Monday, December 4, 2017

This Old House

Along a quiet street in the Marais stands an imposing stone building, the Hôtel de Beauvais, glowing in spite of the rain and clouds.

Designed by Antoine le Pautre (architect to the king's buildings) in 1656, many of the details of his original plans have been lost over the centuries, leaving us today with a handsome, if slightly incomplete restoration that re-opened its doors in 2003. One of the important items that does remain, though, are the two store-fronts on the ground floor on either side of the door, a reminder that back in the 17th century this quiet street was the bustling rue St. Antoine, the main thoroughfare from the Louvre (at that time the King's palace) to the Bastille and the countryside beyond. If you were an enterprising property owner looking to augment your income, you would definitely want to take advantage of your location and include prime commercial space to rent out.

People say that behind every door there is always a story, and it is the original owner's story that makes this house so interesting. Baron Pierre de Beauvais, and his wife Catherine-Henriette Bellier, were granted the property and building materials to construct this handsome "hôtel particulier" in the mid-17th century.

Originally, a 13th century Cistercian abbey stood on the site, with its vaulted cellars. Antoine le Pautre used the sturdy vaults and their walls as the foundation to support the new Hôtel de Beauvais
Today, the beautifully restored cellars are rented out for special events. You can sip your "coupe de champagne" whilst leaning against the 13th century posts and walls, and dream of wimples and troubadors. And the heated floor panels ensure you won't be cold!

Coming through the big oak front door from the street, a triangular-shaped courtyard leads from the archway to the coach house and stables at the rear.

A 19th century engraving shows very much the same view, with the addition of a horse!

Looking down into the courtyard from the first floor gives a bird's-eye view of the small irregular shape of the building site. Somehow, though, le Pautre found a way to bring all parts of the building together, so that everything is balanced and in harmony. In the centre of the upper level a small cross on the dome roof indicates the chapel.

A beautiful winding staircase leads up from the ground level to the balcony that runs round the entire second floor, giving access to the chapel
Beneath this balcony, the initials of Pierre de Beauvais run next to the image of the ram, a family crest. But who exactly were Baron de Beauvais and his wife, Catherine Bellier, and what earned them this generous gift of land and building materials, some of which had been reserved for a planned extension to the Cour Carée at the Louvre Palace? There are no images or paintings of either one. He was an attorney and counsellor to the King, but her story is the one that history books love to dwell on.

Born in 1614 in Poitou, Catherine Bellier married Pierre de Beauvais in 1634, and became the leading lady-in-waiting to Anne of Austria, the Queen Dowager Regent to the young Louis XIV. Catherine was highly intelligent, lively, even slightly audacious according to some reports, who loved all the ins and outs of court intrigue. She was a close confidant of Anne. She is also described as being famously unattractive physically, and not only that, she was blind in one eye! Nonetheless, she apparently had many other appealing charms and took several lovers, including the Archbishop of Sens!

One has to presume that Anne of Austria was well aware of Catherine's "charms" because she persuaded her to take her 14-year-old son Louis XIV into her boudoir to be instructed on the responsibilities and joys of the marital bed. Catherine was 40 years old at the time. Louis was apparently entirely captivated by this seduction, and their relationship continued for two more years.  He went on to have love affairs with at least another dozen or more French ladies of the court, all of them earning the title "Maitresse-en-titre". This semi-official position came with gifts of apartments and properties -- which would explain how Pierre de Beauvais and his wife were granted the land and building materials for the construction of their Hôtel de Beauvais!

You could say that the height of Catherine de Beauvais' life, and probably that of her husband, and certainly that of their elegant French Baroque hôtel particulier, took place on August 26, 1660.  Louis XIV and his new wife, the Spanish-born Maria-Theresa, made a triumphal entry into Paris, coming along the rue St. Antoine on their way to the Louvre Palace. They made a stop, though, at the Hotel de Beauvais, so that Louis could salute Catherine, who stood on the balcony that overlooked the street, flanked by Mazarin, Anne of Austria and other members of the court.

Following the death of her husband in 1674, Catherine de Beauvais found herself left with large debts that forced her to leave Paris for Arrou, where she died in 1689, far from her glorious life at the French Court. In 1686 the house was sold to Pierre Savalete, a notary and counsellor to the King. In 1706 it was bought by Jean Orry, President of Metz, and in 1763 it became the home of the ambassador of the Elector of Bavaria, le Comte van Eyck.

That same year, Leopold Mozart, his wife and children -- including 7 year old Wolfgang -- arrived for a visit. A plaque in the courtyard records this event.

Seized by the State during the French Revolution, the building was then sold and renovated to create 40 individual apartments. It remained a commercial enterprise for the rest of the 19th and into the 20th century.

Many members of the Marais' Jewish population lived in these apartments, until the German occupation of 1940 took over the building, removing and deporting all the residents, an indelible stain on its history.

Following the liberation of France, and now owned by the city of Paris, the building continued to provide rental housing to local residents. Its condition, however, was deteriorating to the point where it was threatened with demolition. Happily, wiser heads prevailed and a massive renovation began in 1995.

Today, every corner gleams with new-found life. And who lives there now?  No one who could be said to be anywhere near as appealing as the original owner, but there is an "appeal" involved: today the Hôtel de Beauvais houses Paris' Court of Administrative Appeals, where you can go to appeal, for example, a conflict with your landlord, or a dispute with your neighbor.

As you sit in the reception area, waiting for your moment in court, cast a look out of the window up to the second floor where, surely, the ghost of Catherine Bellier still stands at her front balcony, waiting for the royal coach to stop, and for her young former lover to salute her.

À bientôt!


  1. That was so interesting amazing pictures took my breath away as love the design shape of buildings alway been an interest to me bravo Aunti Janet another amazing blog xx

  2. Oooh, a beautiful building, so glad it was saved! Am 'seeing' the ghost of Catherine on the balcony.... hugs,Lyons