Wednesday 11 May 2011

The folie Beaujon - an aristocratic playground

Standing in front of the building at number 208 on the Rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré, it is difficult to imagine that there were once lush English gardens, a menagerie, a dairy and the forerunner of the rollercoaster all situated in the vicinity!

This building
- a rather classical and dull structure that successfully cloaks a history of excess and eccentricity - is in fact the last remaining trace of a vast 'country' estate that once covered 12 acres on what is today some of the most valuable land in the capital.

It belonged to Nicolas Beaujon, a commoner who became fantastically rich after a 'good marriage', and who transformed a wilderness on the edge of the city into an aristocratic playground in the 18th century. The property he created attracted the most fashionable visitors, one of whom wrote afterwards

« La maison de M. Beaujon, qu'il appelle son ermitage, est un bâtiment situé au milieu d'un jardin à l'anglaise, qu'il a fait planter dans un vaste terrain près de la grille de Chaillot, aux Champs-Élysées. C'est une vraie campagne, avec une ménagerie, une laiterie, et même une chapelle. »

(Mr Beaujon's house, which he calls his hermitage, is a building situated in the middle of an English garden which he has planted in a vast plot next to the Chaillot gate at the Champs-Elysées. It's the real countryside, with a menagerie, a dairy and even a chapel)

Beaujon though never really profited from his property. He was already ill when he bought the land, and could only get about with assistance. His guests dined at lavish banquets whilst he took just spinach and water!

However, Mr Beaujon was also generous with his wealth, and set up an orphange on the land - the building which today still stands at number 208 on the Rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré. This building was transformed into a hospital after Beaujon's death (and after the French revolution), a mission it held until the 1930s when it was transferred to another site (my next post will cover the 'new' Beaujon).

However, although Beaujon's property was quaint, the really odd stuff came after his death. The first strange fact concerned this inheritance. As Beaujon had no children and his wife had died before him, it was his brothers who inherited the property. This must have been something of a logistical nightmare for legal teams though as both of his brothers had the same name - Jean-Nicolas Beaujon!

The land was split up and sold, and the park was transformed in 1801 into a kind of pleasure garden. A windmill was kept for decorative effect and in 1817 a forerunner of the rollercoaster was installed, called the 'montagnes françaises'. The pictures below show that it was closer to a kind of helter-skelter with little trolleys on wheels, but it must have seemd particularly revolutionary at the time. Despite this, it only survived for seven years and was closed down in 1824.

Later in the 19th century the land was further divided, with the writer Honoré de Balzac among those who acquired property on the site (he lived in the old pavillon des bains).

The chapel that Beaujon had built on site was also sold to a member of the Balzac family, a certain Georges Mnizsech. It had been transformed into an ammunitions depot during the Paris Commune, but Mnizsech used it for even more obscure reasons. He installed a laboratory where he worked on various occult experiments involving alchemy and black magic.

The chapel was demolished after it was sold to the Rothschild family, being replaced by the rotonde which can still be seen today in the walls of the hôtel Salomon de Rothschild.

After the hospital moved out of the single building from the period of Beaujon which remains on site, it became a police station, before being transformed again into today's collection of municipal art and leisure facilities. Further development is planned on the land in the next couple of years, but it is unlikey that this will include a rollercoaster, a dairy or a laboratory for the occult!


Anonymous said...

Adam, thanks for this great post. This is just round the corner from where I live and we walk past it several times a week, but I had no idea it had such a fascinating history! Your images of the rollercoaster are fabulous - I wonder why it did not prove more popular?
Glad to see the post reappear by the way - I had seen it a few days ago and then when I came back to comment, it had completely disappeared. I understand that Blogger has over the past few days had its knickers in something of a twist...

PeterParis said...

I'm also curious to know the rest of the story! :-)

Marc said...

By accident I bumped into your web site (blog?) and I've been reading through a coiple of stories. They are great! I simply LOVE tales of old (long forgotten) times.
Icve bookmarked you so I can find your web site again.
Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

there were none of that there

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