Right around the corner from our apartment in Paris was a strange little door to nowhere. It made me curious. What was the story behind this battered, graffiti-spattered wooden door. Barely visible above the door, carved into the triangular stone were the words “Hôtel Jean-Louis Raoul.” A quick internet search led me to a website http://www.cribier.net that laid out the long story of a beat-up door and where I found the old photos.
In the 14th century, King Charles V established his royal domain in the Marais, between the Seine and the present blvd. St Antoine. The location wasn’t as random as it sounds. An earlier king, Philippe Auguste, had built a wall that ended just a few blocks away. Charles V extended the wall to the point that eventually was home to the Bastille and secured his home within its embrace.
One hundred and twenty years later, François I was short of funds and decided to sell off parcels of land that surrounded the royal residences. New streets were cut to give access, including the street that our apartment was on and the street where the lonely doorway stands. The man who bought this parcel was named Claude Girard. He was a wood merchant and the proximity to the Seine, where logs could be floated almost to his doorstop, made this parcel highly valuable.
When the Marais became chic under Henri IV, the property passed into the hands of one of the king’s counsellors, Paul Ardier. From the inventory of his possessions after his death, we know that Cordier’s home was lavish and elegant. The house stayed in the Cordier family for several generations on the female side.
In the 18th century, the land passed to an extremely wealthy noble family, the Pinon- St. Georges, and they built a palatial home. The door probably dates to this era. One of the most valuable aspects were its fabulous, large mirrors at a time when mirrors were as rare as large diamonds – thus the importance of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Paintings by Watteau graced the walls. The Revolution changed that. The family emigrated, saved their lives, but lost all of their possessions.
This brings the house to the hands of Jean-Louis Raoul in 1810. When he bought the house, he had to pay separately and dearly for the mirrors. Raoul made industrial abrasives and he restored the house to its prior use as a place of business where his family also lived. The glory days were over. He added two more floors and put in apartments for lodgers. The only ornamental flourish was adding the wall clock and adding his name above the door. The clock looks rather beat up these days, too, relocated from its original spot. You have to squint to see the dolphins that encircle it.
By 1959, the property was so vétuste (vay-toost), or degraded, that there was a demolition order. The property was to be taken down in two parts and transformed into six-story apartment buildings. At the same time, the street was to be re-aligned. The first part was done without affecting the door. A few years later, when it was time for the second half of the project, it was discovered that the project had been modified so that the door could not be touched and the street could not be re-aligned.
So the door had been saved, but since the building project no longer included the door, it was in a really odd legal position. The sliver of land that the door sat on hadn’t been sold to the developer of the apartments because it was going to be taken over by the city when the road was widened, but Paris never took it over legally. When the plan to widen the road was abandoned, the sliver still technically belonged to the heirs of Jean-Louis Raoul, but they don’t want it, and they certainly don’t maintain it. There are people who would like to see it restored, including the man with the very detailed historical information. So now it sits there. A door to nowhere and a relic of a time when a king lived in the Marais.