Sunday, February 18, 2018

Looking Up!

Like a lot of people, when I go out I tend to find myself scurrying along, eager to get to where I am going and not particularly paying much attention to what I am passing. I'm more concerned with where I'm putting my feet, avoiding junk on the "trottoir", and trying not to bump into anyone! The other day though, as I was waiting for the light to change on rue Reaumur, I found myself gazing at the building next to ours, 97, rue Reaumur, built by the architects Jolival et Devillard in 1900. It includes not just offices, appartments, a cafe -- Le Sentier -- but also the entrance to the Sentier Metro station. Such an elegant building, and part of a new wave of architecture that was prevalent at the time, especially on the rue Reaumur, where the strict building rules of the Haussman era were being set aside to allow for highly decorative facades, a mixture of cast iron and stone materials, bulging roofs and oriel windows.

I was particularly struck that in 1900 the building was able to integrate the line 3 Metro station into its facade. And I had never looked up and appreciated the decorative heads pointing down to the entrance.

Curious to find more, and determined to "look up", I took a lovely stroll this quiet, sunny (!), Sunday morning to see what I've been missing. In the next block to us, at 116, rue Reaumur I found one of several buildings on the street designed by Albert Walwein (1851-1916) who was considered a master architect. Here, the entrance to the building is flanked by two big "telamon" figures, sculpted in the likeness of Hercules, holding up the plinth above, standing on lion heads and glowing in the unexpected sunshine.

Across the street, another Walwein building has two "carytides" (sculpted female figures) gazing back at the "telamons"!

Back on the even side of the street, no. 118 rue Reaumur built in 1900 by Joseph-Charles de Montarnal (1867-1947), shows the extent to which the Haussman rules were being abandoned. A mix of stone and cast iron with huge metal-encased windows that rise through three floors and run the entire width of the building, show a distinct Art Nouveau influence.

Moving off the busy rue Reaumur and wandering through the quiet back streets of the Sentier neighborhood. I found myself by the entrance to the Passage du Caire, with its three sphinx heads above and a frieze of Egyptian motifs above them.
I had seen the sphinx heads before, but what I had never noticed (didn't look high enough!), was another frieze, tucked immediately below the roof line with a row of animal and human images. (Click on the photograph and you'll see the detail.)

Nor had I ever noticed this sweet tiled mosaic of pyramids and camels on the very corner of the Place and the rue du Caire.

Coming back on the rue Clery, I was happy to see the "scissors building" still has its giant pair of metal scissors suspended on the outside. Founded in 1818, Hamon has been the principal supplier of scissors to the rag trade and the fashion world, although the shutters were closed on this Sunday morning, so the endless displays were not visible.

So instead, I took some time to study the ceramic "coins" attached to the walls, almost all of them images of Emperor Napoleon III, to whom Hamon apparently supplied his favorite Zéolithe razors!  (What in England would be called "by appointment....)

At the corner of rue Clery and rue du Poissonniere, up on a little ledge, stands a figure that has intrigued me for a long time. Is she an angel, or a goddess, is she to be worshipped or feared?

A side angle shows what might be wings, so an angel, or maybe it's a shield, perhaps a warrior goddess. Either way, I like her a lot, and hope she protects all who pass below, even if they don't look up!

One thing I do always look up at is the living wall on rue d'Aboukir, which since its planting about four years ago has become a veritable forest of greenery.

When you "look up" going down the rue des Petits-Carreaux leading into the rue Montorgeuil, you'll usually notice what I call "things that were". Today there's a popular Franco-Indian restaurant and take-out service at number 12, but at some earlier time there was a specialist "Gibier Volailles" (Game and Poultry) business.

Which is to say that as well as chicken, turkey, capons, duck and other more usual poultry products, they would also have offered pheasant, snipe, woodcock, etc... well as wild boar and venison...

...and, of course hare and rabbit!! Our local butcher had hare in his shop over the holidays, and you can buy rabbit meat at the supermarket, but in the days of a speciality "gibier" shop, they probably would have been hung in rows, in full fur!

