PARIS – It was a warehouse for furniture, art, carpets and precious jewels of the French royal family. It was here that Marie Antoinette’s death certificate was signed, Napoleon I and Josephine celebrated their coronation ball and the abolition of slavery in France became law. It was the headquarters of the French Navy for more than 200 years and a division of Nazi Germany during World War II.
The Hôtel de la Marine, the highly anticipated new Paris museum opened to the public this month, is steeped in history. Now the grand neoclassical palace on Place de la Concorde is on view for the first time in nearly 250 years, after a four-year $ 157 million renovation that took about 200 of the best French artisans to carefully remove the many changes made removing over time attached to the building and restored to its former glory.
“It was a kind of restoration that the French administration hadn’t done before,” said Joseph Achkar, an 18th-century design expert who oversaw the project with his partner Michel Charrière.
“Normally, for example, you pull back a wall at one point to find the original color, then everything is repainted,” says Achkar. “We restored every detail like a painting, uncovering layer by layer and using the same techniques as in the 18th century to restore the original colors, fabrics and woodwork.”
Numerous additions have been made to the original structure over the centuries, said Christophe Bottineau, the architect in charge of France’s historical monuments. The original building comprised a luxurious 14-room apartment made available to the administrator of the royal collection, as well as large reception rooms, storage rooms, offices, workshops and accommodation for the workers. After the French Revolution in 1789, the Navy took over the building, adding new floors and changing the interiors to accommodate their offices.
“It was a renovation where things were taken away instead of added,” Bottineau said.
The restoration of the apartment was enormously supported by a very specific inventory of the original furnishings and fittings. “The smallest details of fabric, furniture, paint and gilding were noted on 900 pages,” said Achkar.
While Achkar and Charrière procured original furniture, works of art and textiles, some of France’s most specialized craftsmen worked on the renovation. They hand sewn hundreds of feet of curtains, removed 18 layers of paint from the walls, restored wood and gilding, and hand painted wallpaper.
Here you can see some of their work up close.
This was the original bed and linens used by Marc-Antoine Thierry de Ville-d’Avray, the second (and last) steward of the king’s possessions, Achkar said. The silk fabric was frayed and the embroidery was revised using a handcraft technique from the 18th century.
Any missing moldings and wood carvings on the walls have been remade and finished with gold leaf or patina, said Alexis Boutrolle, the operations manager at Asselin, a French carpentry that specializes in historical restoration and who carried out the work.
“The main goal of this work was to be historically correct, but also to create something that feels lived,” said Boutrolle. “If you do this by hand the old-fashioned way, the patina is very subtle and rich in nuances.”
These tiebacks, each with an ornate hanging tassel, take about 150 hours to make, said Eléonore Declercq of Declercq Passementiers, a decorative items company.
The process begins by matching the threads to the curtain color. “It’s like mixing paint, but with threads,” she said. The drawstring is made by twisting the threads as they are slowly pulled through a loom, and the “skirt,” or hanging part of the ornament, is handcrafted, often with decorative elements like the little fruits on the yellow tassel here.
“Each decoration involves different types of specialized work and techniques,” Declercq said. For the Hôtel de la Marine, the company made 54 decorative ruffle holders.
It took six weeks to hand-sew these draped curtains, said Lucas du Pasquier, an upholsterer at Alexandre Phelippeau, the company that made them. Using a machine “actually creates tighter stitches and is better in some ways,” he said. “But the decision was to do things the way they were done back then.”
To secure the fabric and secure the sides of the draped curtains to the wall, the curtain makers used an 18th century hammer with a magnetic back to which the nails are attached. Then they are knocked into the wall and covered with fabric. “My colleague has his nails in his mouth and is just about to fix the fabric,” says du Pasquier. “It’s pretty tricky.”
This huge tapestry is not the original that hung here – it now hangs in the French embassy in Rome. Achkar and Charrière decided to use a tapestry from another room, made around the same time, but it was not the right size. “Then we found a border that actually comes from the same workshop as the original – a miracle!” He said.
“We had to cut away the damaged pieces and find a way to put them together seamlessly without using modern techniques,” said du Pasquier. “It’s the first time I’ve worked like this and I don’t know if I’ll ever do it again.”
For his office, de Ville-d’Avray commissioned a parquet floor made from three rare types of wood: sycamore, amaranth and mahogany. “It’s an extraordinary handicraft – it feels almost three-dimensional,” says Achkar. The floors were restored about 20 years ago, but much of the wood paneling needs to be painstakingly restored, Boutrolle said.
The dining room is set up in such a way that “after the meal, the atmosphere arises as if the guests had just left,” said Achkar. He added that creating the atmosphere of an inhabited apartment was an important part of their approach. “We didn’t want it to look like a museum with different pieces marked by little cards, but more like a home full of all kinds of things,” he said.
The elaborately embroidered fabric of the tablecloth from the 18th century is “magnificent, but extremely fragile and time-consuming to process,” added Achkar.
The opulent reception room dates from the 19th century and was not part of the recent renovation, but will be a visitor information center and provide access to the huge balcony overlooking Place de la Concorde.
Proper lighting in both the 18th and 19th centuries was paramount, said Régis Mathieu, whose workshops repaired or recreated all of the lights for the interior and exterior of the building.
“In the 18th century, the lighting was more sophisticated: the chandeliers were mostly crystal with fewer candles,” he said. “That was a very complicated task, because the lighting had to be true to the time for a modern museum.”
In the 19th century, he added, the rooms were larger and more gilded and more ornate with large chandeliers. “When you see it from the outside, everything lit, you get the feeling that there is a big ball that you would like to go to,” he said.
“We renewed a thousand windows and doors inside and out,” says Boutrolle. “Since it is a landmark, everything had to be historically correct, including the iron and bronze fittings or even leather.”
“There are a lot of good craftsmen in France with excellent training,” he added. “There is a real wealth of savoir-faire.”