The history of Paris is so vast and rich that it would take an entire lifetime to write about the city’s most historic building interiors. It is so easy to find suitable locations to write about, but the real difficulty is choosing. Paris is the centre of fashion, and fashion means change, yet when it comes to architecture few cities have shown greater respect for the past. It would be nice for you to read here about interiors that are little known or at least not so present in the media. I do want to include some interiors that you can visit on your next trip to Paris, because it would be a shame to just read about certain interiors and not to experience them in person
The Hôtel de la Païva is a hôtel particulier, a grand townhouse of France, that was built between 1856 and 1866 at 25 Avenue des ChampsÉlysées by the courtesan Esther Lachmann, better known as La Païva. She was born into modest conditions in the Moscow ghetto, to Polish parents.
According to legend, in her youth she was pushed out of a cab by a hurried customer and slightly injured. She promised to herself to build herself a house on the avenue where she fell. After her marriage to Albino Francisco de Araújo de Paiva, the self-styled Portuguese marquis de la Païva, she had the funds to do so.
This house has been used since 1904 by the Travellers Club of Paris, a gentlemen’s club that was all-male until recently. It is only accessible if you visit with a member. Perhaps its most famous feature, beside the yellow onyx staircase that is probably unique in the world, is the Napoleon III style bathtub. This onyx tub in silver was equipped with three taps, the third being used for milk or champagne.
A white onyx bath lined with silver, a marble floor and gilt bronze taps, including that third one for milk or champagne, it was sculpted by Donnadieu from a block of yellow onyx (1.85 m – 900 kg). This type of onyx was used at the time of Napoleon III exclusively for the décor of the most prestigious buildings. La Paîva is said to have taken baths of milk, lime-blossom and even champagne. Not surprisingly, the Traveller Paris started out as the most decadent address of the 19th Century.
The Hôtel Beauharnais is also an historic hôtel particulier grand townhouse, this one located in Paris’ 7th arrondissement. Designed by architect Germain Boffrand, construction was completed in 1714 and it today serves as the official residence of the German Ambassador to France. The vast property is not open to the public. The edifice had been purchased by Eugène de Beauharnais by 1803, who had it rebuilt in the Empire style. It has been listed as an official historical monument since 25th July 1951. The Hôtel de Beauharnais boasts the earliest interiors in Paris that retain most, if not all, of their original contents. Architectural historians have little to celebrate when talking about the French Revolution. Regardless of the good that the Revolution may have done in political terms, from the architectural point of view it was one of the most disastrous evens in French history, leading to the destruction of countless historic interiors. Royal Palaces and houses of the nobility were generally left standing, but the treasures they Hôtel de la Païva contained were largely confiscated and distributed at public auction. I believe that there is no single pre-Revolutionary interior in Paris that has retained its original contents. The interiors have today been restored to perfection and are among the finest examples of the First Empire style.
In 1975, Baron Guy de Rothschild and his wife, Baroness Marie-Hélène, purchased Hôtel Lambert, a grand townhouse and one of the most luxurious mansions in Paris, located on the Quai Anjou on the eastern tip of the Île Saint-Louis, in Paris’ 4th arrondissement, where the couple took up residence on the top floors. The house, built on an irregular site at the tip of the Île Saint-Louis in the heart of Paris, was designed by architect Louis Le Vau.
The entrance opens onto a central, square courtyard, around which the hôtel was built. It was constructed between 1640 and 1644, originally for financier Jean-Baptiste Lambert, then later occupied by his younger brother, Nicolas Lambert, president of the Chambre des Comptes. Nicolas Lambert commissioned Charles Le Brun to decorate the interiors, producing one of the finest examples of mid-17th-century domestic architecture and decorative painting in France.
This grand townhouse was purchased in 1843 by Polish Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, who established the building as an important centre for Polish exiles and political activities, promoting Polish culture. Among the notable guests and patrons of the Hôtel Lambert were some renowned artists and politicians of the age, including Frédéric Chopin, Zygmunt Krasiński, Alphonse de Lamartine, George Sand, Honoré de Balzac, Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, Eugène Delacroix and Adam Mickiewicz. Chopin’s “La Polonaise” was composed exclusively for the Polish ball that was held there every year.
In 1975, The Lambert, as a UNESCO-listed site, was divided into several luxury apartments by the Rothschilds. In September 2007, Prince Abdullah bin Khalifa al-Thani, brother of the Emir of Qatar, bought the Hôtel Lambert from the Rothschilds, for the purported sum of 80 million euros, and began a controversial redevelopment of the building; a portion of the building was severely damaged on 10th July 2013 by a fire that started on the roof during renovation work.
The Maison de Verre was built from 1928 to 1932. Constructed in the early modern style of architecture, the primary materials used were steel, glass and glass block. The design was a collaboration between Pierre Chareau (a furniture and interior designer) and Bernard Bijvoet. Unable to expel an elderly woman resident on the top floor, the house was engraved underneath an existing apartment. As such, the house uses a skeletal frame steel construction to allow a free plan and the use of omnipresent lightweight materials, such as glass and glass block. American architectural historian Robert Rubin bought the house from the Dalsace family in 2006, in order to restore it and use it as his family residence. He allows a limited number of tours of the house. The honesty of materials, variable transparency of forms and juxtaposition of “industrial” materials and traditional home décor makes Maison de Verre a landmark of 20th century architecture.
“Lapérouse Restaurant has always been a house of pleasures — of gastronomy, of the flesh, of drinking, smoking and seduction, of conversation, literature and the arts,” so said Benjamin Patou, an entrepreneur who has been dubbed by the French media as the king of Parisian nightlife. Jules Lapérouse took over the eatery and gave it his name in the mid-19th century, and well into the 20th century it was a place frequented by Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, Honoré de Balzac, Colette, Marcel Proust, Ernest Hemingway and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Established in 1766, the restaurant was awarded three prestigious Michelin stars between 1933 and 1968.
The private salons became the love nests of senators and their mistresses, the “cocottes”, who used the mirrors as a surface to etch and verify the quality of the diamonds they were gifted by their lovers. Lapérouse became the venue of choice to mingle and unwind behind closed doors, far from the Parisian crowds. It was here where its famous “cocottes”, Caroline Otero and Liane de Pougy, renowned for their frivolous antics during the Belle Époque, would write the legends of the erotic capital. It is also believed that senators would meet their lovers via a secret underground passage…
Legend has it that Serge Gainsbourg met Jane Birkin here. So much was said, yet so little… as secrecy was the salons’ golden rule. Scratching the surfaces of the mirrors became a ritual over the years, and among the guests who have scrawled for posterity are Madonna, Amber Heard, George Clooney and Kate Moss, whose contribution reads: “It’s 2 late 2 go 2 bed”.
T.S. Eliot one said: “the chief danger about Paris is that it is such a strong stimulant”. We don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.