The Intriguing Past and Present
of the Place Vendôme in
By Lucy Komisar
There’s a curious silence to the Place Vendôme,
a sense that this 17th-century architectural gem has successfully defeated
the noise and traffic of modern Paris. Yes, cars and pedestrians do move
through the cobble-stones, but they seem hardly noticed by the statue of
Napoleon sitting atop the bronze obelisk at the center. It’s as if the
elegant stone mansions that ring the square were guarding the place and
fending off intruders. And inside those mansions, you can imagine whispering
gossips telling the intriguing tales of the past occupants.
This is the site of the ancient manor of the Vendôme
family, of César, 16th century Duke de Vendôme, who was the legitimized son
of King Henri IV of France and a duchess. In centuries past, inhabitants or
visitors to the dwellings included Napoleon himself, prominent aristocrats
and even Chopin. So don’t hurry too fast past this elegant square on your
next walk from the Louvre (minutes to the south) north along the Rue de la
Paix to the Opera.
Think for a moment about the history of the “octagon”
commissioned in 1685 by King Louis XIV (the Sun King) and designed by Jules-Hardouin
Mansart as an “ornament” for the city. Mansart is the great architect who
created Versailles and the dome of the Invalides.
The mansions that surrounded the square would be
inhabited by the rich and powerful of Paris. It was initially a clever real
estate scam of just 27 lots with Potemkin Village-style facades: Corinthian
columns, 110 arcades, two stories of high windows – and nothing behind. From
the front, the “hôtels” (in French a grand dwelling) are identical, all of
beige stone, with steeply pitched slate roofs dotted with dormer windows.
When the king ran out of money, the project was taken over by banker John
Law, who completed the homes in 1720 and sold them to wealthy bankers and
Number One Place Vendôme was built in 1723 for Pierre
Perrin, secretary to King Louis XIV.
When Napoleon II presided over the Second Empire, he
lived in the Hôtel du Rhin, at Number 4-6.
The treasurer of Louis XVI's Navy lived at No. 12,
which is also where Napoleon III met his future wife, Eugénie de Montijo,
and where in 1849, the composer Chopin died.
French Chancellery took over No. 13 in 1718. No. 11 and 13 now house the
Ministry of Justice.
The Hôtel Gramont, built in 1705 at No. 15, in 1898
became the Hotel Ritz.
And the builder, John Law, took No. 23 for his own in
The bronze spiral column at the center of the square
was constructed in 1810 by Napoleon to celebrate the French army’s victory
at Austerlitz five years earlier. A copy of Trajan’s column in Rome, it is
144 feet high and allegedly made of the bronze of 1,200 cannons captured at
the battle. However, history reports say there were only 120 cannons taken!
Typical political hyperbole! Bas-reliefs show scenes from the Austrian
campaign. The statue at the top is Napoleon dressed as a Roman emperor. It
was pulled down in 1871 by militants of the Paris Commune led by artist
Gustave Courbet and restored a few years later with a copy of the original.
The Place Vendôme is still a haunt of the rich, but
since the turn of the century, new names have arrived: the world’s premier
jewelers, designers and perfumers, as well as prominent banks, which manage
the money of the luxury shops’ patrons.
In addition to the tenants mentioned earlier, here are
No. 2 holds Guerlain perfumes. No. 3 and 5 are owned by
the sultan of Brunei, best known for donating $10 million to the Nicaraguan
“contras” at the behest of the Reagan administration. The latter was
constrained by Congress from supporting the rebels fighting to overthrow the
Nicaraguan government and so turned to a “friend.” What he got in return is
still not clear.
No. 4 holds the jeweler, Buccelati, and No. 6 the
designer Armani. At No. 7 is jeweler Cartier and French bank BNP (Banque
Nationale Paribas). Carter also has No. 23.
No. 8 is the address of Sullivan and Cromwell, a
powerful American law firm which represents the interests of the Bank of New
York, the investment bankers Goldman Sachs and Microsoft. No. 10 is occupied
by the jeweler Bulgari.
No. 12, the former embassy of Russia, now houses
Chaumet jewelers and the Arab Bank.
Another bank, Morgan Guaranty Company Trust, is at No.
14. No. 16 accommodates the jeweler Piaget and the designers Comme des
Garçons and Giorgio Armani (Emporio Armani is at No. 25), No. 18 holds
Chanel, No. 20 is the address of jeweler Mauboussin, and No. 21 of the
No. 22, once the home of Madame de la Parabère, the
Regent's mistress, in 1906 was taken over by jeweler Van Cleef & Arpels,
which also has No. 24, along with the permanent delegation of the Republic
of San Marino. at UNESCO. San Marino? With a population of 28,000, this
“microstate” in northeast Italy is Europe's second-smallest country, after
the Vatican City. A couple of years ago, Western governments suggested that
the enclave – a tax haven -- do something to stop crooks from using its
banks for money-laundering, always a lucrative business.
No. 26 (since 1893) is home to the jeweler Boucheron
and No. 28 to designer Charvet.
