms.  To this end, the architect heading the project, Christophe Bottineau, pored over 18th century records as did 18th century specialists, Joseph Achkar and Michel Charrière.  Comprehensive inventories of these apartments have made near-exact reconstructions of their contents possible.

Madame Thierry Ville d’Avray’s dining room.  On display in the restored rooms will be the French invention of a retractable or “flying” table, installed in the Hôtel by Madame de Ville-d’Avray, wife of the second steward of the Garde Meuble, ensuring that her guests’ intimate dinner conversations would not be overheard by the servants who loaded the table from the floor below.
Sèvres porcelain once pressed into service.
Detail from a mantel with a gilded relief of the Sun King, Louis XIV.  The shafts of wheat represent prosperity.  “The period rooms that will be on display when the Hôtel opens will be the opposite of what period rooms are like in museums because here, everything is real.  It’s not staged,” says  Bénédicte.  “It’s as if Mr. and Mrs. Ville-d’Avray left the building yesterday. This is what their apartments looked like when they lived here.”

There is a good deal of sleuthing involved.  “Peeling back the layers to Louis XV is a little bit like archaeology,” says Bénedicte, describing the sourcing of furniture, clocks and artworks that once adorned the rooms.  Some items have been traced to private collections and their return negotiated.  Lost or missing pieces will be replaced by equivalents that are as faithful to the originals as possible.  The project is not limited to furniture and objets d’art however.  The “excavation” extends to the original paint, wallpaper and even textiles.  The Hôtel has been restored a number of times since the Revolution, but “for the first time, we have discovered exactly how the apartments were in the 18th century,” excitedly reveals Bénedicte.  That goes for the servants’ quarters too, some of which will also be on display, offering a glimpse into the “upstairs downstairs” of the 1700s.

The refurbishment is painstaking.  Here, a restorer uses a surgical scalpel to peel away layers of paint.
There are between 80-100 workers on site during the day.  Soon they will be working around the clock, discloses Bénédicte.  Between 40 to 50 of them are women.  The restorers get their blood tested weekly for lead.
Peeling back the paint to uncover the colors used through the centuries.  “The process of restoration is like archaeology,” says Bénédicte.

The detective work extends to the wallpaper used in the servants’ quarters.
In this salon, the paint has been stripped to its original 18th century dove grey.
Beautifully preserved original wooden floors.

The restoration continues to the outside as well with two courtyards, the official Cour d’Honneur for the Garde-Meuble and the once private Cour de l’Intendant for the steward’s residence.  The latter will be covered with a dazzling glass and mirror canopy designed to collect and refract natural light.  The former will be carpeted with lights.  Some 14,000 LEDs embedded between the paving stones will alternate patterns and colors, immersing visitors in an interactive experience.

To heighten the immersive experience, once inside the Hôtel, several guided audio tours delivered via high tech headsets will aim to stimulate the senses with sound effects from the 18th century and scavenger hunts.  “We don’t want a typical guide,” says Bénédicte.  “We want the 18th century brought to life.”

The main courtyard, the Cour d’Honneur, will be carpeted with some 14,000 LED lights which will alternate in pattern and color.

The second courtyard, the Cour de l’Intendant, will be covered by a dazzling glass and mirror canopy, below which will be suspended a glass chandelier with video monitors introducing visitors to the goings on at the museum.

And that’s not all.  In addition to tours of the grand salons and the private apartments, there will be temporary exhibitions dedicated to the art of French living.  To that end, artists will be commissioned to organize performances, set up installations and deliver lectures.

A few jewels from the prestigious Al Thani collection owned by the ruling family of Qatar. A display of these treasures will be one of the museum’s special exhibitions. In partnership with the Center for National Monuments, the Al Thani Collection Foundation will show the Qatari royal jewels in a designated gallery for a 20-year period. Items in the collection include Indian gems and jewelry spanning 400 years, from the Mughal period to the present day, along with antiquities, paintings and medieval manuscripts.

Visitors will not be left hungry for gastronomy figures heavily in the offerings too with several eateries including two restaurants, helmed by Michelin-starred chefs, Alain Ducasse and Jean-François Piège respectively.  There will also be a café and a tea room.  Add to that talks and cooking demonstrations and foodies may never want to leave.  It is France after all!

Bénédicte with chef Alain Ducasse, third from right, accompanied by a delegation from the Center for National Monuments on the loggia. Alain Ducasse will head one of the restaurants at the Hôtel.

Through the architecture, the refined décor and the multiple activities, the past and present will come together at the Hôtel de la Marine bringing history alive while celebrating contemporary creative achievements.  “It’s the primary future address in Paris,” says Jacqueline, “1 Place de la Concorde.”  To find out how you can get involved, click here.

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