Parisians know this monument well, its facade adorning the north-east face of Place de la Concorde. Often, they know what it is called too. But perhaps they do not know its history so well. Come and discover the secrets of the Hôtel de la Marine, an iconic site in Paris and a great token of France’s history.
Place Louis XV, today’s Place de la Concorde, was made because Paris City Hall wanted to build a statue paying tribute to King Louis XV in 1748.
To highlight this equestrian statue ordered from Edmé Bouchardon, the idea emerged to make a square in the king’s honour, based on Place Vendôme and Place des Vosges.
After hesitating for a while, King Louis XV decided on a site belonging to him towards the west of the city, the Tuileries Garden.
An architecture competition was then launched for developing this site. 19 proposals were put forward but none of them satisfied the king.
Following five years of debate, it was Ange-Jacques Gabriel, the king’s chief architect, who created the definitive plans for the future square Place Louis XV by combining the different plans for development.
The king’s statue was placed in the middle of a square made up of gardens in dry ditches edged with balustrades. The sculpture portraying the monarch represented him in a Roman style, on horseback without a saddle or stirrups. The south end of the square ran alongside the River Seine, while the north end was lined with two twin palaces standing either side of Rue Royale and featuring classic monumental facades. To the west, the square opened up to the Champs-Elysées and the Cours-la-Reine promenade.
When the monarchy fell, Place Louis XV, made in tribute to the king, changed its name to Place de la Révolution, then to Place de la Concorde from 1795.
Once the plans had been drawn up and development work on the square had got under way, it was time to find a role for the two palaces on the north side of the square.
In 1765, the decision was made to house the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne, the institution in charge of the king’s furniture, in the eastern palace (between today’s Rue Royale and Rue Saint-Florentin), the future Hôtel de la Marine. At first, the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne was supposed to occupy only part of the building, but it ended up filling the entire edifice in 1767.
Pierre-Elisabeth de Fontanieu, the first Intendant to head the Garde-Meuble, made the most of this to develop the building so that it fully met the needs of his administration by including storage areas, workshops, lodges, exhibition galleries and more.
For around 25 years, the Garde-Meuble and its Intendant, Pierre-Elisabeth de Fontanieu then Marc-Antoine Thierry de Ville d’Avray, lived in the palace.
A forebear of today’s public body Mobilier national, this institution was in charge of supplying and maintaining the furniture of royal residences: Versailles, as well as Compiègne, Fontainebleau, Marly, Choisy, Trianon, Rambouillet, Saint-Germain-en-Laye and Montreuil.
The institution was responsible for choosing, purchasing and maintaining the king’s furniture, from beds to everyday chairs. It was also in charge of conserving the royal collections of weapons, armour, fabrics, wall hangings, hardstone vases, bronze works and Crown diamonds.
Because it symbolised the country’s government and royal ostentation, the days of the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne were numbered.
Two events marked the place’s history:
When the revolution got under way, King Louis XVI left Versailles for Paris.
All state institutions in Versailles had to therefore move to the capital.
But a considerable challenge emerged where in Paris could they be housed? The navy ministry, with Count de la Luzerne and Jean-Baptiste Berthier at its helm, got permission from the Intendant of the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne, Marc-Antoine Thierry de Ville d’Avray, to settle in the palace housing the Garde-Meuble in 1789.
To begin with, the navy ministry occupied the rooms on the second floor and in the western part of the first floor. Less than ten years later, it occupied the entire building. This marked the start of two centuries of France's navy ministry being based in this palace, which henceforth bore the name Hôtel de la Marine. It was not until 2015 that the navy ministry left the building.
Because it symbolised the Ancien Régime, the institution was simply abolished at first in the revolution. Some of the furniture and artworks were then auctioned or burned, often to salvage precious metals. In 1800, it was refounded with the name Garde-Meuble des Consuls. Later, it became the Mobilier impérial before ending up as the Mobilier national in 1870. The Mobilier national is still in charge of the furniture belonging to the country’s different national institutions, such as the Elysée Palace.
