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Matignon Hotel

Published on December 1, 2007
In 1670, as part of his plan for the construction of the Hôtel des Invalides, Louis XIV decided to restore the old "Chemin du Bois de la Garenne", which had become the "Rue de Varenne", that linked Saint-Germain-des-Prés, at the western end of Paris, with the marshy terrain chosen as the new building site. Henceforth the "Noble Faubourg" gained a new lease on life, the proximity of Versailles being irresistible for an aristocracy who lived exclusively by and for the Court.

On 30 September 1717, Charles-Louis de Montmorency Luxembourg, Prince of Tigny and Maréchal de France, purchased, for the sum of 91,00 Livres, 2869 toises (approximately 3 hectares) of land along the Rue de Varenne. He was a lover of gardens and intended to create a country park. In 1722, he commissioned a little-known architect, Jean Courtonne, to conceive and construct a mansion. His success in this endeavor won him entry to the Academy of Architecture, where he wrote a much-remarked "Treatise on Perspectives" (1725). But the expense of the enterprise forced the Prince of Tigny to sell, and it was the Count of Matignon who bought the Hotel, completed in 1725, as a present for his son, the Duke of Valentinois.

Coutronne’s design was highly original. Rising from a broad terrace, the main residence, a single-storey building crowned by a balustrade, comprises two suites of rooms. Access from the street is gained by a portico ornamented by columns. This archway reveals the main courtyard, bracketed by two low wings of offices and outbuildings, to the right of which are situated another courtyard, the stables and the kitchens. The facade is broken by three advances. Those to the right and left house the staircases, while the central pavilion displays a magnificent balcony sculpted with lion motifs. Visitors’ admiration is drawn by two singular architectural features: the segmented cupola of the entrance hall and, to its right, the first room to have been originally designed for dining. The facade seen from the garden runs the entire length of the buildings, concealing the main courtyard and the servants’ yard. Although the design results in a slight imbalance in the natural disposition of the mansion, it respects the placement of a central pavilion with three panels surmounted by a broken pediment bearing the arms of the owners.

Its rich interiors made the Hôtel Matignon one of the most elegant and most frequented mansions of Paris. The wood panelling is the work of Michel Lange, who had already decorated the Grand Salon of the Hôtel d’Evreux (today the Ambassadors’ Salon of the Elysée Palace. The cornices and the stucco work are by Jean-Martin Pelletier and Jean Herpin. At the time, any "well-dressed" person was authorized by the owners to visit these splendors in their absence.

In 1731, the wife of Jacques de Matignon, daughter of Anthony I Grimaldi, succeeded her father as head of the principality of Monaco. In 1734, their son, Honoré III, mounted the throne. Although he was open to the revolutionary ideas of the time, he was imprisoned on 20 September 1793. At his liberation a year later, he was ruined, and his property under seal. His sons obtained restitution, but were obliged to put the mansion up for sale in 1802.

It was bought by Anne Eleonore Franchi. A professional dancer, she caught the eye, at the Carnaval of Venice, of Duke Charles-Eugene of Wurtenberg, who had three children by her. The Duke died, and finding herself in Vienna and once more a dancer, she became the mistress of Joseph II. The Empress, Maria Theresa, who had no love for her, had her expelled from Austria. Exiled to the East Indies, she returned to France in the company of the Scottish banker Quentin Crawford. The two of them refurnished the Hôtel, which once again became a festive gathering place for the Ancien Regime society and a hotbed of opposition. Close friends of Josephine de Beauharnais, the couple grew increasingly open in their criticism of Napoleon after the divorce.

In 1808, the Hôtel Matignon passed into the hands of one of the best-known figures of the first half of the nineteenth century: Monsieur de Talleyrand, Prince of Benevent and Vice Great Elector. Four times a week he gave dinners for thirty-six guests, prepared in his kitchens by the renowned Boucher. As the shrewd diplomat that he was, he held a great number of balls in honor of the imperial family. In 1811, Napoleon called on Talleyrand to reimburse the city of Hambourg the four millions it had paid him in order to avoid incorporation into the new French department of the "Bouches de l’Elbe". As the endeavor had failed, Talleyrand did not consider it necessary to return the sum. He was obliged to put the Hôtel p for sale; the Emperor had it purchased for 1 280 000 Francs ... but Talleyrand never reimbursed Hambourg.

