The home of Émile Gaillard, a “magical” building
Hôtel Gaillard’s façade reigns over place du Général-Catroux and, in Paris’ 17th arrondissement where cut stone dominates the landscape, it sets itself apart with its brick walls topped with sleek roofs and thin turrets. Designed at the end of the 19th century, the building’s radical architecture is still startling. It surprised and enchanted its contemporaries who called it “marvellous”, “magnificent”, “surprising” and “magical”. It’s true that its original architecture was a surprise. However, it was no accident and was exactly how its sponsor, Émile Gaillard, has envisioned it.
A tailor-made neighbourhood
In 1878, Émile Gaillard purchased two adjacent plots of land on Plaine Monceau. Formerly an area used for pasture and vegetable crops, the Plaine was urbanised at the end of the 19th century, with shrewd businessmen investing in and purchasing plots to sell them off. The neighbourhood has strong assets: it is well served by boulevard Malesherbes and avenue de Villiers, there’s plenty of room, it’s chic, bourgeois and busy, being especially visited by artists. Claude Debussy and Sarah Bernhardt lived here. This setting also pleased Émile Gaillard who, despite being a banker, was also passionate about art. His residence rue Daru became too cramped for his sizeable Middle Age and Renaissance art collection, and he tasked architect Jules Février with the construction of a town mansion.
On the plot he purchased, Émile Gaillard had his home built along with two adjacent town mansions to make his property investment more profitable: one overlooking rue Berger and the other on rue de Thann. With Hôtel Gaillard, these form a U shape surrounding a courtyard for the crews. These beautiful properties are unlike “Châteaux” due to their architecture which is typical of the late 19th century. Today, all three have been reunited and are inter-communicating. Unlike traditional town mansions, this building is not hidden behind a large porch. The entrance opens onto the road and not onto a courtyard. Hotel Gaillard flaunts its magnificence.
A large bourgeois residence
The building is a testament to its owner’s social standing and artistic taste. It meets three requirements: to house a family, to receive guests with style and to showcase an exceptional collection in an appropriate environment. Utility rooms are on the ground floor. Private apartments are on the mezzanine floor, accessed via a grand staircase, and include: a dining room, four bedrooms and en-suite bathrooms. The richly decorated reception rooms are on the first floor: the small lounge, the great lounge and the art gallery. This is where Émile Gaillard displayed his most beautiful pieces: pottery by Bernard Palissy, Flemish tapestries, Renaissance statues and chests. The second floor is reserved for his oldest son, Eugène.
An original legacy, a piece of work by architect Jules Février
An original legacy, built between 1878 and 1884
Anyone can see this Renaissance Revival masterpiece’s resemblance with the châteaux of the Loire valley. The press at the time hesitated on the term that should be used to refer to it: “Should town mansion, château or palace be used to refer to the splendid construction that [...] Mr. J. Février has just built for Mr. Gaillard, a banker in Grenoble?”(1) queries Cl. Périer in the pages of La Semaine des Constructeurs. To be more precise, Hôtel Gaillard drew inspiration from the Blois and Gien châteaux, built during the 15th and 16th centuries respectively, and more specifically from the architecture of château de Blois’ Louis XII wing.
The château de Blois, the point of reference
Several factors contributed towards Blois becoming an architectural reference in the 19th century. It is one of the most beautiful royal residences. Louis XII transformed this fortress castle into a palace and built a wing characteristic of the “French Renaissance” between 1498 and 1503. This style includes gothic elements from the late 15th century and Renaissance innovations from Italy and Northern Europe. During the mid-19th century, this legacy was officially recognized. In 1840, at Prosper Mérimée’s initiative (then general inspector of Historic Monuments, a brand-new authority created in 1837), the château de Blois was registered on the list of historical monuments and restored by architect Félix Duban using State funds. After long restoration works, it was the subject of a highly documented publication (2) which Jules Février - Émile Gaillard’s architect - would later use. The latter was also in contact with Jules Édouard Potier de La Morandière, the inspecting architect for the Blois restoration works and was no doubt advised by him. Thus, the Hôtel Gaillard’s aesthetics were carefully planned and designed to be reminiscent of a style and period.
A fashionable style
Émile Gaillard’s artistic choices were in line with the confirmed trend of the 19th century. The architecture of the past won over entrepreneurs and businessmen alike. Romanticism awoke a taste for Middle Age art (in 1830, Victor Hugo published The Hunchback of Notre-Dame), the Gothic Revival style - a testament to the audacity of cathedral builders - was brought to civil architecture in France as well as in England and Germany.
The “Château” style did not stay in Plaine Monceau, it was fashionable in France as well as across the Atlantic, and as many residences inspired by this model can be found in Europe and in the USA.
Thus, the architect Robert Morris Hunt who studied at the École des Beaux arts de Paris created one of the most impressive Renaissance Revival pastiches inspired by the Château de Blois for George Washington Vanderbilt at the end of the 19th century: the Biltmore estate near Asheville in North Carolina. This large private estate is now a museum.
The use of exceptional know-how
The restoration of the château de Blois and Renaissance Revival constructions such as Hôtel Gaillard have contributed towards bringing back specific art techniques among which painted enamel, wood sculptures, polychromatic glass and woodwork. Émile Gaillard and Jules Février worked with renowned artists for the internal decor - Mr. Jean, a sculptor from Rouan, and Mr. Andrieu for woodwork -, and sought out exceptional know-how, including artisans in charge of restoring château de Blois, such as the Loebnitz faience factory to decorate the grand staircase landings.
