The strange case of the disappearing hotel

Norman recently bought, sight unseen, a shoebox of French postcards from a man in Winnipeg. Among them was a series of images from a Paris hotel called the St-James and Albany. They set me off on a hunt that led to an unexpected conclusion.

Here is the front door of the hotel – what you would see once you entered the courtyard from the street door on the rue St-Honoré. (There is another entrance from the rue de Rivoli.)

It’s a venerable luxury hotel, currently closed for renovations. Its entire contents were sold at auction earlier in 2021.

As the name suggests, there were originally two separate hotels: the Hôtel Saint-James, dating from 1864 and fronting on the rue St-Honoré at no. 211, and the Hôtel d’Albany, opened in 1894 (replacing an older establishment called the Hôtel de Rivoli), facing rue de Rivoli, at no. 202. They joined forces shortly after the Albany opened, before the exposition of 1900 brought an influx of visitors to the city.

What caught my attention was the caption on this postcard showing one of the main public rooms.

The home of the Noailles family! The august and multi-branched family from whom many prominent French politicians and writers have come, has connections to Lafayette, to Proust, and even to my own research on Charles Barbier.* I wanted to know more.

The hôtel particulier that became the Hôtel de Noailles was built in 1687. This is supposed to be an image of the place from the garden side.

I say “supposed to be,” because it reminds me of a real estate advertisement or an artist’s impression of a building that might not have been built as advertised. For one thing, the picture makes the building look as if it stands alone, without neighbours. In fact, there was a convent right next door. And I wonder how the owners found the space on the rue St-Honoré for something this wide – this was the middle of town, close to the Louvre.

It was not built for the Noailles; the family bought it in 1711. A map from 1694 shows that the family already lived in the neighbourhood, on the other (north) side of the rue St-Honoré, and were therefore right on the spot when the previous owner wanted to sell. Note that in this map, north is to the left.

The Turgot map of 1739 shows the extent of the Hotel de Noailles fifty years after its construction. If the original view was accurate, by now the eastern wing has been truncated and the house is hemmed in by other buildings. Still, it has a splendid garden that abuts the manège (a space for equestrian sports and exercises) by the Tuileries Gardens. In this map, north is to the lower right.

That same year, 1739, the fourth duke and duchess de Noailles had a son, Jean-Paul, who would eventually become the fifth duke. As an adult, Jean-Paul reminds me slightly of Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, because he had five daughters to marry off (two sons and a sixth daughter all died in infancy). Unlike Mr. Bennet, however, he had money and connections and it seems that there was no shortage of suitors. He also had a calm and sensible wife, Henriette Anne Louise. Here is a lovely picture of her by Elisabeth Vigée-LeBrun.

Henriette Anne Louise de Noailles is described in an essay written in 1869 by Lady Verney, titled “A French Family of the Ancien Régime”:

The duchess was…an earnest, serious woman…devoted to her children’s education and to good works, who led an extremely retired life in the immense Hotel de Noailles, the great gardens of which ran down as far as the Tuileries. One of the daughters relates how, after dining with her at three o’clock, they used to follow her into a large bedroom, the walls hung with crimson silk laced with gold, with an immense bed in the corner. Here they sat for the evening, the duchess, still quite a young woman, in a bergère with her snuff-box, her books, and her knitting needles, the children each trying to sit next to her…**

This must have been a largely unvaried routine, since Henriette’s husband was often away from home, either serving the court at Versailles, or fighting in whatever war was going on at the time.

All five daughters married well: two became comtesses, three became marquises. According to Lady Verney,

The daughters were all disposed of while they were still what we should consider children; the eldest married her cousin, the Vicomte the Noailles, of very advanced Liberal opinions, when only sixteen; and the duchess was hardly spoken to by her husband for a whole year because she refused to accept the proposals of the Marquis de Lafayette, aged fourteen, for her second daughter, aged twelve. He was an orphan, and in possession of a large fortune, and the mother was afraid of trusting her little girl to such uncertain waters. As time went on, however, and she heard much good of the lad, she ended by giving her consent, on condition that the two children, as they were in age, should live in the Hotel de Noailles, and on these conditions, Adrienne, aged fourteen, was married to the young marquis, aged sixteen.

A plaque above the hotel entrance on the rue St-Honoré commemorates the wedding, which took place in the house.

Alas, the eldest daughter, along with her lovely mother and her elderly grandmother, perished on the guillotine in 1794 (they were buried in the mass grave in the Cimitière de Picpus; Lafayette’s grave is in the same cemetery). Lafayette’s wife Adrienne narrowly escaped execution (among other things, her death would have angered the Americans for whom her husband was a hero), but she spent years with him in prison. By all accounts, she was a remarkable woman. There are many portraits of her, but I like this one best, by an unknown artist.

They say that behind every great man is a woman rolling her eyes. Adrienne certainly stood behind her husband, but she was more likely to wince in discomfort than to roll her eyes, as her support for Lafayette ruined her health. She died in 1807.

