Photo by Mary Winston Nicklin
Photo by Mary Winston Nicklin
Originally built as a depository for the royal furniture collections and crown jewels, the Hôtel de la Marine reopened as a public museum for the first time since the 18th century in 2021.
You’ve been to the Louvre. You’ve visited Versailles. Now you can wander the grand halls of the Hôtel de la Marine once again.
After more than four years of restoration work—to the tune of €132 million (US$158 million)—a new monument has just been unveiled in the center of Paris this month adding yet another marvel to its already rich cultural landscape. Situated on the Place de la Concorde, the Hôtel de la Marine is an immersion into Versailles-style opulence overlooking the square where Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette lost their heads.
Did we mention the most beautiful balcony in Paris? The swoon-worthy views? The sumptuous ballroom where Napoleon threw a party? Mais oui, you can’t miss this monument on your next Parisian adventure.
First, a little history. The Hôtel de la Marine dates back to 1755, when Ange-Jacques Gabriel, Louis XV’s chief architect, conceived the plan for the vast royal square now known as Place de la Concorde. Flanked on one side by monumental palaces, open to the Seine on the other, the city’s largest square would be an homage to the king after the end of the War of the Austrian Succession, his equestrian statue presiding over it all.
The Garde-Meuble de la Couronne—the depository for the royal furniture collections, crown jewels, tapestries, and precious objets d’art—was housed behind one of the imposing facades on the square. When it was open freely to visitors in 1772, the building—what is now the Hôtel de la Marine—became a museum even before the Louvre.
In 1789, the building was transformed into the home of the French Navy Ministry until 2015. From this vantage point, the Hôtel de la Marine bore witness to pivotal events in Parisian history, including the mass guillotine executions during the Reign of Terror (1793–94), the pharaonic task of erecting the 3,000-year-old Luxor obelisk in the middle of the square after transporting it from Egypt (1833), and the liberation of Paris from Nazi occupation (1944).
“The setting on the Place de la Concorde is a very symbolic place, so the Hôtel de la Marine is extremely important for the city,” explains Corinne Menegaux, managing director of the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau.
What has been closed to visitors since the 18th century has now been returned once more to the public—and in a grandiose way. Just one step inside the Cour d’Honneur, now directly accessible from the Place de la Concorde, and you’ll have a sense of the meticulous care with which the Centre des Monuments Nationaux (CMN) approached the restoration. The cobblestones are paved with a carpet of embedded LED lights, while the adjacent courtyard is topped with a head-pivoting glass canopy that refracts the light. Inside, the 18th-century apartments (once occupied by the intendant of the Garde-Meuble) and the 19th-century reception rooms have been carefully restored. Taking part in the project were more than 1,000 people in 50 different trades, including gilders, upholsterers, smiths, and carpenters.
“It was like an archeological excavation,” explains Jocelyn Bouraly, the monument’s administrator, “removing layers of paint, sometimes up to 18 layers, to get to the original.” The discoveries were phenomenal: bas-reliefs, gilded boiserie, inlaid parquet, sculpted marble fireplaces.
The most remarkable room? The Cabinet Doré, which had been covered with stainless steel walls during its incarnation as a kitchen in the 20th century. When these steel panels were removed, the restorers discovered 18th-century decorative boiserie that was miraculously preserved. Scrupulous detective work allowed the CMN to track down a set of furniture that used to adorn the room when it was the intendant’s personal study: a secretary and the exquisite Table of the Muses—both designed by Jean Henri Riesener, Marie Antoinette’s favorite ébéniste.
Another showstopper is the Cabinet des Glaces, a mirror-walled boudoir covered in paintings . . . and a salacious story. The first intendant was a single gentleman with a fondness for dancers and opera singers; his libertine tastes translated into erotic figures that were subsequently painted over with clothes by the second intendant (his wife was shocked by such bad taste).
“We’ve sought an identical restitution of these rooms so that when visitors enter, they have the feeling that the residents left just an instant before,” says Bouraly. To that end, expert conservators scoured the archives and period inventories to source original fabrics and furniture, some of it on loan from such prestigious institutions as the Louvre, the Mobilier National, the Palace of Versailles, and the Manufacture de Sèvres. There’s a game table strewn with authentic games, 18th-century damask and textiles sourced from flea markets and antiques dealers, and the table where the abolition of slavery was signed as a decree. In the dining room, where the table is dressed as it would have appeared at the end of a decadent meal, the silk wall hangings were painted by hand based on archival records.
The visitor circuit is enhanced by a headset that’s “a theatrical voyage in time,” explains architect Alain Moatti, who conceived the scenography. “We wanted to create real scenes with characters to give an emotional component to the visit, not just imparting the historical information you can find in books.”
After visiting the collections, you can browse through the Hôtel de la Marine’s boutique that’s been fashioned as a cool concept store, or grab a bite at the Café Lapérouse, which offers all-day dining in the courtyard.
This September, Jean-François Piège—one of France’s leading chefs—will unveil the Mimosa restaurant, which promises affordable prices despite its luxuriously royal setting. Later in the fall, an additional exhibition space will open in the former tapestry storerooms, showing off the Al Thani Collection, an impressive private art collection featuring artworks spanning more than 5,000 years from numerous civilizations, including ancient Egypt, China’s Han Dynasty, and the Mughal Empire.
The Hôtel de la Marine is open daily from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. (Late-night closure of 10 p.m. on Fridays.) The ticket price for the 45-minute “Reception Rooms and Loggia” circuit is €13 (US$16), while the “Grand Tour” circuit, about 1.5 hours, costs €17 (US$20).
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