From the office of the chief of staff to the gallery of great French navy prefectures, the navy reshaped the building to meet its needs: rooms were divided up to make offices larger and areas were redeveloped in relation to new technology in the 19th and 20th centuries (including electricity, telephone and lifts) and decor like portraits of illustrious sailors of the royal navy.
When the navy left the building, the Centre des monuments nationaux was put in charge of managing the edifice.
Large-scale restoration was undertaken to open the monument to the public and bring back the 18th-century splendour of the apartments of the Intendants of the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne.
In the 18th century, European architecture tended towards the Baroque style above all. This was characterised by opulence, multiple forms, play of light and shadow, and colour. In contrast, the monument’s facade stands out largely for its striking symmetry in line with the classical standards defined by the Académie royale d’architecture.
The Hôtel de la Marine and its twin on its western side, which today houses the Hôtel de Crillon, the Automobile Club de France and the Hôtel de Coislin, both underline the French trend in rigour and geometric lines, and the 18th-century taste for antiquity.
The facade is made up as follows:
At the helm of the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne was an Intendant. As an officer of the king’s court, he was provided with accommodation on site in lavish apartments that reflected the prestige of his job.
Developed in 1765 by Pierre-Elisabeth de Fontanieu, the Intendant’s apartments were redesigned from 1786 by Marc-Antoine Thierry de Ville d’Avray. They exemplify what was perceived as the ideal apartment at the end of the century of Enlightenment, including at least an antechamber, a bedroom and a small private room.
The Intendant’s apartments are located on the eastern side of the first floor, the ‘noble floor’, today with a view over Place de la Concorde and Rue Saint-Florentin.
As the years have gone by, these apartments have changed in accordance with their occupants, but today they include:
● On the north side, the apartments of Thierry de Ville d’Avray: an antichamber, a bedroom, a small private meeting room and a bathroom.
● On the south side, the bedroom of Madame Thierry de Ville d’Avray.
● The two apartments are linked by the reception rooms: the salon and dining room.
● On the court side, the bedroom of Pierre-Elisabeth de Fontanieu, as well as the mirrors room and the golden room installed by the Intendant.
18th-century life in aristocratic society was largely based on receptions held daily in all reputable houses.
The house mistress would host the gathering, welcoming leading Parisian figures and intellectuals. Hosting was an art form. This can be seen in the way the apartment rooms were arranged and in the splendour of the reception rooms.
A vertical line formed the basis for getting around the different apartments of an 18th-century town mansion. This gave a central role to the monumental staircase serving the entire building.
In addition to the apartments, the staircase also provided a route to the exhibition galleries on the first floor of the facade overlooking the Place de la Concorde : the arms room, the gallery of large items of furniture (fabrics and wall hangings), the jewels room and the bronze works gallery.
These rooms were originally used to present the royal collections to French and foreign visitors. They were intended for displaying the excellence of French decorative arts and the monarchy’s power. In the 19th century, the navy converted these areas into stately reception rooms.
The grand gallery was divided into two parts and hosted many lavish receptions throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Balls for the coronations of Napoleon and King Charles X were held here.
Salon of honour, ceiling decor above the transparent glazing © Jean-Pierre Delagarde
These are the rooms that have kept the most traces of the navy’s time in the building. For example, we find sumptuous decor relating to the navy in the salon of honour, in the former arms room of the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne, which was transformed into a dining room of honour, and in the diplomatic room.
When France's navy ministry left the building in 2015, responsibility for the Hôtel de la Marine was given to the Centre des monuments nationaux. The CMN was in charge of promoting this outstanding piece of cultural heritage, so it oversaw large-scale restoration of the entire monument from 2017 to 2020.
Its architecture, painted decor, furniture and artworks from the 18th and 19th centuries present to the public the close relationship between decorative arts, the art of hosting, craftsmanship, French excellence and the expression of power.
Since 2017, restoration campaigns have brought true marvels to light, with the rediscovery of the original decor of the Intendant’s apartments as they were at the end of the 18th century.
Come and discover the Hôtel de la Marine and its different visitor tours!