Tuesday 18 November 2008

Great Dames...(Part 1)

(Rue de la Tour des Dames, 75009)
At the eastern end of the Rue de la Tour des Dames near the Trinité church stand a group of elegant Parisian ladies. These are not the ‘dames’ mentioned in the street name, but a collection of townhouses built when this area was the most fashionable part of Paris. Known as ‘la Nouvelle Athènes’ or new Athens, the streets in this district were home to a community of artists, writers, actors and composers, who used their restoration wealth to construct neo-classical follies.

The Tour des Dames mentioned is in fact a throwback to pre-revolutionary times. The Tour (tower) was a windmill found in this area which belonged to the ladies of the Montmartre Abbey, situated further up the hill from this spot. This place of religion and aristocratic privilege sheltered generations of ‘Abbesses’ (another street name in this part of Paris) and nuns until revolution came at the end of the eighteenth century. The last sister was named Louise de Montmorency-Laval, and neither her position nor her age, nor even the fact that she was blind, deaf and handicapped prevented her from joining thousands of other female representatives of the previous order at the guillotine. Worse, she was condemned for having ‘plotted silently and blindly against the Republic’.

The Abbey was destroyed and the windmill removed, but the area retained a rural feel. Less than thirty years later, after the failure of the first Republic and the restoration of the monarchy, a new kind of female resident began to arrive and construction began again. These were actresses at the Comédie Française, the wives of painters or, slightly later, writers such as Georges Sand. Given the power to design and create, they built a small community of elegant, curved, sometimes brightly coloured properties, and enjoyed the limelight of Paris for most of the nineteenth century.

Today these streets are quiet, although some properties such as the Musée de la Vie Romantique and the Musée Gustave Moreau retain their original decoration and character. The other ladies have retired from artistic life and have been converted to the more staid worlds of law, finance and insurance. In the Rue de la Tour des Dames, these ladies look forlornly at each other, perhaps discussing past times when they were young, beautiful and fashionable before they were upstaged by younger rivals in other parts of the city.

These houses are still in many ways the epitome of the Parisian lady. Gently crafted, elegant and perfectly formed, they nevertheless today present a face of cold indifference to the world. Some hide away their charms behind fences, whilst others have disguised their interior behind softly painted facades. As I walk along the street and admire them, they do not even acknowledge my existence.

I know why this is though. It is because I am brick. I was born in brick, brought up in brick, went to school in brick, and brick is in my DNA. It is part of me, and sometimes in Paris I miss having it around.

(To be continued…)


Anonymous said...

I am sure you know where to find brick in Paris : in these HBM ( habitations à bon marché )buildings built all around Paris, at the Portes, in the 30's.

BTW, I lived in rue des Dames, another street named after the abbey in Montmartre.

Adam said...

Hi Alain,

Yes, the HBM are a future subject to themselves!
Brick is part 2 of this topic...

PeterParis said...

I know rather well the Nouvelle Athènes area and you are right, it's full of treasures!

But I know very little about the HBM and the bricks and look forward to part 2!!

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