A couple of doors down from the former Game and Poultry shop, you can look up and see one of the most puzzling signs on the street. Some kind of reference to France's colonial plantation days perhaps, it shows a Planter in classic colonial dress being served coffee, as he sits on bags of coffee beans.

In all the years we've been in this neighborhood this mural has been kept clean and fresh looking, and yet we still have no idea what its origin is, what kind of business it might have been attached to. Today, it straddles a perfumerie and a photo shop!

Major PS!!  Since posting the above, I have discovered some real information about this sign. Made of ceramic tiles, it was installed in 1890 between the two windows on the first floor of the building for an establishment owned by coffee merchants.  They called their business "Au Planteur", and they offered all kinds of exotic provisions, including coffee. The "Aucune Succursale" means it was a one-of-a-kind shop, with no branch locations elsewhere. (No Starbucks chains in 1890!) In 1984, the sign was declared a National Historical Monument, which explains why it is always in such good condition. No further information as to how long it remained in business, but I'm so happy to know at least its origin and its purpose!

Further down the rue Montorgeuil is one of my favorite signs that hangs above what used to be our favorite pharmacy until it became part of a chain and is all garish and full of sales signs. But whoever the new owners are, they have had the goodness to keep this lovely wrought-iron image of the hippocratic oath symbol, above which stands an "alchemist" from earlier times, with his book of recipes and his mortar and pestle for whatever potions he was concocting!

Some images above the eye level clearly indicate the "specialité de la maison", as does this lovely snail atop the entrance to l'Escargot restaurant...

...but what about this one on the next corner? Is it some theatre mask figure indicating there might once have been a theatre here? Another mystery to unravel.

Finally at the bottom of the street, where the Sunday market was doing its usual weekly business in the shadow of Ste. Eustache, I looked up and noticed for the first time ever...

...what seems to be some kind of weather report that would let people know what to expect. It's missing several pieces, but #74 tells you that there's going to be "beaucoup de pluie" (lots of rain), #76 indicates variable weather, #77 says "beau temps" (beautiful weather, like today!) and #78 says that the beautiful weather is going to stay that way for the time being "beau temps fixé"!

All I can say is that I hope the latter one proves to be correct, at least for a few more days. We've been hibernating under such grey skies for so long, we've almost forgotten what sunshine is! Things would then definitely be "looking up"!

À bientôt!

Friday, January 26, 2018


One of the things I most admire about the French is their civic-mindedness when it comes to the restoration/preservation of their buildings. There's a real understanding of the importance of history, and the firm desire that future generations will inherit the legacy of this history. The costs can be astronomical, but time and again, the Government has stepped in to save a landmark.
Sometimes the costs are partially underwritten by selling space to advertisers who emblazon their "brand" on the coverings that are wrapped around buildings undergoing restoration. I have no idea what Samsung are paying for having this huge visual of their Galaxy S8 catch the eye of everyone going around the Place de la Concorde, but if the building underneath gets to live for another century or so, it seems like a win-win all around.

In our own neighborhood there's work going on constantly, sometimes it's restoration, sometimes it's "tear down and rebuild"! For the last seven-plus years, the Forum des Halles has undergone a real transformation from the brutalist 1960s horror that replaced the historic Baltard Pavilions, to a much more inviting space, with its swoopy loopy "Canopée" roof line that spills light all the way down to the lowest level.

Somehow, all those little shops and boutiques have taken on a new lease on life, "opened up" as it were to the world. Not so much the rat's nest it used to be.

The gardens in front of the Canopée are slowly coming together, a mix of grass, trees, shrubs, benches, and walkways for the young to practice their roller blading or zip along on their scooters. It'll take a while for it all to grow in, but it already feels like we have our own open space in the neighborhood. The building behind the Canopée is not quite as close as it looks, but it is another "modern" bit of Paris, the Centre Pompidou. Looks like a bunch of Minions are peering down at us from the rooftop!

Taking advantage of a recent rare sunny afternoon, a brass band, Les Encuivres, took up a prime spot in front of the Canopée to serenade the passers-by.

