La Samaritaine was the symbol of a forgotten time for the people of Paris. However, after being closed for the last twenty years, it might once again become one of the capital’s hottest spots. The building looms over the Seine River and the Vert-Galant Park on the end of Ile de la Cité between Pont Neuf and Rue de Rivoli, a stone’s throw from the Les Halles neighborhood and a few hundred feet from the Louvre.
New York’s department store saga was written by Macy’s, Saks, and Bloomingdale’s. In Paris, La Samaritaine was a longtime rival of Le Bon Marché, Printemps, and Les Galeries Lafayette. Ernest Cognacq, its visionary founder, not only shook up the traditional distribution system, but also asked two leading architects of the early 20th century – Frantz Jourdain and Henri Sauvage – to design a building to the glory of Art Nouveau (for the metallic structure) and Art Deco (for the ceramic mural decorations).
When LVMH boss Bernard Arnault bought “La Samar” from the founder’s grandnephews in 2001, he set himself a challenge. The architecture enthusiast swore that the renovation of the quadrilateral building would be driven by innovation. This passion came at a cost: almost a billion euros, to be precise. But the results are undeniable. Naturally, it was unthinkable to destroy the monumental structure of the Eiffel-esque building with its glass ceiling and flock of wrought iron staircases with exposed metal beams. The polychrome enameled lava panels, icons of the Art Deco style, were also restored to their former glory. The same treatment was applied to the period mosaics and the immense, golden mural painting adorned with multicolored peacocks under the main glass ceiling.
Despite such prestige, the renovation planned by Japanese design agency Sanaa (winner of the 2010 Pritzker Architecture Prize) for the side of the building on Rue de Rivoli drew a storm of criticism from the Commission du Vieux Paris. The subject of the scandal was a staunchly contemporary, rippled facade comprising 343 curved and silkscreen-printed glass panels. The old guard howled at the shimmering cladding, which seemed to stand on its own without any support. However, modern critics applauded it. Far from the image of a “shower curtain” mocked by more conservative pundits, this avant-garde addition symbolizes the transformation of an abandoned neighborhood. It proves that the City of Light is capable of celebrating modernity in a listed historical building.
Winning over those in search of the French good life required an offering befitting the extraordinary renovation. Under its legendary glass ceiling, La Samaritaine Paris Pont-Neuf – as the department store has been renamed – will champion the best of the fashion world all in one place. LVMH has committed to making the new Samaritaine more than a showroom for its own brands. Diversity is key. Some 600 companies (both luxury names and exclusive labels) will display the trends and strengths of French design. The basement floor offers 32,000 square feet devoted to beauty and will house a Christian Dior spa. An adjoining concept store reflects authentic French art de vivre and will provide visitors with a vast array of objects from interior design pieces to souvenirs à la française. The fifth floor and its glass dome will be a haven for foodies with the department store hosting twelve restaurants.
With its breathtaking views over Notre-Dame and the Eiffel Tower, the new Samaritaine was the ideal setting for a luxury hotel. The building houses the five-star Cheval Blanc from the LVMH chain already present in Courchevel, the Maldives, St. Tropez, and St. Barts. The 72-room gem has been renovated by American architect Peter Marino and French architect Edouard François. Along with marble workers, gilders, stonemasons, and metalworkers – all guardians of exceptional French artisanry – Marino designed the hotel to be a Parisian residence for the happy few. Guests are chauffeured to the entrance via an underground tunnel, and the interiors of the 26 rooms and 46 suites feature bespoke furniture and meticulously designed objects. This living space boasts paintings by Vik Muniz and Sonia Delaunay, works by Philippe Anthonioz, and sculptures by Les Lalanne. A premium apartment spanning more than 10,000 square feet with a private, 40-foot swimming pool tops it all off.
The gourmet restaurant has been handed over to French chef Arnaud Donckele, who has three Michelin stars and was voted “Best Chef of 2020” by the Gault et Millau guide. The eatery pays tribute to the terroir of the Ile-de-France region and offers a stunning view of the Académie Française. Wealthier guests can indulge in breakfasts crafted by Maxime Frédéric, former head pastry chef at the Georges V. The price reflects the service, but mere mortals will be able to enjoy the seventh floor with its two brasseries and panoramic terrace.
After centuries of public donations, the city has wanted to make Paris a playground for creators and private designers. Ever since this change of direction, the Fondation Louis Vuitton (by architect Frank Gehry), the refurbished Bourse de Commerce that now hosts the Pinault Collection (Tadao Ando), and the Fondation d’entreprise Galeries Lafayette in the Marais neighborhood (Rem Koolhas) are monuments to French business leaders’ fight to save architectural heritage and recreate the city. Some describe it as a battle of egos, but locals and visitors alike are hardly complaining.
Article published in the May 2020 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.