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French Swamp Frogs And Good Ghosts

Those who know me well know I collect Frogs. Little green creatures sit in the nooks and crannies all over my apartment, very inconspicuously, but there are dozens of them.

There are several reasons for this, but one is my affection for the swamps…the swamps of Louisiana where the “Cajuns” (the Acadian French who settled in Louisiana in the late 1700’s) hunt for crawfish, alligator, turtle and frogs for food and for the swamps of Paris known as “Le Marais.”

One story for why the French are nicknamed “The Frogs” (there are many and no one knows which one is true) dates back to the 13th-century, when Paris was surrounded by many swamps. The French nobility that would visit Versailles apparently tended to refer to Parisians as “Frogs” because of the swampy surroundings…and only later did the term get picked up to describe the French in general.

It was in the 13th-century that the Knights Templar settled in its northern section, now known as the quartier du Temple (exactly where I live today), and began to drain the land. In the 14th-century, Charles V established himself in the newly built Hôtel Saint-Pol and at the other side of rue Saint-Antoine, the royal Hôtel des Tournelles was built. He resided between the two and when Henri II was wounded during a duel with Montgomery, he was transported to the Hôtel des Tournelles where he died ten days later. His widow, Catherine de Médicis, not bearing to live there anymore, razed everything and the Louvre became the royal residence.

The 17th-century was the golden age of the Marais, thanks to Henri IV, the first of the French town-planners. One of his realizations remains among others — the beautiful Place des Vosges, which today reminds me strongly of Jackson Square in New Orleans. This golden era was relatively short-lived as the aristocracy began to move away after the king took his court to Versailles in the latter part of the seventeenth century, leaving their mansions to the trading classes, who were in turn displaced during the Revolution.

Thereafter, the masses moved in, the mansions were transformed into decaying multi-occupied slum tenements and the streets degenerated into unserviced squalor — and stayed that way until August 4th 1962, when Michel Debré and André Malraux created the law aiming to protect the old center of town threatened by real estate promotion.

There are three types of dwellings in Le Marais: the house, the investment property and the private mansion.

The term of “house” is from the Middle
Ages — it is a building established o

n the street, built on a cellar that can have several levels, with a shopping ground floor and several floors, on average two or three in the 17th century and three or four in the 18th century. In the Middle Ages there was often a market/garden behind the house. Entry is called “la porte bourgeoise,” which leads by a narrow corridor to the staircase erected on a narrowed plane and leading to each floor. The housing was at the time thought of on a vertical scale rather than horizontal as it is today. The construction of these houses was done, from the Middle Ages to the Restoration, close to five centuries, according to the same methods and with the same materials. This explains the harmony prevailing in the streets of Le Marais, destroyed under the technological transformations issued from the industrial revolution during the mid 1800’s.

There are relatively few “investment properties” in the Marais. It appeared during the 17th-century and developed during the reign of Louis XVI. Investment properties were designed to rent by levels, aiming for profits. Characterized by more floors (an average of four to six in the 18th and 19th centuries), a homogeneous and repetitive distribution, a more important vertical servicing, it also required a lot of ground space. That is why they were mainly owned in the 18th-century by religious congregations — important property owners – to whom these “renting houses” as they are still called today, were a source of income. From the point of view of the elevation, the architecture is quite similar to the “house.” From Louis XVI, the investment property came together with the town-planning program as, at the time of the opening of the Marché Sainte-Catherine market, it became the main element of the Parisian urban fabric.

The private mansion known as “Hôtel Particulier,” is a big residence built for one family, which size and decor reflect the social role that the family played in the city. The mansion is open to the street by a carriage entrance underlined by arms. It has a big courtyard and often a garden. The mansion contains rooms specific to the high society: gallery, private chapel and other grand spaces. Most of the Hôtel Particuliers still standing are here in the Marais. The Marais is considered “the laboratory” of what is called “the mansion between courtyard and garden.” While the medieval city did not always offer any grounds or land, the Marais was still mainly, in the middle of the 16th century, a wide field to be built on with flat ground and straight new streets.

It is in a Hôtel Particulier of the 17th-century that my apartment sits, on the 3rd floor of what was originally the servants quarters evidenced by the narrowing of the staircase at this level, the toilet in the corridor outside my door and the irregularities in the parquet floor I discovered when I pulled up four layers of old carpets. You enter the building through two massive doors into a cobblestoned archway that leads to a beautiful courtyard, surrounded by four buildings. I was told the courtyard once led onto a garden that ended at rue Charlot and that the side and back buildings were built much later. This appears to be true by virtue of the height of each level, each shorter than in my building, which has the grand staircase and very high ceilings.

I know one thing…those who inhabited my building over the centuries must have been people with happy lives, because you can feel the good ghosts the minute you enter.

Scroll down for some special properties for sale in Le Marais.

A la prochaine…


Adrian Leeds
Editor, Parler Paris
E-mail:
[email protected]

P.S. Paris, be sure to stop by Tuesday, May 11th 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at La Pierre du Marais for this month’s Parler Paris Après Midi. It’s in the Quartier du Temple, across for the Square du Temple, so you’ll have your own taste of La Vieille Paris. See /parlerparis/apresmidi.html for the details. See you there!

FOR SALE:

Each week Paris Property Picks features a range of properties which we believe are on the market at the time of writing. These properties are featured in order to give readers a sample of what is currently available and a working example of prices being asked in various districts of Paris. As we are not a real estate agency, these properties do not constitute a sales listing. For those readers seriously interested in finding property in Paris or France, you can retain our services to do the whole thing for you. For more information, visit /frenchproperty/insider/propertyconsultation.html
or contact Jocelyn Carnegie at [email protected]

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*** 28m² STUDIO IN THE 3RD
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In an old building recently renovated, triple exposure, parquet, fireplace, separate kitchen, cellar, calm and sunny.

Asking Price: 182,400 Euro + 2% Finder’s Fee

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*** 84m² 4-ROOM APARTMENT OVERLOOKING SQUARE DU TEMPLE IN THE 3RD
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In a building from the 18th century, with renovation work to the building and elevator previously voted on, with double exposure and a view on Square du Temple.

Asking Price: 480,000 + 2% Finder’s Fee

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*** 55m² 2-ROOM APARTMENT ON FERDINAND DUVAL IN THE 4TH
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Double salon with wood beams, bedroom on the courtyard, unobstructed view, American style equipped kitchen, a “coup de coeur!” Asking Price: 350 000,00 Euro + 2% Finder’s Fee

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