Hector Guimard’s Art Nouveau Legacy: an Architecture Walk in Paris’s 16th Arrondissement
The 16th arrondissement in the city’s west is Paris’s biggest, with a reputation for being a toney neighbourhood where nothing terribly exciting happens. Having lived there for several months and worked there for several years more, I can attest that there’s some truth to this.
The upside to this inertia? Whole blocks of Haussmannian-style buildings remain intact, meaning you’ll often come across film crews, especially for period pieces but also “Inception.” And wedged in between those classic buildings are some of Paris’s finest remaining examples of Art Nouveau architecture.
Art Nouveau came out of the Belle Epoque, an era of progress and optimism between the end of the Franco-Prussian War and WW1 (1871 – 1914). The joie de vivre of that golden age is visible in its blend of function and whimsy: Louis Comfort Tiffany’s wildly colourful lampshades, Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s predominantly geometric flowers, and the famed metro entrances with glass edicules, or lampstands that are part-vegetal, part-Alien/War of the Worlds.
Those were designed by Hector Guimard. I’m in awe of the sheer volume of his work, from buildings to beds to doorknobs, and in love with the curvy, feminine lines that dominate his work. Guimard was uncompromising in his vision and shamelessly self-promoting. But even he fell out of favor, and far too many of his works have been destroyed. This walk focuses on Guimard’s remaining buildings in the 16th’s southern Auteil quartier. Perfectly suited for a warm day when you want to get away from the crowds, the walk is 2 miles long over easy terrain, and takes about 90 minutes. I’ve finished up with several options at the end that you might be interested in seeing while you’re in the area.
On y va!
Start: Avenue du President Kennedy RER C stop
Take the Rue de Ranelagh exit and go right, then left onto rue Jean de la Fontaine. In 5 minutes, you’ll come to our first stop.
1. Le Castel Béranger 14 rue Jean de la Fontaine Built in 1898
This 36-apartment structure is the first residential building in Paris to be recognized as Art Nouveau. Built for his client Anne-Elisabeth Fournier, it’s Guimard’s most fantastical design with its OTT ornamentation. Aqua cast-iron seahorses, devils that shocked the locals, sinuous metalwork over molten copper in the entryway, it’s all there. The inclusion of an elevator also made the Castel one of the first buildings in Paris to have this modern convenience.
It was nicknamed Castel Dérangé (Crazy Castle) by detractors, but do you think Guimard cared? Nope. He was making a statement, one that paid off when he was awarded top honors in the annual contest for the most beautiful building façade in Paris. He then had notice of that honor carved right into the façade itself, as well as holding an exhibition at the 1899 Salon du Figaro and published a book extolling the virtues of his building.
Under protected status since 1971, the building is more popular than ever. A 2-bedroom apartment was recently listed for €1M. The bathroom and kitchen have been updated in soul-sucking homogeneity, but the other rooms still have their gorgeous fittings.
2. Numerous buildings 17 – 19 – 21 rue Jean de la Fontaine 43 rue Gros 8-10 rue Agar Built 1909 – 1911
Cross the street and walk down half a block to Rue Gros. Turn left to find Rue Agar, and do a lap of the block—any building with spidery black balustrades and curved door and window portals with organic designs is courtesy of Guimard. Of particular note:• the cartouche at the corner of Rue Gros and Rue Agar dedicated to dramatic actress Marie Léonide Charvin, who took the biblical name Agar for her stage career. Ranked alongside fellow “tragedienne” Sarah Bernhardt in terms of talent and beauty, and beloved for her impassioned rendering of La Marseillaise, she was blacklisted after supporting the Paris Commune. • the twin original “Rue Agar” cast iron street signs above the real estate offices on both corners of Agar and Jean de la Fontaine, with their sinuous design and luscious white font.
Speaking of luscious fonts, take a few steps back to the curved base of 17 rue Jean de la Fontaine and the “CAFÉ/BAR” sign above the red awning.
