Monday, July 21, 2008

Place Vendôme

On the site now known as Place Vendôme, just two blocks north of the Tuileries gardens, was the manor house of the 16th Duke of Vendôme. In 1626 the Duke, the legitimized son of King Henri IV and his mistress Gabrielle d'Estrées, was imprisoned for three years after participating in a plot against Cardinal Richelieu. When again accused of conspiracy some years later, he fled to England. Since this choice real estate was then up for grabs, King Louis XIV (the Sun King) commissioned a new square that would house embassies, academies and the royal library – crowned by a statue of himself in the center of it all. In 1685 Louis instructed his Versailles architect, Jules-Hardouin Mansart, to begin designing the space, to be called Place Louis le Grand (quelle surprise!).

However, with the burgeoning costs of enlarging Versailles, this in-town project became too expensive, and the square was subsequently developed as a private real estate venture. Among the first to build houses there were Mansart himself and several financiers, who completed the construction in the 1720s. Because the houses on the square were built over a short span of time, there is a remarkable architectural harmony.

The enormous octagonal space (480 by 450 feet) is surrounded by street level arcades separated by horizontally ridged stonework, each with a keystone bearing a mask (mascaron) of a different design; most of the facial expressions of the mascarons are alternately grotesque or humorous.

Above each arcade is a wrought iron balcony decorated with a gilded sunburst in homage to Louis XIV, the Sun King. Eventually the statue of Louis XIV was replaced by a tall column glorifying the military prowess of Napoleon Bonaparte at Austerlitz. Even so, the square lacks any inviting human elements. There are no trees or benches, no cafés, nothing to make a person linger.

In the course of history important people and events were linked to this spot. Madame de la Parabère, the mistress of Regent Philippe II d'Orléans (after whom the U.S. city of New Orleans is named), was installed here. Napoleon II presided over the Second Empire from this square, and the Russian Embassy was once located here. Coco Chanel lived here, and Chopin died here.

But these days the elegant octagon-shaped Place Vendôme is known as home to the most famous names in fashion, jewelry and banking, as well as the legendary Hotel Ritz (at no. 15; rooms from $1,140 US).

Retailers include Cartier, Chanel, Chaumet, Piaget, Van Cleef & Arpels, Buccelati, Guerlain, Armani, Mauboussin, Bulgari, Schiaparelli, and Boucheron. The offerings are so valuable and security so tight that customers must be buzzed in to gain entry to these exclusive domains. Casual browsing is discouraged.

Some of the particular addresses have remarkable histories. No. 1, Place Vendôme, built in 1723 for Pierre Perrin, secretary to King Louis XIV, became the Embassy of the Republic of Texas in 1842. France was the first nation to recognize the independence of the Lone Star State before it achieved statehood in 1845.



Note: The Republic of Texas also had embassies in London and Washington, DC. However, the French ambassador to (Austin) Texas complained that he was nearly killed by an arrow from a Comanche raid as it whizzed by his head as he left his Texas residence one afternoon. It is hoped that France rewarded him with hardship pay.

Later, in 1858, no. 1, Place Vendôme became a tourist hotel, which was recently purchased and renovated as the Hôtel de Vendôme by famed Lebanese jeweler Robert Mouawad, owner of the world-famous Grand-Hotel du Cap-Ferrat near Monaco. The Café de Vendôme inside has a bar with an English look, where you can enjoy that modern-day rarity – unamplified jazz piano – on most Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings. Stop by and toast our Lone Star State!

No. 3 and 5 are owned by the Sultan of Brunei, perhaps best remembered for donating $10 million to the Nicaraguan contras at the request of Ronald Reagan, who turned to a "friend" when the U.S. Congress constrained him from doing so (note: history has not yet made it clear what the Sultan received in return). The Sultan, who was declared the world's richest man in 1997, owns more than 4,000 luxury motorcars, including more than 500 Rolls-Royces, and a private Boeing 747. His subjects, to his credit, do not pay any taxes whatsover and enjoy free education and medical care. There is much controversy in Paris these days about the Sultan, because he has initiated renovations on his buildings on Place Vendôme that do not adhere to the architectural integrity of the neighbors . Stay tuned.

No. 12 was where the composer Frédéric Chopin died in 1849, at the ago of 39. There is a plaque noting that event. This was also the former residence of the treasurer of Louis XVI's Navy, and where Napoleon III met his future wife, Eugénie.

The bronze spiral column at the center of the square was constructed in 1810 by Napoleon Bonaparte to celebrate his army’s victory at Austerlitz five years earlier. Designed to be a copy of Trajan’s column in Rome, it is 144 feet high and forged from the metal of cannons and guns captured at the battle. Bas-reliefs show scenes from the Austrian campaign. The statue at the top is Napoleon dressed as a Roman emperor.

The column was pulled down in May, 1871, by militants of the Paris Commune, who saw it as a “symbol of brute force and false glory.” The realist painter Gustave Courbet, their leader, took the blame, was imprisoned and ordered by the courts to cover the cost to replace it. To avoid bankruptcy he fled to Switzerland upon his release. Finally he negotiated an installment plan by which he would repay the debt over 33 years (until his 91st birthday). On the very eve of the date the first installment was due, however, Courbet died. During 1873-1874, the column was reestablished at the center of Place Vendôme with a copy of the original Napoleon as Caesar statue on top. The original molds were used to duplicate the spiraling bas-reliefs. However, the inner staircase leading to the top is no longer accessible to the public.

Note: There is a bizarre tale relating to Place Vendôme neighborhood that must be recounted. After the death of fabulously wealthy Charles-Pierre de Savalette de Langes, who resided at nearby no. 350, rue St-Honoré (immediately to the south of Place Vendôme), his daughter Jenny returned to Paris complaining bitterly about her financial ruin as the result of her father’s unpaid loan to the brothers of Louis XVI. In recompense, she was given a state pension, a political post and an apartment in the palace of Versailles. She moved among the highest ranks of society and left a fortune of more than 200,000 francs when she died in 1858. Imagine the shock when it was discovered, while preparing her body for burial, that she was not only no relation to Savalette, “she” was actually a man who had conned everyone for years. No kidding.

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