RISING FROM THE SWAMP: LE MARAIS
Known since medieval times as “The Swamp,” Le Marais is a museum of architectural styles. Focusing on lesser-known buildings, Patrick de Belioux guides us through the chronology and helps us decipher these stunning facades.
By Patrick de Belioux for The Paris Times.
During the late Middle Ages, Paris was divided into many small parcels, with narrow houses tightly erected against one another. Le Marais, or literally The Swamp, which has retained its name to this day and now comprises the 3rd and 4th arrondissements, was once covered with tiny irrigated fields that produced vegetables for the city. In the 16th century, when noblemen and the bourgeoisie were looking for plots large enough for their residences, they turned to this part of town, which wasn’t developed yet. Through the 18th century, they built magnificent hôtels particuliers - large one-family houses - many of which resembled genuine palaces.
Thus, throughout the centuries, Le Marais gradually came to offer one of the richest architectural ensemblages in Paris. Today, a bounty of designer shops, fascinating museums, a lively gay district, and the old Jewish neighborhood vibrate with French architectural history as a backdrop. Although access to notable hôtels particuliers is often limited by digitcodes, it is still possible to explore this architectural banquet and to train one’s eyes to discern the various styles.
These gabled houses are narrow, with only two windows per floor. Their sides protrude from corbelling and their facades end with triangular pediments and are topped with high pitched roofs that allow rainwater to drain down the sides of the buildings. These houses are easily recognizable thanks to their half-timbering which was uncovered, relatively recently, during restoration work in the 1960’s.
In fact, in 1607, Henri IV (1589-1610) ordered that visible wooden elements be covered with plaster as a means of fire prevention.
Continuing on to rue Saint Antoine, one can still spot various little buildings with such two- window facades and gables, rebuilt or transformed on their original narrow plots.
Curious visitors must enter the courtyard to admire its bas-reliefs, then walk across into the second, bigger courtyard, and finally follow the inconspicuous little corridor on the right that leads directly into place des Vosges.
These architectural elements are typical of the beginning of the 17th century. They can be also been seen in place Dauphine on the Ile de la Cité, as well as on a few houses on rue François Miron (n°44 and 46) that were built in 1585. Another good example is the hôtel de Mayenne (1606) at 21, rue Saint Antoine, whose center part shows unmistakably what the Marais looked like before it was restored!
Its inner courtyard, even more spectacular than its street facade, was conceived as an elegant theater set, which perfectly illustrates the restrained baroque style, so typical of French taste at the time.
By then, brick had fallen out of fashion, replaced by limestone; as had the white stone quoins, replaced by horizontally-articulated pilasters.
Turning onto rue de Fourcy, it is possible to admire the back of this monumental structure, which currently houses the Maison Européenne de la Photographie. It was around this time that a new style emerges: the top of the windows isn’t rectilinear anymore, but start to arch a bit.
The restrained straight lines fashionable under Louis XIV give way to curves and asymmetric fancies under Louis XV (1715-1774).
The building at the corner of rue des Barres and 14, rue François Miron, is even more spectacular. Further up the street, at n°42, a house dating from 1742 displays a beautiful wrought iron balcony and the head of Hercules above the small archway.
The hôtel du Grand Veneur (the person responsible for royal hunting parties), at 60, rue de Turenne, has the comical advantage of being rented by a furniture and plumbing supply showroom: pretending to look for a bathtub, visitors can peak at the marvelous staircase with a wrought iron banister decorated with hunting themes. Go around the block by rue Villehardouin, then rue de Hesse to see the facade facing the garden which sports a wild boar head.
With Louis XVI, architecture became serious and sober again, similar to the taste in vogue under Louis XIV, but a little heavier and overblown.
L’hôtel Le Mayrat (1767), at 26, rue des Francs-Bourgeois, is a good example of this neoclassic style.