This space has been operating as a café since the building opened in 1911 and, under the name Café Antoine, was charmingly shabby when I first dropped in for a citron pressé at its zinc bar one hot August day in 2000. Restored to its former glory in 2018, the café is now called CRAVAN and has earned the accolade of one of Condé Nast Traveler’s Best Bars of 2020. It’s a dreamy spot to stop for a coffee—or to come back to later to sample the impressive cocktail menu over lunch or dinner.
CRAVAN 17 rue Jean de la Fontaine
3. Immeuble Trémois 11 rue François-Millet Built 1909-1910
Walk two minutes along rue Jean de la Fontaine and turn left into rue François-Millet. Smaller and narrower than its counterparts on rue Jean de la Fontaine, Immeuble Trémois still holds buckets of charm in its black cast-iron fittings. Notice that the building’s middle panel is slightly projected to make the most of the light on the narrow street—and that there’s a gorgeous balcony up on the 5th floor.
4. Hôtel Mezzara 60 rue Jean de la Fontaine Built 1910-1911
Retrace your steps to rue Jean de la Fontaine and cross to the other side to reach this hôtel particulier (single-family townhouse), designed for artist/writer/lace manufacturer/Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur Paul Mezzara.
Like the buildings we just came from, this is sedate in comparison to the Castel Béranger—at least from the outside. Inside, the foyer’s elaborate staircase is crowned with a stunning stained glass. The building passed through several hands and was used as a school before being purchased by the state, who restored it. Thankfully, the original dining room fittings and furniture, carved from Guimard’s favorite wood, pear, survived.
The future ownership of the building is currently being decided by the state, with an alliance of preservationists, private interests and the RATP (whose metro entrances owe much to Guimard) lobbying to use the hotel as a Guimard and Art Nouveau museum.
5. Hôtel Delfau1ter rue Molitor Built 1894, modified 1907
Next is a 10-minute walk through the quiet Auteuil streets. Go left on rue du Père Brottier, right on avenue Théophile Gautier, straight on Place de l’église d’Auteuil and past the church itself to the corner of Rue Molitor and Chardon Lagache.
Just beyond the metro stop with those Alien red lights, behind a high fence, is the Hôtel Delfau – actually, the fence is so high that your best bet to see anything is from across the street. About the only decoration on what resembles a countryside house is the rooster, the symbol of fighting France, just beneath the building’s gables.
6. Hôtel Jassedé41 rue Chardon-Lagache 1893
Head back to the metro station, turn left and walk along rue Chardon Lagache for a few minutes until you reach #41.
The first time I went looking for Guimard’s buildings, I only went as far as the Hôtel Mezzara. Four years later, I was on the bus to work one snowy morning when we passed a building that woke me out of my pre-coffee stupor.
I got off at the next stop and ran back to peek through the iron gate. More rustic than his later works, the Hôtel Jassede is a mix of rough stone, red brick, and gleaming colourful ceramics. It’s not entirely Art Nouveau, but it’s arresting just the same, with medieval cottage touches, and while I say the walk is best done in warm weather, this home is utterly enchanting in the snow.
7. Hôtel Deron-Levent8 villa la Réunion 1905-1907
Right next door to the Jassede is the Hôtel Deron-Levent, meaning you can easily see the refinement of Guimard’s style as his career progressed. Smooth white stone, lacey black balconies, it’s as fairytale magical as its neighbor.
8. Hôtel Guimard122 avenue Mozart Built 1909-1912
From here, turn right onto rue Jouvenet and right again on rue Boileau. This will turn into rue Pierre Guérin, and lead you up to Avenue Mozart.
At #122 is the house that Guimard built for himself and his wife, the painter Adeline Oppenheim Guimard. His atelier was on the ground floor while hers, with massive windows for the light, was on the top. Their living quarters were on the two middle floors. Guimard again used pear wood for the fittings.