A Banque de France branch from 1923-2006
From the 1920s, after its transformation into a Banque de France branch, the Hôtel Gaillard took on a new life, the remnants of which can still be seen inside and are part of the visit.
1923, Hôtel Gaillard becomes a bank, a smooth transformation
Malesherbes: the ideal location for a bank branch. In the wake of the First World War, the Banque de France continues its expansion strategy by opening branches. In 1920, it decides to create three local offices in Paris: place de la Bastille, boulevard Raspail and place Malesherbes. The plaine Monceau neighbourhood has changed since the end of the 19th century: great industrial families have replaced the artists which had made it famous during Émile Gaillard’s lifetime. As a result, the Peugeot, Breuget, Guerlain, Michelin and Haviland families now live in this bourgeois arrondissement. Consequently, the Malesherbes branch had the largest portfolio of securities.
In 1919, the Banque de France acquired Hôtel Gaillard
Up for sale since 1904, with no buyer in sight, Hôtel Gaillard is sold cheap, with the Bank buying it for 2 million francs. A bargain given that the cost of its construction was estimated at 11 million francs. The Banque de France is not satisfied with the “château” part alone, and also buys the town mansion located rue Berger (where the branch director would later live). Meanwhile, the town mansion located rue de Thann - which had been sold to the Union des Femmes de France - was exchanged against another neighbourhood building. Thus, the entire Gaillard plot, along with its three buildings, became the property of the Banque de France.
Transforming this “Renaissance Château” into a bank branch required significant works which lasted for 4 years between 1919 and 1923. The works are entrusted to the architect Alphonse Defrasse and to the decorator Jean-Henri Jansen. The bank had no intention of losing the place’s originality and style, which would attract clients. However, its purpose was no longer to house a family and a collection, but to accommodate the public staff and vaults. The building needed to be functional and inspire trust. Alphonse Defrasse made the necessary restructurations creating a public hall (named the Defrasse hall), a vault room and administrative offices. The town mansion located rue de Thann was merged with Hôtel Gaillard in order to create new functional rooms.
Historic pieces of remarkable decor were kept, save for the art gallery that looked over rue de Thann. The monumental grand staircase would henceforth lead to the different departments set up in the former apartments and reception rooms. Clients would climb them to reach the information desk (once the small lounge) before heading towards the securities gallery for stock exchange transactions or to the public hall where small stalls enabled them to meet with the employees at the different booths.
Defrasse hall and the vault room: a monumental ensemble
A major asset in the inner courtyard
To build what is to be the beating heart of this new branch, Alphone Defrasse found the space required in the Hôtel Gaillard’s inner courtyard. He dug down to create an underground vault room and elevated the public hall above it using a vast reinforced concrete structure topped with a wooden and glass vaulted ceiling. The result is monumental, spectacular. Enough to seduce and reassure clients, to drain their savings and spark their imagination.
The vault room: maximum protection
Defrasse is the Banque de France’s lead architect and knows exactly what a bank branch needs. The vault room is built over two levels with a mezzanine passageway, imposing pillars, 112 vaults containing 3874 safes of varying sizes and booths to hide clients from view.
It boasts an unprecedented security system: protected by a heavy armoured door built-in and surrounded by a water-filled moat, it is accessed by a type of draw bridge, a sliding floor operated by an electrical system. Once again, Hôtel Gaillard surprises, notably the Petit Parisien journalist who describes these developments as “walls calculated to play with iron, fire and powder: Cyclops locks with Lilluputian keys... In this grave, the eye of conscience could not follow Cain”.
Respecting the spirit of the place
The Art Deco style dominated the 1920s, its geometry and the monumentality of its shapes contrasting with the “Renaissance” sophistication of Hôtel Gaillard.
When Alphonse Dufrasse started on the site, the building had not yet been classed a historical monument, he had full freedom to change the original structure, yet he work to respect the spirit of the place, reclaiming its decorative register. A decision that gained the recognition of the architect Victor-Jules Février: “Not only did you not denature my work, but you completed it.”
In the vault room, the monumental framework shaped like an inverted hull, is reminiscent of the well staircase. The pattern on the mezzanine railing matches that on the grand staircase and the loggia. On the upper parts of the pillars - which are Art Deco by their very size -, Defrasse added Renaissance Revival decorations.
The devil is in the details
For its new branch, the bank did not skimp on the quality of materials and used renowned artisans. The famous Maison Jansen provided the wooden counters and booths, adding the gothic “linenfold” patterns found on the panelling in the dining room.
Renaissance Revival furniture was tailor made to furnish the offices for the branch’s executives. Lighting, including the ironwork chandeliers in the public hall, was entrusted to the Saunier-Duval company, specialising in gas lighting, and in charge of Parisian streetlights. After being remodelled on several occasions - in the 1950s and again 20 years later - to account for the drop in staff and the change in banking transactions, the branch definitively closed its doors on 1 July 2006.
(1) Excerpt from Le néo-Renaoissance en France et la Haute Banque by Antonio Brucceleri, 2016.
(2) Architecture de la Renaissance : le Château de Blois (extérieur et intérieur) by Ernest Le Nail, published in 1875.
Published on 23 September 2021.