Le Carnet de France: Hôtel de la Marine, Place de la Concorde
The dining room all but invites visitors to sit down to an oyster dinner. Images courtesy of the author.
By Martine P. Dulles
King Louis XV (1710-1774) was born and died in the Château de Versailles built by his great grandfather and predecessor Louis XIV (1638-1715). We can only imagine that, from an early age, he appreciated beauty and luxury; and therefore, it is not surprising that he asked his number-one architect, Ange-Jacques Gabriel (1698-1782), to design the site on which to erect the bronze sculpture of him given by the city of Paris in 1748 and made by Edme Bouchardon (1698-1762). Thus, the Place Louis XV was created near the Seine River at the entrance of the Tuileries Gardens. Gabriel designed two identical palatial buildings on the north side of the place, with the rue Royale separating them and leading north to the Église Marie-Madeleine (commonly called La Madeleine). The façade of the buildings is extremely elaborate with Corinthian columns, a balustrade and a wide balcony overlooking the place.
The building on the west side (on the left) was used for ambassadors and government finance offices. Today, part of it is the luxurious Hôtel de Crillon, and the other part is the Automobile Club of France.
The building on the east side (on the right) was the “Garde-Meuble de la Couronne” (the crown furniture storage facility). This was a very important institution created by Louis XIV. Furniture, furnishings, tapestries, decorative items, arms and jewelry of the royal household were created, maintained and restored, as well as stored there. The man in charge, the “intendant general,” had an important role and was very close to the King Louis XV. The first intendant was Pierre-Élisabeth de Fontanieu (1730-1784), apparently a very well-read person with impeccable taste. He is the one who furnished and decorated the building. The German-born cabinetmaker Jean Henri Riesener (1734-1806) received numerous orders from Mr. de Fontanieu for desks and other furniture for the royal buildings. Also, when the king traveled, some of his furniture was brought along for his use.
At the height of luxury in one of the hôtel bedrooms.
This grandeur came to an end in 1789 with the French Revolution and the Place Louis XV was renamed “Place de la Révolution.” Arms were stolen from the Garde-Meuble, and on the place, Louis XV’s statue was demolished and replaced with the guillotine where Louis XVI and his wife, Marie-Antoinette, as well as more than 1200 persons, were executed during the 1790s. In 1795, the place was renamed “Place de la Concorde,” as we know it today, but with an interruption between 1826 and 1830 when it was “Place Louis XVI.”
As the Garde-Meuble was disbanded, the French Navy, la Marine, needing some elaborate offices to impress other nations, started to move into the hôtel and occupied it entirely from 1806 to 2008, hence the name given to the palatial building. During their occupancy, the building was well kept. One of the 700 rooms had been converted as a kitchen. Its walls were covered with stainless steel sheets, but to the happiness of the restorers, the beautiful moldings had not been damaged.
In 2008, when the navy left, the question was, What next? Private investors came, but the then-president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, decided that the “Hôtel de la Marine, témoin majeur de l’histoire nationale, doit rester à la France”* — the hôtel, a major asset to the national history, must remain in French hands. A committee was created and headed by former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (1926-2020), an avid expert on the 18th-century art.
Under the supervision of the Centre des Monuments Nationaux (CMN), a branch of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, the restoration took four years from 2017 to 2021. Many documents, including a full inventory of the decorative items dating from 1784, were found, meticulously studied and used as references. The two interior designers, Joseph Achkar, of Lebanese origin, and his French partner, Michel Charrière, both specialists on the 18th century, were determined to restore the premises as closely as possible to the way Pierre-Élisabeth de Fontanieu had created them. They recuperated pieces of furniture, especially many made by Jean Henri Riesener, for the Garde-Meuble, including a sideboard that was at the Elysée Palace, the residence of the French President. Other pieces were returned or borrowed from the Louvre, the Palais de Versailles, la Manufacture de Sévres and many other royal sites.
One of the exquisite sitting rooms.
On some walls, they had six to 17 layers of paint delicately scraped off, and they were able to retrieve the original colors. For the fabrics, the leading producers of silk in France either restored some fabrics or they duplicated some of the patterns. They also visited many antique dealers, art markets and auction houses to find perfect antique pieces from the Louis XV period.
Their aim was to give visitors the impression that the hôtel is not a museum but a residence and that the host has just stepped out. So, in the dining room, the table is set for an oyster dinner including wine; in the library, open books are spread on the desk or little tables and in a small salon a game of cards is not finished. The lighting was also a major dilemma. There are no spotlights. Instead, many blinking fake candles give a very soft light.
“Cet édifice prestigieux, où s’incarne la poésie du siècle des Lumières, n’est pas un nouveau musée, mais bien un lieu atypique et hors norme en plein cœur de Paris.”* (This prestigious building, where is embodied the poetry of the century of the Enlightenment, is not a new museum, but really an atypical and outstanding site in the heart of Paris.)
On the ground floor, overlooking the Place de la Concorde, is the Café Lapérouse. It is open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.; and as of September 1, 2021, the Chef Jean-François Piège from Valence, in the south of France, will run the Restaurant Mimosa, which will be located in the “Cour d’Honneur.” Both are accessible from 2 rue Royale and do not necessitate entering the Hôtel de la Marine.
*Quotes from Alexandre Gady, Hôtel de la Marine, published by Éditions du Patrimoine, Centre des Monuments Nationaux, Paris.
Martine P. Dulles lives in France. Martine was a docent at the MET in New York and later a licensed tour guide in Charleston for many years. She now organizes bespoke tours in France and is a translator for cultural material. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.