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28 October 2009

La Recherce du Buildings Perdu

Please forgive me if this post isn’t quite as coherent as it should be. I just stumbled off a plane a few hours ago, after spending a week in Paris, wearing holes in my shoes looking for buildings that weren’t there. Just to make it more ridiculous, I already knew they weren’t there. Some of them succumbed to age, some to fire, others to the grand schemes of Baron Haussmann. (Hmph. Boulevards. Who needed them?) But it was instructive to see where they might have been, to situate them on my mental map and try to imagine what they might have looked like when they were still in situ.

The first building that wasn’t there was the old Prefecture, which formerly lived on a cul de sac called the Rue de Jerusalem on the Ile de la Cite, not far from the Quai des Orfevres. Elizabeth Sparrow, in her book, Secret Service: British Agents in France, 1792-1815, describes it as a “sinister place” with “vaulted ceilings and walls [] supported by great timber stays… subdivided with mezzanine floors accessed by endless winding corridors and steep, narrow ladder like staircases”. Brilliant for sinister interrogations, not so great for modern working conditions. The building burned down in 1871, presumably lamented by none of the personnel who had to work there. The Ile de la Cite was extensively renovated by our old friend Baron Haussmann, so the Rue de Jerusalem can only be found by extensive squinting at old maps and pacing up and down the same bit of Quai, muttering, “Here. It must have been here,” until Parisians give you strange looks and walk their dogs on a wide berth around you.

Likewise, many of the old prisons in which that demmed elusive Pimpernel and his buddies would have been detained are no longer there. The infamous Temple Prison, demolished in 1860, is marked only by the Temple Metro stop. The Metro as a form of torture? Perhaps. But not the right kind. (And certainly not nearly so bad as the New York subway.)

The book I was researching opens with a scene in the Abbaye Prison, where a hapless conspirator in an 1804 plot to kidnap Napoleon (more about that in a later post) was being put to the question. Abbaye wasn’t just a clever name. It was called that because it was part of the Abbey of St. Germain de Pres. These days, only the Abbey church remains, but it does retain, in front of it, some of the large, round old cobbles that you can see in contemporary pictures of the old prison. Inside the church, one can also find a plan marking out where the various buildings of the Abbey would have been in the 18th century before they were knocked out for the laying out of boulevards. I’ve never been good at spatial relations, but my guess, from the map, is that the rough location of the old Abbaye Prison would have been somewhere across the modern Blvd St. Germain, where a few shops are now. It is an interesting mental exercise to try to knock out all the shops, the people, the traveling accordion player (yes, there was a traveling accordion player) and the very streets themselves to imagine the older city as it would have been at the time.

Even buildings that do still exist have to be mentally rejiggered prior to use. On my last day in Paris, I took a day to go to Malmaison, Napoleon's wife's country house (avez vous la plume de ma tante? it does sound like a French exercise, doesn't it?). Although the façade is largely what it would have been in 1804, it’s missing some bits. There would have been a tent-like building off to the side, housing the servants, as well as a small theatre that was put up so that the family could participate in amateur theatricals. The rooms that once belonged to Josephine’s children, Hortense and Eugene de Beauharnais, still teenagers when she purchased Malmaison, have been knocked together to form a showcase for the Imperial china collection. Yep. Cue more wandering around, muttering, “But the wall must have been here!” or "No! Why 1805? I needed 1804!" followed by growling noises. Fortunately, the guards were very blase, clearly used to the strange behavior of Americans, even ones who pace around with little notebooks, muttering.

The building I most regret is the Tuileries Palace, the official residence of the Consular (soon to be Imperial) couple. This picture is me, looking mildly sulky, standing somewhere around the site where the old palace would have been (that's the Louvre in the backround). It's rather amazing that one can just lose a whole palace. It was rather big. And stony. But it was burnt down in 1871, its empty shell finally demolished a good decade later, leaving only the arch in the middle and the Jardin des Tuileries to mark the memory of where it once stood.

Do you have any favorite missing buildings?

5 Comments:

Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Lauren, living in New York, you can't help but lament the missing building, including the original Penn Station, and the Madison Square Garden where Stanford White was famously shot by Harry K. Thaw. All the theaters that were torn down to build the Marriot Marquis. Not to mention Lobster palaces like Rector's. I weep when I look at books like Lost New York.

2:51 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Elizabeth, my father tells a story about my uncle (who had a very strong aesthetic sense) standing there weeping as they demolished one of the old mansions on 5th Avenue back in the 60s. The weeping might be an exaggeration, but it definitely catches the sentiment. And I'm still sad about the old Penn Station. What were they thinking?!?! It's not like the new one is more functional.

2:59 PM  
Blogger Jessica said...

Lauren, on one of my visits to Paris I decided to do what I call "The Marie Curie Tour." I visited the Curie Institut de Radium near the Sorbonne and struck up a conversation with a museum clerk inside, who told me how to stroll past her apartment on Ile St-Louis. The missing building is the shed where she and Pierre discovered radium and polonium. But the same nice clerk (Parisians are actually wonderfully nice to Americans who speak French and show interest in a national treasure like Mme Curie) told me how to find the marker indicating where it used to be. I would have loved to have seen it, but to be fair it was in deplorable condition at the turn of the century when they were using it.

9:49 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Jessica, that was something that struck me while I was in Paris-- how many completely different and unrelated tours can cross the same space. I spent seven days doing nothing but track down Revolutionary/Napoleonic Paris, but I'd bet there were people I was passing on the street who were looking for Marie Curie... or Henry James... or Saint Louis... or the world's cutest black dress... or any number of other personal quests. Pretty incredible to think of all of these crossing and crisscrossing.

6:06 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Your trip sounds fabulous, Lauren, but I share your frustration over "missing buildings." My website has pictures of me in front of the Bow Street Magistrates Court, which is on the site of the old Bow Street Public Office, but of course is a new building. I'm always walking round London mentally editing out the Victoriana and later additions. And I'm somewhat comforted in the fact that I probably won't be able to go to Vienna to research my current WIP by the fact that a lot of the buildings that figured prominently in the Congress of Vienna (the Kaunitz Palace, the Palm Palace, the British Embassy in the Minoritenplatz) are no longer there.

8:20 PM  

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