In 1815, Louis XVIII traded the Hôtel de Matignon for the Elysée Palace, which belonged to Louise Bathilde of Orleans, sister to Louis Philippe Joseph, Duke of Orleans and wife of the Duke of Bourbon. She promptly installed a community of nuns on the premises, charged with praying for the souls of victims of the Revolution. Her niece inherited the property in 1822 and moved the community to the Rue de Picpus in order to rent out the Hôtel.

It was next occupied by a picturesque figure: Colonel Thorn. Originally from the United States and immensely wealthy, he spent a million francs redecorating the mansion, and gave reception after reception. His magnificent lifestyle enabled him to find husbands for his daughters among the finest names in Europe, and his son married the sister of Madame de Metternich. But the political events of 1848 forced him to return to New York.

It was planned to place the Hôtel Matignon at the disposal of the head of the executive branch of the new Republic. But if General Cavaignac chose to reside there until December 1848, the Prince President, Napoleon III, preferred the Elysée.

A short time later the Hôtel was sold to the Duke of Galliera, Raffaele de Ferrari, member of the Genoese nobility and husband of Marie de Brignole Sale, great niece to the Princess of Monaco. Together they possessed one of the great fortunes of the time; it is claimed that they owned half of Genoa. Founder of the "Crédit Immobilier de France", Raffaele financed many of the major construction projects of the second half of the nineteenth century: railroads in Austria, Latin America, Portugal and France (the Paris-Lyons-Marseille line), the digging of the Fréjus tunnel and the Suez Canal, the Paris buildings designed by Baron Hausmann... Three years after the fall of Napoleon III (1870), the Duchess proposed that the Count of Paris take up residence at the Rue de Varenne. He came to occupy the ground floor of the Hôtel Matignon. On 14 May 1886, this was the setting of one of the century’s most sumptuous receptions: three thousand guests, the entire aristocracy of France, the diplomatic corps and numerous political figures thronged to celebrate the marriage of Princess Amélie, the Count’s daughter, with Carlos, heir to the Portuguese throne. The story goes that, the day of the reception, the President had a sudden desire to visit the Bois de Boulogne, but was unable to leave the Elysée because of the congested traffic. The following day, no doubt alarmed by such a large gathering of Monarchists in the Capital, the President of the Council, Monsieur de Freycinet, called for a law exiling pretenders to the French throne. The next week the legislation was passed.

The Duchess of Galliera was disenchanted and quit Paris, leaving her mansion to the Austro-Hungarian Emperor, who made it his Embassy in France. But the First World War found the two countries on opposite sides and, confiscated in 1919, the Hôtel Matignon was declared "enemy property". On 21 November 1922, after prolonged negotiations, France once more assumed ownership.

The mansion was to become a museum; the property was to be subdivided and individual dwellings built; Gaston Donmergue got wind of the plans; he had the Hôtel classified and decided to make it the headquarters of the President of the Council. The architect Bigot took the necessary steps and, in 1935, Pierre Etienne Flandrin became the first new occupant. A year later the "Matignon Accords" were signed between Léon Blum and the leaders of the spring 1936 strikes, introducing the forty-hour work week and paid vacations.

During the Second World War, the government moved to Vichy, but on 21 August 1944, it was in Paris that the resistance leader Yvon Mosandal and his companion seized the "Government Mansion", the Hôtel Matignon. In their haste they even confused the Avenue Matignon, located on the Right Bank of the Seine, with the Hôtel Matignon, situated on the Left Bank. It was there that, on 25 August, General de Gaulle convened the "Provisory Council of the Republic". Subsequent Presidents of the Council followed his example and, his return in 1958, like the new Republic, changed nothing more at Matignon than the occupant’s name, which, instead of President of the Council, became Prime Minister.