In the Rue Ballu near the Place de Clichy there is a combination of two things that I truly appreciate; an unusual brick house and a faint air of mystery. I have already written of Théodore Ballu, the architect after whom this street is named, but what has sparked my interest here is the large ‘W’ sculptured onto the facade at number 28. From watching James Bond films we are familiar with ‘Q’, but who was this mysterious ‘W’? What is the story behind this neo-gothic Flemish influenced pile?
With a little bit of time to waste, I set out on my detective mission. It is a simple task to discover what a property is used for today and who the current occupiers are, but a far more difficult task to discover the origins of the structure and its original purpose. There are some properties though on which clues can be found, and the façade at number 28 has a very generous scattering of these.
I decide first to establish who is currently using the building. A sign outside gives a name; ‘Le Studio’. Here I’m in luck as Le Studio is the only occupier of the building, and the organisation has a significant web presence. ‘Le Studio des Varietes’ (to give them their full name) are now using the house as a centre where artists can come to perfection their instrument playing skills or have voice coaching, or simply to meet other artists. It is also used as an audition space for musical shows and events. A section of the website even enables me to ‘visit’ the building, taking a tour through performance spaces, recording studios and rehearsal rooms. This unexpected bonus makes it easy for me to imagine how the building was originally layed out as a house.
This does not solve any of the original conundrums though - when was the house built and who was ‘W’? Once again, the first question has a simple answer. As is the case with many buildings throughout the city, the building was signed and dated by the architect. Here there is the name, although this has been rendered unreadable by the passage of time, and a date – 1891. Exceptionally, this date can be confirmed elsewhere on the building as there is a second feature which I have never seen on a building in the city before – huge figures spread across the top of the house displaying the construction date.
With a date, can we now discover who ‘W’ was? Thanks to this fantastic resource, I find that the building permit for the construction was issued to a Ch. Wislin, at that time living at 26 Avenue de Wagram, and an architect named G. (Gaston) Dézermaux. Can I be sure that this was intended to become Mr Wislin’s house and that he was the ‘W’? To confirm this, I check another source, “La Societe des Amis des Monuments Parisiens”, an organisation to which Wislin belonged and which kept regular records of its members. Early in 1891 he is listed at his Avenue Wagram address, but by the end of the year his address has become Rue Ballu.
Helpfully, this resource does not only list his address, but also his professions – painter and legal man! Indeed, it seems that if he is remembered at all today it is as an artist. He won an award at the Exposition Universelle de 1900 in Paris, and was linked to a larger ‘Montmartre’ school, which perhaps explains his move from the Avenue de Wagram to Rue Ballu. He was also someone who was never short of money, thanks to his father, Joseph, who was a renowned chemist and who built a fortune through astucious patenting of his pharmaceutical products.
Charles Wislin, was born in 1852 and was nearly 40 when he moved into this property, but his father died in 1893, two years after the property was constructed. Could the son have added the W at this date, perhaps as a reference to a family symbol used on his father’s products? It seems that one of the patented products was a reasonably well-known kind of paper known as ‘Wlinsi’, which was frequently advertised and which apparently had miracle healing properties. This is only pure speculation though! Wislin himself died in 1932, and it is not clear what happened to the property between then and today, as the only child I can find reference to lived in St Malo, whilst his grandson today lives in an adjacent street. Answers only lead to more questions, but such is the essence of life! I’m happy to have stumbled across this story, and conclude that if the man has left little trace in the world of art, he has left his trace on the face of the city.