The couple lived and worked here until 1938 when, alarmed by the rise of facism and what could happen due to Adeline’s Jewish heritage, they moved to New York, never to live in Paris again. Unfortunately, the state rejected Adeline’s offer of deeding them the house after Hector’s death in 1942, and it was broken up into apartments. The curved window of Adeline’s studio has been modified with a boring rectangular piece, but otherwise the building’s exterior remains the same. The house’s original contents can be found scattered across displays in the Petit Palais and New York’s MOMA, amongst others.
9. Immeuble Houyvet2 villa Flore 1924-1926
Next door to Guimard’s home is the one he built for industrialist Michel Houyvet. The most Guimardian touch is the blue enamal Villa Flore sign, reminiscent of the Rue Agar sign. The narrow residence itself is more Decorative Arts, an indication that Guimard had pragmatically moved on after the appeal of Art Nouveau waned.
But look up and you’ll see hints in the roofline–the loggia and the balconies. Just one of the many touches of whimsy this peerless artist left on the city.
What else to see
1. The Musée Marmottan – Monet3 rue Louis-Boilly
Housed in the Academie des Beaux Arts in the Jardin du Ranelagh, the Musée Marmottan is home to the world’s largest collection of Monet’s works, as well as other Impressionist works.
The fastest route is an easy 20-minute stroll up the stylish Avenue Mozart, then turn left onto Rue du Ranelagh and right onto Avenue Ingres. Keep following that and you’ll see the museum ahead.
2. Maison de Balzac47, rue Raynouard
Writer Honoré de Balzac’s home might be in the heart of Passy but it still feels like the countryside retreat it was when Balzac needed to avoid creditors. A museum since 1971, the house features many of the writer’s manuscripts and personal effects, including the coffee pot in which he reportedly brewed his fifty cups a day. That’s right: FIF-TY.
Fastest route: From Villa Flore, head up Avenue Mozart, turn left onto rue de l’Assomption, then left onto rue Raynouard.
3. Musée du Vin5 Square Charles Dickens
Formerly a 15th-century convent’s cellar that also served as the cellar to the Eiffel Tower’s restaurants, this wine museum has a massive collection of everything wine—and yes, there are tastings and a restaurant. The cool vaulted cave is particularly welcoming on a hot day.
It’s a 30-minute walk from Villa Flore, again up Avenue Mozart before turning left on rue Bois le Vent. Follow that to Place de Passy then meander through the market street of rue de l’Annonciation. You’ll pass the Eglise Notre-Dame de Grâce de Passy, then turn left on rue Raynouard at the Maison de Balzac and it’s a few minutes more to the Square Charles Dickens.
Lastly, if you have more time in your day for all things Guimard and Art Nouveau, head back to the RER station where we started our day and take the train to the Musée d’Orsay, where there’s a whole room dedicated to his furniture. Or, if you’re in the mood for something a little more industrial, it’s only 300 meters from the Musée du Vin to the Eiffel Tower.
Some dining options along the way
For a picnic lunch in the Jardin du Ranelagh or the gardens of the Maison du Balzac
À la flute enchantée (boulangerie) 7 Avenue Mozart
Boulangerie Mozart – Maison Kayser79 Avenue Mozart
If you follow the directions to Musée du Vin, you can also pick up supplies at Marché couvert de Passy.
For a casual meal
Le Bois le vent 59 rue de Boulanvilliers (corner rue Bois le Vent)
Delicious and reasonably priced Lebanese/Middle Eastern food with friendly service. Takeaway available.
For a classic (if updated) bistro experience
La Rotonde de la Muette 14 Chaussée de la Muette
Gorgeous outdoor area for people-watching, sumptuous velvet banquettes for cooler days.
For a special treat
Restaurant La Gare 19 Chausée de la Muette (just before the gardens)
Enjoy a casual meal at street level, or take longer in the enchanted garden on the former train tracks of this converted station.
Les Échansons at the Musée du Vin 5 Square Charles Dickens
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