The story of the Faubourg Saint-Germain is 400 years old and filled with rises and falls of fortunes and, in quite a few instances, heads. While some 200 hôtels particuliers, or city mansions, were built in this 7th arrondissement neighborhood before the French Revolution, the history and unique feel of the place can be understood by looking at the history of just 10 of them.
Before 1615, nothing of the Faubourg Saint-Germain existed. The land was part of the wild countryside that surrounded the capital, centered on the Île de la Cité, and tied up in the estate of Margaret of Valois, once Queen of France. When she died, plots were sold off, starting at the riverfront and working southwards. Religious buildings were the first to be erected, including the Église Saint-Thomas-d’Aquin in 1632. The original Dominican chapel was commissioned by Françoise de Saliné (aka Françoise des Séraphins) but the design that stands today belongs to Pierre Bullet, who rebuilt it 50 years later.
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In an order of November 24, 1670, Louis XIV initiated the construction of a military hospital and home, now known as Les Invalides. Libéral Bruant was the chief architect and his impressive complex of 15 interconnected courtyards was completed in 1676. After this initial phase, it was felt that a chapel was required and the task fell to Bruant’s junior, Jules Hardouin Mansart. In the end, two were built, the Église Saint-Louis des Invalides and the spectacular Église du Dôme, finished in 1708. The project encouraged the neighborhood’s development along new routes between it and the old city center.
Hôtel Amelot de Gournay
The completion of the Pont Royal in 1689 made the Faubourg Saint-Germain more accessible from established neighborhoods north of the river and thus more desirable to wealthy landowners. The architect Germain Boffand, sensing the area’s newfound appeal, bought a plot in 1710 and three years later sold the half-built mansion he had designed for it to Michel Amelot de Gournay, an aristocratic diplomat. The building’s ownership, including by the family of Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, has always reflected the neighborhood’s association with diplomacy. Today, it houses the Embassy of Paraguay and part of the city’s Latin American cultural center.
When the aristocracy returned from Versailles after Louis XIV’s death in 1715, they found their old neighborhoods to be cramped and rundown so they migrated south of the river and built new mansions in the clean, green suburb of the Faubourg Saint-Germain. Christian-Louis de Montmorency Luxembourg bought his 30,000 m² plot on September 30, 1717, and commissioned Jean Courtonne, a little-known but innovative architect. The mansion, finished in 1725, earned Courtonne entry to the Academy of Architecture but was so expensive that its first owner had to immediately sell it to Jacques Goyon, Count of Matignon. Since 1935, it has been the French Prime Minister’s official residence.
The palace was built for Louise-Françoise de Bourbon, the daughter of Louis XIV, in tandem with the neighboring Hôtel de Lassay, the home of her lover, Armand-Madaillan de Lesparre. Inspired by the Grand Trianon, the building’s first two architects died before it was completed in 1728. Louis XV purchased it in 1743 but resold it to the duchess’ grandson, Louis Joseph. In 1778, the prince decided to combine the two buildings into one monumental neoclassical palace. Just as he completed his project, the French Revolution forced him into exile and the residence into the state’s hands. It now houses the French National Assembly.
Unlike many of the Faubourg Saint-Germain’s mansions, the Hôtel d’Avaray managed to stay intact and in the ownership of its original family from its construction in 1723 by the architect Jean-Baptiste Leroux right the way through the Revolution and into the early 20th century. In 1920, the descendants of the Dukes of Avaray sold the building to the Dutch government, who made it their embassy in France. It is still used for their diplomatic receptions and cultural exchanges though they have been known to rent it out as a filming location, most famously for the 2011 box office smash Intouchables.
Hôtel de Brienne
Construction began on the Hôtel de Brienne in 1724 but it passed through five owners in as many decades before being bought by Louis-Marie-Athanase de Loménie, Earl of Brienne, in 1776. In 1787, he was appointed the Secretary of State for War and the building began its long relationship with the military profession. The building passed through several more owners following the earl’s execution in 1794 until it became the home of Napoleon’s mother, Maria Letizia Ramolino, in 1805. In 1817, the state made it the official residence of the Minister of War and then of Defense, included among whom are Georges Clemenceau and Charles de Gaulle.
This mansion was completed in 1731 for wigmaker Abraham Peyrenc de Moras but gained its name with its third owner, Louis Antoine de Gontaut-Biron, in 1753. Under Napoleon’s reign, it was the seat of the Papal legate and then the Russian embassy. In 1820, it became a private Catholic boarding school for girls but the separation of Church and State in 1905 resulted in it being subdivided into lodgings and later scheduled for demolition. However, Auguste Rodin, one of many artists to take an interest in the neighborhood, had taken several ground floor studios and he campaigned to save the building. Rodin bequeathed his archives and studio contents to the French government and the Musée Rodin was opened in 1919.
This building, which houses the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and takes its name in common parlance from its address, was the first that the French Republic ever built specifically to accommodate one of its ministries, all others having been confiscated and repurposed private mansions. Construction began in 1845 but was stalled by the 1848 Revolution. It was finally completed under Napoleon III’s reign in 1856. Several significant international negotiations have been concluded in its chambers, including the signing of the Treaty of Paris in its inaugural year which finished the Crimean War and the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 that ended the First World War.
Originally the Gare d’Orsay, this magnificent train station was built for the 1900 Exposition Universelle and functioned as the terminus for all southwestern trains until 1939. Its shorter platforms then became unsuitable for national services and it became part of the suburban rail network. By 1970, the building had fallen out of regular use and was scheduled for demolition. Thankfully, the Minister for Cultural Affairs, Jacques Duhamel, intervened and it was listed as a historic monument in 1978. The idea that it be converted into a museum, a link between the collections of the Louvre and the Centre Pompidou, was accepted and its 2,000 paintings and 600 sculptures were unveiled in December 1986.
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