Meanwhile, the family house on the rue St-Honoré had been commandeered by the Revolutionaries in the 1790s and by Napoleon in 1802, who gave it as a residence to his fellow consul at the time, Charles-François Lebrun. Lebrun was busy in Liguria (now part of Italy) and the Netherlands, and may not have spent much time in his newly acquired mansion.

With the restoration of the monarchy, the house was returned to the Noailles family, or at least what was left of the family. The fifth duke had survived, and even remarried, but the house probably held too many memories, and he sold it, perhaps as early as 1814.

A plan shows the house and garden in 1817-18. At this point, the house was no. 335 rue St-Honoré; the street was later renumbered.

“Plan de l’Hôtel de Noailles, rue Saint Honoré, en 1817-1818”. Anonyme. Dessin. Paris, musée Carnavalet.

The buyer was an Englishman, Lord Egerton, 8th Earl of Bridgewater, a learned antiquarian, heir to vast fortunes (a predecessor made millions from England’s early canal system), and a noted eccentric. It is said that he dressed up his dogs and had his footmen feed them at the dining table, that he stocked the garden with flightless partridges so that he could shoot them with ease, and that he wore a new pair of shoes every day. Although in his personal habits he was clearly several croissants short of a petit déjeuner, I suspect that some of the stories have gained extra details over time.

Lord Egerton, who not surprisingly never married, died in 1829. His heirs divided up and sold the property. The bottom of the garden went to complete the arcaded rue de Rivoli. In this image of the rue de Rivoli from 1832, there is a break in the row of buildings on the right, which may have been the Noailles/Egerton garden before it was built on to complete the street’s long row of buildings opposite the Tuileries Gardens.

What I find interesting is that at this point, the main house ceased to exist. The Musée Carnavalet contains several drawings showing the demolition of Hotel de Noailles in 1830. Here is one example.

The demolition cleared the way for the rue d’Alger, which today is a block and a half west of the building said to be the former Hôtel de Noailles. I’ve looked at many maps from this period, and clearly the Hotel de Noailles was farther west than the buildings that make up the modern hotel. This Google satellite view shows what is there now.

So is today’s hotel, which bears the plaque about the marriage of Lafayette, really the former Hotel de Noailles?

Probably not. At best, the hotel might include some elements from the demolished building.

It appears that someone simply moved the Lafayette plaque several doors to the east of the demolished house. With the change in the street numbering, the relocation of the plaque may have gone unnoticed.

Whatever its origins, as the Hotels St-James et d’Albany, the place had a storied career in the 20th century. F. Scott Fitzgerald stayed there on his first trip to the city in 1921. It was a home-away-from-home for Molly Brown (the “unsinkable” one). Thomas Mann set part of his strange, unfinished novel, Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, at the hotel. Generations of well-to-do tourists ate their meals in what the postcard says is the former ballroom…

…or took the air in the courtyard garden (note the woman and child at right).

But it is not on the site of the former Hôtel de Noailles. It contains some remnants from the 18th century, but the family’s hôtel particulier is long gone.

One day a new hotel will emerge, shorn of all its old trappings, all bright and shiny and modern. The ghosts of the Noailles, or even of Lord Egerton’s dogs, linger elsewhere.

Text by Philippa Campsie; images from Wikipedia, Gallica, Google Maps, and the Musée Carnavalet.

*One of Charles Barbier’s supporters and a member of the conseil d’administration at the Institution Royale des Jeunes Aveugles was Alexis de Noailles. His mother was the eldest daughter of the fifth duke mentioned here (Lafayette was his uncle by marriage).

**Lady Verney was Florence Nightingale’s sister. Her essay draws on the memoirs of Anne Paule Dominique, the second youngest daughter in the family, who later became the Marquise de Montagu and published a memoir in 1864.

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
This entry was posted in Paris history, Paris hotels, Paris postcards and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to The strange case of the disappearing hotel

  1. Catharine says:

    Fascinating article. Love the idea of getting a shoebox full of postcards, sight unseen.

  2. Olive says:

    Fascinating history. Well done on the excellent research

    • C-Marie says:

      Thank you so much! I clicked on the link for the essay by Lady Verney, and was gone for an hour or,so to the French Revolution, the people, guillotines, Catholicism, Lafayetter, and all. I loved the stories of couragageous trust in Christ.
      God bless, C-Marie

  3. Susan Walter says:

    Much of Lafayette’s wealth came from a string of chateaux estates that he inherited down my way, between Tours and Loches. Not much is made of him here, but I take an interest, and in Adrienne, who, as you say, was clearly rather remarkable.

  4. Jan Whitaker says:

    That box of postcards turned out to contain gems!

  5. Jeannine M Cordero says:

    Love this. Thank you for the research. It’s sad to see these places of old disappear.

  6. David Hawkins says:

    Any relation to the Nouailles who own, or used to own, Cartet, a restaurant on the rue de Malte?

  7. Narelle Jarvis says:

    “he was clearly several croissants short of a petit déjeuner” ….hilarious!
    Yet another fascinating piece of history, thank you. It will be interesting to see what other stories are contained in that shoe box.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.