Saturday 24 January 2009

An Invisible Building

Like many streets in Paris, the Rue de la Victoire has several numbers missing along its length, mostly due to the construction of newer roads that cut across the footprints of previous buildings. What is unusual in this street though is that it also seems to be missing a building too. The mysterious structure is at N°63 and is only properly visible when you are stood directly in front of it. Don't try to get too close though - it's tucked safely away behind tall, iron bars.

The disappearing trick is due to its position, set back from the street and the surrounding buildings. A courtyard in front of a building is an unusual feature in Paris where most structures are designed to tightly hug the street in which they are situated. Here the courtyard does not seem to be used for any decorative reason though, but rather as an additional layer of defence. Even the building itself offers a fortified perspective, with grey stone blocks colliding with patches of red bricks, and iron bars stretched across the ground floor windows.

Look beyond this rather austere exterior though and you’ll see several theatrical touches. Above the arches of the second floor widows, a trio of carved heads look down upon us. To either side, the walls of the neighbouring buildings have been utilised as a kind of extension of the central structure – a skeleton of what the building perhaps should have been. Finally, a large stone balcony with a pair of wide French windows behind - a veritable stage set for a pining lover. Which architect was responsible for this protective, playful mix of styles? The answer is carved on to one of the stones; P.Auscher, 1892.

Paul Auscher was a talented and eclectic architect, perhaps best known for his long collaboration with the Felix Botin chain of food stores. He created an art-nouveau masterpiece for them on the Rue de Rennes
, but also a more streamlined, almost modernist structure to house members of staff on the Rue de Rambuteau. This building in the Rue de la Victoire preceeded these however. Auscher was born in 1866, meaning that he was only 26 when this building was completed. But who did he design it for, and what were his aims? Was the brief to construct a building of mystery and security? This may well have been the case if the current occupiers were also the original promoters. Number 63 Rue de la Victoire is today home to one of the oldest and most prestigious private banks in the city.

The view along the Rue de la Victoire towards the west.

The various Hottinguer banking branches can trace their origins back to a Swiss ancestor, Jean-Conrad who left Zurich in 1784 to create his empire in Paris. It was the wrong time to attempt to create anything in the city, with revolution breaking out just five years later. Hottinguer left the country, toured the world, married an American, made many contacts, and was finally ready to return in 1796. With the economy relaunched, Hottinguer made rapid advances, integrating the board of Governers of the Banque de France and being made a Baron by Napolean. Later generations of the family would also play integral roles in the creation of many large institutions, such as those which have today become the Caisse d'Epargne, Veolia, the Ottoman Bank and Axa. One such family member, the Baron Rudolph was heavily involved in the creation of the Paris - Lyon railway connection, to such an extent that he is pictured in the giant fresque at the Gare de Lyon alongside Sarah Bernhardt!

It's an interesting story, but where does this building fit into the tale? From what I am able to grasp of the complicated company history, the current inhabitants seem to be a branch that has broken away from the main group, which itself has returned to Switzerland. It would be foolhardy then to assume that they are housed in the family heritage, and yet they make much of the building in their promotional material, proudly displaying the elegant wood-panelled interior with early art-nouveau trimmings. The only way to find out is to attempt to contact them.

As regular visitors to this blog will be aware though, my attempts at communication are never a success. After sending an e-mail requesting information and getting no reply, I decide simply to phone. I explain that I would like to know what they can tell me about the building and its history, but am confronted by a wall as solid as the stones and bricks that make up the facade of their offices. "I'm sorry, but I can't give you this information. We are a private bank and the directors would not like this information to be divulged". Clearly they think I am some kind of industrial spy, trying to discover the location of the vault. Mr Auscher would surely be happy to know that the building’s defences are proving to be sufficiently strong to protect the secrets at its heart.


margaret said...

What a fascinating and enjoyable post! I was so intrigued by your exterior photos that I went to Google Street View to find out more--certainly not as good as being in Paris "actual", but it will do in a pinch. :-) Your blog is such a pleasure. Your entries have inspired me to start a list of buildings I want to see the next time I visit Paris. Thank you so much for sharing your curiosity, research and insights with us!

Squirrel said...

another great post, you should be writing a book. -- I'll look at paris much differently next time I go.

Starman said...

I think the bank's response is (a.) hilarious and (b.) a serious warning that banks and bankers are not to be trusted.

Squirrel said...

i once called a magazine's HQ to ask what year they began publishing and they acted like I was some spy--couldn't release that information. I just needed a quick answer to a simple question -- ?!?

PeterParis said...

You made once more a tremendous job... although not achieving all you wanted! Tough with a private Swiss bank!
I tried to check in some of the books I have and also on the "Paris 1900" site, but found nothing more!
... except of course that Bonaparte lived in the street for a couple of years, at Josephine's place!

Cergie said...

ADAM ! Tu en as de bonnes, n'as tu jamais entendu parler du "secret défense" ? Ici, plutôt, tu arrives avec ta bonne tête de britannique et tu demandes des renseignements sur le bâtiment, pourquoi pas l'emplacement des coffres ou le plan des égouts pendant que tu y es ?
J'aime bien l'art nouveau dans la mesure où j'ai fait mes études à Nancy. La maison Majorelle entre autres, le musée des Beaux Arts, le café Excelsior où j'allais boire mon café tous les midis lorsque j'étais étudiante. Et tant d'autres trèsors.
Une toute petite remarque : tu es parisien, tu connais Paris comme ta poche, ce n'est pas le cas de tout le monde. Lorsque tu parles d'une rue, ce serait bien que tu donnes l'arrondissement, cela éviterais au visiteur (sauf Peter) de chercher par lui même sur un plan...

ArtSparker said...

My first response (with the first paragraph) was to wonder if the red beast needed to protected from the public, or vice versa. I love the idea of a building hiding between two others.

I was an au pair briefly on the Rue de Rennes many years ago...I can almost remember the building you speak of, at least i think so...

Betty said...

I was in Paris last weekend. Wish I'd found your blog beforehand. So interesting.
Am visiting again in March, so will keep reading.

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