So how would you like to live, for a while, in one of
these stunning mansions? I’m talking about the 18th-century hotel at One
Place Vendôme. After passing through the hands of King Louis’ secretary
Pierre Perrin, it was owned by various French notables and from 1842 to
1843, housed the Embassy of the Republic of Texas. President Bush, now so
aggrieved with France, most likely doesn’t know that it was first to
recognize the independence of the Lone Star State, which didn’t join the
American union until 1845.
Number One became a real hotel in 1858 and five years
ago was bought and refurbished by Lebanese jeweler Robert Mouawad. The House
of Mouawad, with a collection that includes eight of the fourteen most
valuable diamonds in the world, was the main sponsor of the 'Diamants'
Exhibition at the Paris National Natural History Museum a few years ago.
Monsieur Mouawad also owns the famous Grand-Hotel du Cap-Ferrat in that
exquisite spot on the Côte d’Azur.
Hotel de Vendôme,
a true boutique 5-star deluxe hotel, steps rights out of the world of the
Sun King, with 29 rooms dripping in gold, marble, stained glass, crystal
chandeliers and period furniture.
Even the bathrooms are bathed in pink, gray and beige
marble on floors, walls, sink and tub. My room had light gray-green tapestry
walls, a rich red patterned rug, a tiffany lamp, and chairs covered in
luxurious soft pink and green.
The Café de Vendôme is dressed in cool brown leather
and gilt, soothing for breakfast, lunch, dinner and a drink at the bar.
Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings from 7:30 to 11, you can listen to
Jean-Claude Orfali playing cool jazz piano. The sounds echo as a murmur
through the halls and lobby.
The haute couture of the square and of the nearby Rue
du Faubourg St Honoré brings designers, models and buyers to the
neighborhood. And they have discovered a brand new elegant boutique hotel of
97 rooms that just opened in October: the 4-star deluxe Plaza Paris Vendôme
at 4 rue du Mont Thabor, on a quiet street just two blocks south of the
square. (The name Mont Thabor commemorates a 1799 Napoleonic victory over
General Manager Florence Carcassonne conceived it as a
niche hotel for the couture trade and international models and for women who
travel alone. It is, says Madame Carcassonne, “chic and cozy.” Safety is
assured by a scale that is intimate and small enough to prevent wandering
strangers from being unnoticed.
The hotel, in an 1830 building, has a stunning modern
design, contemporary, inspired by the 1930s and 50s, with sleek lines and
tasteful Paris furnishings in the lobby (under an atrium) and guest rooms,
all in cool beiges, blacks and shades of muted red. There is modern art
everywhere, even to the elevator’s comic trompe l’oeil painting.
The owner, Gilles Marang, a Paris real estate
developer, took an old hotel and ordered a two-year renovation, with
interior design by Pierre-Yves Rochon who also did the George V in Paris.
The Pinxo Restaurant features modern cuisine directed
by Alain Dutournier, a chef with two Michelin stars for his “Le Carré des
Feuillants,” Mme Carcassonne said, “It’s made for women because it’s light
and presented in bouchons” – mouthfuls. Diners can choose small plates or
full dinners. Open till 11:30 p.m., the room has black leather chairs and
banquettes and white walls with touches of black marble. Tables are of dark
wood and black granite. Large glass vases hold huge white Calla lilies, and
cool black and white photographs hang on the wall.
Perhaps the Plaza Paris Vendôme is especially sensitive
to the needs of women because its top staff is all female. Mme Carcassonne,
in the hotel business for 26 years, notes that of the 60 general managers
that belong to the club of managers of Paris 5-star hotels, she is one of
only four women. Her head concierge is one of two in France. Her bartender
is one of three women chief “barmen” in the country. The commercial director
is also a woman.
Mme Carcassonne built her career from night reception
at the Plaza Athenée (the first woman working in a 5-star hotel), moved to
be director at the George V, ran the Royal Mansour in Casablanca (a Forte
“leading hotel of the world”), and was director or general manager of
several other top class hotels in Paris. Now, with the chance to create a
hotel from the beginning, she is bringing a new kind of “revolution” to the
Lucy Komisar is a New York journalist who writes about
If you go:
Hotel de Vendôme
1 place Vendôme
33 (0)1 5504 5500
Fax 33 (0)1 4927 9789
Singles from € 350 to €490
Doubles from € 380 to €640
Ask about special promotions.
Phones have computer ports.
Café de Vendôme, lunch and dinner from 12 noon to 10
pm, €35 to 40.
Hotel Plaza Paris Vendôme
4 rue du Mont Thabor, 65001 Paris
Tel 33 (0)1 4020 2000
Fax 33 (0)1 4020 2001
Ask about special promotions.
Pinxo Restaurant, open daily for breakfast and from 12
to 2:15 and 7 to midnight. 33 (0)1 4020 7200; main courses from €16 (tuna
filet) to €25 (shrimp). An average meal costs €40 to 45.
Free wifi in the lounge and lobby, free high speed
internet connections in the rooms.
Fitness center with pool open 7 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Metro for both hotels is Tuileries
Images by Lucy Komisar