By Lucy Komisar
There‘s a curious silence to the Place Vend´me, a sense that this 17th-century architectural gem has successfully defeated the noise and traffic of modern Paris. Yes, cars and pedestrians do move over 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 Vend´me family, of César, 16th century Duke de Vend´me, 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 “h´tels” (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 aristocrats.
Number One Place Vend´me was built in 1723 for Pierre Perrin, secretary to King Louis XIV.
When Napoleon II presided over the Second Empire, he lived in the H´tel 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.
The French Chancellery took over No. 13 in 1718. No. 11 and 13 now house the Ministry of Justice.
The H´tel 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 1718.
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 Vend´me 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 the “neighbors.”
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 Gar§ons 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 designer Schiaparelli.
No. 22, once the home of Madame de la Parab¨re, 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 Vend´me. 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, so aggrieved with France over its opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, most likely didn’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 C´te d‘Azur.
Hotel de Vend´me, 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 Vend´me 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 new elegant boutique hotel of 97 rooms: the 4-star deluxe Plaza Paris Vend´me 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 the Austrians.)
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 Vend´me 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 Vend´me neighborhood.
If you go
Hotel Plaza Paris Vend´me (now Renaissance Paris Vend´me)
4 rue du Mont Thabor, 65001 Paris
Tel 33 (0)1 4020 2000
Fax 33 (0)1 4020 2001
Pinxo Restaurant, open daily for breakfast and from 12 to 2:15 and 7 to midnight. 33 (0)1 4020 7200.
Fitness center with pool.
Métro for both hotels is Tuileries