Bordering one side of our newly accessible  "open space" stands the venerable Église Ste. Eustache. Built originally in 1532, it had its major restoration in the 1840's, but just recently its southern side was shielded with scaffolding and its surface scrubbed clean of decades of grime, so that it now positively glows in the late afternoon winter sun. The facade is gothic, the interior renaissance, and it boasts the biggest pipe organ in France. Every Sunday afternoon, the resident organist gives a free concert to a packed audience.

At the far western end of the Forum des Halles gardens, the Bourse de Commerce (Commodities Exchange) has its own place in Paris history. The site originally held a grand house built in the 1530s for Catherine de Medici. It included a tower -- the city's first free-standing column -- with an wire-fenced platform on top, from which star observations could be made.  As with many old Paris buildings, the house was sold and bought several times until it was demolished in the 18th century to pay off debts. Thankfully, the tower -- known as the "Medici Column" -- was purchased by the City of Paris and still stands today.

In the mid-18th century, the city erected a circular building on the site for the storage and sale of grains. It was known as the Corn Exchange. You can see Ste Eustache in the background of this print. It had already been standing there for a couple of hundred years!

In the vaulted attics, sacks of grains were stored and brought out for sale on the exchange.

A fire destroyed the old wooden dome roof in the early 19th century and was replaced with an iron dome, which is today a national landmark. Later, in the 1870s, when the corn exchange closed, beautiful murals were installed on the inside of the dome, and the building became the Commodities Exchange. Since the late 1940s, it's been known as the Paris Chamber of Commerce.

When we arrived back in Paris last fall, we were surprised to find this historic building "under wraps", although with no commercial underwriting gracing its covers, so far. In 2016, the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, had granted a 50 year lease on the building to the François Pinault Foundation, to house his world-famous contemporary art collection.

Sketches of the renovations, displayed around the sides of the building, show that the architects will build on the circularity of the structure in its re-fashioned interior. Under an oculus in the dome, visitors will be able to stroll down a winding walkway from the very top of the building (stopping into galleries at each level), all the way down to the underground auditorium. It is scheduled to open next year, looking very much the same from the outside, but with a whole new lease of life for the interior! With such a central city location, and such a distinguished art collection, it seems likely to draw a big audience.

One more recent restoration in our neighborhood is the beautiful Opera Comique building -- known as La Salle Favart --  tucked away in a small square off the rue Quatre Septembre. Founded in 1714 under the reign of Louis XIV, it is one of the oldest French dramatic and musical institutions.  Twice, the Salle Favart has been destroyed by fire, the last time in the late 19th century during an actual performance, with many fatalities. In 1898, a third iteration of the building was officially opened, the one we still see today.

But, as always, maintenance and restoration is a constant with an old building, and in 2015, the Salle Favart closed its doors for just such an ambitious but necessary refurbishment. Whilst remaining respectful of the original state, new, innovative technical needs for a modern-day opera house were incorporated.

Scaffolding was erected, to give access to all corners of the grande salle...

...including the highly decorative ceiling.

 All the plush red velvet seats were redone in the same glowing colors...

...workmen teetered on scaffolding in the stairwells and hallways...

...making sure that every last little bit of gold leaf could be retouched to perfection.

In spring of 2017, the Salle Favart re-opened its doors, and sell-out audiences flocked to admire and exclaim over this jewel-box theatre. We were lucky enough to snag tickets to Rossini's "Comte d'Ory" over the Christmas holidays, and saw it all first hand.

In the stunning Salon de Reception, where you go for your coupe de champagne during the intermission, you really didn't quite know where to look first.

Maybe at a slender mural devoted to the art of music...

... or an elaborate fantasy scene that wraps around an entry into yet another salon...

...or perhaps the sparkling chandelier lighting up a mural of a street scene. It was all utterly dazzling!

And then, there was the opera itself, a delightful romp of disguise and deception...

...that concluded with all three main characters entwined with each other on a bed!

No wonder the curtain calls went on for about fifteen minutes, not just a testament to the actual production and the stunning voices, the staging, music, etc., but also I suspect for the utter pleasure of being in a beautifully restored historic theatre, that, barring unforeseen tragedy, is set to entertain opera lovers for a century or more to come. I've said it before, I'll say it again:  Vive la France!!

À bientôt!