Tuesday 14 April 2009

Desperately Seeking Charcot (1)

I love a good mystery, especially one that sends me inwards and outwards on twisting paths of discovery. This one started last November when I wrote about a house on the Rue de la Tour des Dames that I found interesting and attractive, but for which I had little information. One reader suggested that it had belonged to Dr Charcot, a famous name which immediately caught my attention, but which I found impossible to confirm. Later, I was contacted by the Head of the CLEISS agency, currently housed in the building, who invited me to take a tour around the inside of the structure. Would a visit to the house clear up the mystery?

What is the history of this house and did a Charcot live here? From this point on, the story becomes a tale of two Charcots, both called Jean and both Doctors. Jean-Martin, the father, is arguably better known today than his son, Jean-Baptiste, certainly in the field of medicine. Was this his house? The information I had confirmed a home in Neuilly and a residence on the Boulevard Saint Germain, but no mention of a dwelling in the Rue de la Tour des Dames. However, a quick check of the bible of Paris history, Hillairet’s 'Dictionnaire historique des rues de Paris' confirms that this house ‘fut habité après son marriage par le docteur Charcot’ (was lived in after his marriage by the Doctor Charcot). But which Doctor Charcot?

Jean-Yves Hocquet met me at the entrance to the house one lunchtime and very kindly gave me a tour around the property. The portes cochères lead through to a garden and stables, today converted into a car park and additional offices, with the rear of the house featuring an attractive veranda. The Flemish theme seen in the brick and gables of the exterior is continued inside, with dark, mahogony wood prevailing on staircases and window frames. All the original rooms are today used as offices, but the original features, marble fireplaces and painted ceilings, are still visible behind the desks, computers and photocopiers. It's an interesting 19th century dwelling, but with little exceptional on display.

Mr Hocquet also confirmed a Charcot connection at the property, but could not give me any dates, and there was no traces of the Charcot name anywhere to be seen inside the house. It was fascinating to see inside a private building when many of my observations are necessarily limited to the exterior only, but sometimes the guts tell us little more than the skeleton has already revealed, and that was the case here. It was time to find another way to solve the mystery.

The Archives de Paris, Boulevard Sérurier, 75019

With books and websites there is always a concern about the reliability of the information. Are the writers merely passing on erroneous details from other writers? The only place that could truly offer an answer to my question was the Archives de Paris, a building which stores two centuries of documents on individuals, buildings and taxation. It is also a fascinating place to spend an afternoon, pouring over and touching heavy, official documents from previous centuries, trying to make sense of the often tiny, dense text inscribed on the pages.

I first find a trace of the building in a taxation document from the 1850s. It was seemingly built and owned by the Comte Leblanc de Chateauvillard, who himself lived at 60, Rue St Lazare which bordered the property to the rear. Apparently it was not always a salubrious building. A note in the document reads "Cette maison construite en 1833 est très mal tenue. Il n’y a point de concierge et les locataires demanagent la plupart du temps sans payer leur loyer" (This building built in 1833 is in a very poor state. There is no housekeeper and the tenants move out most of the time without paying their rent). By the 1876 survey though the situation was more stable. It was now in the hands of the Cléry family who lived in the house themselves, and a housekeeper is listed in the document. A much later document though, this time from the mid-twentieth century, gives me the answer I was looking for. One of the Cléry offspring, Marguerite, who would later inherit the house, changed her name to Charcot. But which Charcot had she married?

See also: Desperately Seeking Charcot (2)


PeterParis said...

You are just incredible; the research you make!! You have also the art of making us curious! Now we have to wait for the following episode!!

ArtSparker said...

I love that the ceiling in the interior photograph looks like a kitchen floor, and that those triangular reflective surfaces look like the motive force parts of a pinball machine.

Squirrel said...

I'm so impressed with your hunting and gathering of facts for these posts!!!

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