Remove layers of history and reveal a new museum
PARIS – It was a warehouse for the furniture, art, carpets and precious jewels of the royal house of France. This is where Marie-Antoinette’s death certificate was signed, Napoleon I and Josephine celebrated their coronation ball and the law abolishing slavery in France became law. It was the headquarters of the French navy for over 200 years and, during World War II, of a division of Nazi Germany.
The Hôtel de la Marine, the highly anticipated new Parisian museum open to the public this month, is steeped in history. Today, the grand neoclassical palace in Place de la Concorde is on view for the first time in nearly 250 years after a four-year, $ 157 million renovation that involved around 200 of France’s best artisans in the painstaking work. removal of the many changes made. to the building over time and restore it to its former glory.
“It was a kind of restoration that had never been undertaken by the French administration,” said Joseph Achkar, an 18th-century design authority who oversaw the project with his partner, Michel Charrière.
“Usually you can remove a wall in one place, for example, to find the original color, and then everything is repainted that way,” Achkar said. “What we did was restore every detail like you would restore a painting, discovering layer by layer and recreating the original colors, fabrics, woodwork, with the same techniques as in the 18th century.”
Many additions have been made to the original structure over the centuries, said Christophe Bottineau, the architect in charge of France’s historic monuments. The original building included a luxurious 14-room apartment, intended for the steward of the King’s collection, as well as large reception rooms, storage areas, offices, workshops and workers’ quarters. After the French Revolution of 1789, the navy took over the building, added new floors and modified the interiors to accommodate its offices.
“It was a renovation that involved taking things out rather than adding them,” Bottineau said.
The restoration of the apartment was greatly facilitated by a very precise inventory of the original furniture and decoration. “There were 900 pages that wrote down every detail of the fabric, furniture, paint color and gilding,” Achkar said.
While Achkar and Charrière sourced original furniture, artwork and textiles, some of France’s most skilled artisans worked on the renovation. They sewed hundreds of yards of curtains by hand, stripped 18 coats of paint from the walls, restored woodwork and gilding, and painted wallpapers by hand.
Here is an overview of some of their work.
It was the original bed, and the original bedding, used by Marc-Antoine Thierry de Ville-d’Avray, the second (and last) steward of the king’s property, Achkar said. The silk fabric was frayed, he said, and the embroidery was reworked using an 18th-century sewing technique.
All the missing moldings and wood carvings on the walls were redone and finished with gold leaf or patina, said Alexis Boutrolle, operations manager of Asselin, a French carpentry company specializing in historic restoration, who carried out the work.
“The main objective of this work was to be historically correct, but also to create something that feels lived,” said Boutrolle. “When you do it by hand, the old fashioned way, the patina is very subtle and full of nuances.”
These tiebacks, each with an ornate hanging pompom, take around 150 hours to make, said Eléonore Declercq, of Declercq Passementiers, a decorative trimmings company.
The process begins by matching the threads to the color of the curtain. “It’s like mixing paint, but using thread,” she says. The tether cable is created by twisting the threads as they are slowly pulled through a loom, and the “skirt”, or hanging part of the ornament, is handmade, often including decorative elements, like the berries on the yellow acorn here.
“Each decoration involves several types of specialized work and techniques,” Declercq said. The company produced 54 ornamental tie-backs for the Hôtel de la Marine.
It took six weeks to sew these draped curtains by hand, said Lucas du Pasquier, upholsterer at Alexandre Phelippeau, the company that made them. Using a machine “actually creates tighter stitches, and it’s better, in a way,” he said. “But the decision was to do things as they were done then.”
To pin the fabric and secure the sides of the draped curtains to the wall, curtain makers used an 18th-century hammer with a magnetic back to which nails are attached. Then they are driven into the wall and covered with fabric. “My colleague has his nails in his mouth and is repairing the tissue,” du Pasquier said. “It’s quite tricky.”
This huge tapestry is not the original one that hung there – which now hangs at the French Embassy in Rome. Achkar and Charrière decided to use a tapestry from another piece, made around the same time, but it was not the right size. “Then we found a border that actually came from the same workshop as the original – a miracle! ” he said.
“We had to cut out the damaged parts and find a way to put them together seamlessly, without using modern techniques,” du Pasquier said. “It’s the first time I’ve worked like this and I don’t know if I will ever do it again.
For his office, de Ville-d’Avray ordered a floor made of three rare wood species: sycamore, amaranth and mahogany. “It’s an extraordinary feat of craftsmanship – it almost feels three-dimensional,” Achkar said. The floors had been restored around 20 years ago, but much of the woodwork had to be painstakingly recreated, Boutrolle said.
The dining room has been designed to “set the mood at the end of a meal, as if the guests have just left,” Achkar said. He added that creating the atmosphere of an inhabited apartment was an important part of their approach. “We didn’t want it to look like a museum, with various rooms identified by small maps, but rather like a house full of all kinds of things,” he said.
The lavishly embroidered 18th-century fabric of the tablecloth is “beautiful but extremely fragile and takes a long time to work,” Achkar added.
The sumptuous reception hall dates from the 19th century and was not part of the recent renovation, but it will be an information center for visitors and will give access to the huge balcony which overlooks the Place de la Concorde.
It was very important to have good lighting in the 18th and 19th century sections, said Régis Mathieu, whose workshops repaired or recreated all the lights inside and outside the building.
“In the 18th century, lighting was more refined: chandeliers were mostly crystal with fewer candles,” he said. “It was a very complicated task, because the lighting had to be adapted to a modern museum but faithful to the time.”
In the 19th century, he added, the rooms were larger and more gilded and ostentatious, with large chandeliers. “When you see it from the outside, all lit up, it feels like there’s a big ball you’d like to go to,” he said.
“We have redone a thousand windows and doors on the outside and inside of the building,” said Boutrolle. “Because it’s a landmark, everything had to be historically correct, including the hardware, iron and bronze, or even leather.”
“In France, you have a lot of good artisans with excellent training,” he added. “There is a real wealth of know-how.