A STROLL THROUGH THE 3RD THE NORTHERN MARAIS
Strolling through Le Marais is more than just the physical experience of putting one foot before the other and taking in the visual pleasures along the way. Le Marais is a miracle in itself - that it even exists in today's Paris thanks to - at least - one very influential Frenchman - for as late as 1962 it was a slum ready for razing. André Malraux, de Gaulle's Minister of Culture, was responsible for the passing of a bill in August of that year to safeguard certain historical sectors and protect the old centers of towns threatened by real estate promotion. Today, Le Marais is one of Paris' chicest neighborhoods where real estate prices continue to rise substantially.
About ten centuries ago, the swamps (marais) were drained by religious communities and later, by royal deed of Louis VII, Le Marais became the "kitchen" of Paris ˆ where fresh produce was grown and sold. In the 14th-century, royal homes began to be established there and the first street was paved now called "rue Pavée." In the 16th-century, streets were laid to cross the fields: rue des Francs-Bourgeois, Sainte Catherine (Sévigné) and Payenne. The 17th-century is considered a golden age for the Marais when Henri IV, the first of the French town planners constructed the Place des Vosges. Between the 18th and 19th-centuries, the Marais was sadly neglected and in the 20th-century, it was planned to raze all the center of the Right Bank and to widen rue de Rivoli. It wasn't until the classified Hôtel de Vigny on rue Parc-Royal became scheduled for demolition that immediate intervention was necessary. The movement and creation of the "Association pour la Sauvegarde et la Mise en Valeur du Paris Historique" encouraged Malraux to make a study and save Le Marais from destruction.
Martin on the north and the boulevards Temple, Filles du Calvaire and Beaumarchais on the east. I live in the most northern section, a quartier called "Temple" because of its history when at one time it was a state within a state owned by the powerful order of the Knights Templar founded in the Holy Land to protect pilgrims.
It is here where you can start your exploration of what I consider to be the most fascinating part of Paris. For a very in-depth historical account of the Marais and all arrondissements of Paris, I recommend having Thirza Vallois' Around and About Paris (Volumes 1, 2 and 3) at your fingertips, but for a casual stroll to take in the spirit of the lives of which I speak, you can follow my lead to my favorite spots.
While rue Vieille du Temple is one of my favorite streets to stroll, I'll take you right on rue de Turenne instead, heading south straight for the Place des Vosges, a few steps to the left from the corner of rue des Francs-Bourgeois. It's not only Paris' most elegant square, but is the city's most expensive address. Circle it under the arcades, admire the shops, visit the House of Victor Hugo (number 6), have lunch, and duck into the magnificent courtyard of the Hotel Sully. It is impossible not to be enchanted.
Circle the block to the parallel street, rue Chapon, behind the Flamel house to discover passage des Gravilliers and take it to rue des Gravilliers, a narrow street bustling with wholesalers. Just in front of you at the corner of rue des Vertus, a pedestrian street, is a 16th-century house with the classic angle of the side walls, from narrow at upper floors, usually no more than four, to wider at the first level.
Rue des Vertus will take you north to rues au Maire and Volta. These two streets constitute a small "China Town" lined with Chinese restaurants, markets and merchants. At 5 rue Volta is a Tudor house rivalling the age of the Flamel house it's unknown as to which is actually the elder. A "Soupe Pho" restaurant occupies the street level space, and it's known to be quite good, but my favorite Chinese restaurant there is Chez Shen at 49 rue Volta.
Behind the museum, take rue Vertbois going east to pass one of Paris' finest, funkiest (too old-world to be true!) and expensive restaurants, Chez l'Ami Louis, at number 32. Past it to the next corner, take rue Volta to the left and up the stairs through passage du Pont aux Biches to rue Meslay, the longest street in Paris of wholesales shoe sellers. Take a right to arrive back at Place de la République.
And all the while, open your heart to the hundreds of thousands who have experienced Le Marais before you, whether for a lifetime or a fleeting moment.
I promise, it will never leave you, even long after you've left it.