Architecture enthusiasts know it as “the little Versailles.” Yet this imposing edifice designed by Ange-Jacques Gabriel, chief architect to Louis XV, is located in the very heart of Paris. Its colonnade terrace overlooks the Place de la Concorde, with the trees of the Champs-Elysées and the Hôtel de Crillon to the right, while the Jardin des Tuileries and the Louvre lie to the left. The Hôtel de la Marine finally opened to the public last June, having been requisitioned by the French government for two centuries and following a five-year renovation project. Today, this showcase of French know-how is one of the places that best portrays Enlightenment styles and tastes from a time when France became the global capital of art and literature.
Like all mysterious palaces, its title is actually a nickname – in this case, inspired by the ministry of the navy’s two-century presence in the building. In 1765, the edifice commissioned by Louis XV, successor to the Sun King, hosted the Garde-Meuble Royal, or the royal furniture depository. Hardly a common warehouse! During this distinguished century, in which the highly stratified society measured a person’s rank by their titles and material signs of wealth, the interior design of residences played a key role in social representation. The building was filled with the finest possessions from the royal residences of Versailles, Fontainebleau, Compiègne, and Marly, including furniture, tapestries, decorative weapons, and even the crown jewels. The administrator charged with their maintenance and restoration was traditionally an officer of the royal house who had a direct relationship with the monarch. Pierre-Elisabeth de Fontanieu and Marc-Antoine Thierry de Ville-d’Avray were both familiar with artistic circles and residents of this building steeped in the symbolism of the representation of power. Between them, they successively created opulent apartments reflecting the tastes of the time – and these are the spaces the public can discover today.
A Stunning 18th-Century Showcase
The majestic, neo-classical facade is topped with sculpted pediments, while the Corinthian colonnade has been turned into a walkway. In designing this palace, Ange-Jacques Gabriel drew inspiration from the classical masterpieces built a century earlier by Jules Hardouin-Mansart, the architect of Versailles, and Claude Perrault, who created the Louvre. However, the series of private apartments inside the walls is a pure showcase of 18th-century style. One hundred years of grace and elegance, in which the curves of the furniture contrasted with geometric and symmetrical shapes, eventually welcoming straight lines calling for delicate softness. In order to introduce visitors to one of the most sophisticated chapters of the French decorative arts, the Hôtel de la Marine has decided to bring along Thierry de Ville-d’Avray himself, the palace administrator from 1784 to 1789.
With a headset firmly over your ears, you will find yourself in his reception room. The inlayed mahogany and Dutch oak parquet flooring stretches across the room to a cylinder writing desk designed by Jean-Henri Riesener, the favorite cabinet-maker of Louis XV and Marie-Antoinette. Renowned for his subtle inlaying and the high-quality bronze elements in his pieces, Riesener enjoyed a fantastic reputation at the time. The nobility would do anything to get their hands on his furniture – despite the extortionate prices. The tour then arrives in the dining room, home to an enormous, splendid medal cabinet commissioned by Louis XV. This piece is the final example of a collaboration that proved ruinous for the royal family. You then walk through the corner living room, decorated with tapestries from the Gobelins Manufactory, and into the Admirals’ Salon, a replica of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. When the building was the Garde-Meuble Royal, the crown’s finest fabrics and tapestries would have been kept here. In 1799, the ministry of the navy and its general staff moved in and totally revamped the interior. Decked out with an array of mirrors, the salons were the setting for major events such as the ball hosted for the coronation of Napoleon I in 1804, and the visit of King Louis-Philippe in 1836 as part of the inauguration of the Luxor Obelisk in the center of the Place de la Concorde.
Two Hundred Years of History
Over the years, the Garde-Meuble and then the Hôtel de la Marine became a front row seat to French history. In 1792, a group of thieves entered through a broken window shutter and stole the crown jewels, which were only partially recovered. The incident was referred to as the “robbery of the millennium.” The following year, the city’s guillotine was set up under the palace windows for the execution of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. In 18 48 , in his second-floor as undersecretary of state for the French colonies, Victor Schœlcher prepared the decree abolishing slavery signed on April 27. In August 1944, during the liberation of Paris, Resistance fighters shot at German troops from the windows overlooking the Rue de Rivoli. And in 1989, as part of the bicentenary of the French Revolution, the colonnade welcomed heads of state as they watched the parade organized by French-American designer Jean-Paul Goude.
The tour of this meticulously restored historical monument certainly works up an appetite! Visitors can choose from Café Lapérouse and the large, sunny terrace of Le Mimosa, the gourmet restaurant headed up by leading French chef Jean-François Piège. The first pays tribute to Jean-François de La Pérouse, a naval officer during the American War of Independence and an explorer of the Pacific. (He actually created the first map of San Francisco Bay in 1786.) The second is a nod to “the Riviera spirit in the heart of Paris.” As you can see, the seafaring theme is omnipresent!
Article published in the December 2021 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.