The Samaritaine in Paris

Although I have never been a big fan of department stores (as a child I had a particular aversion to Marshall Field’s in Evanston, which I associated with stinky perfume and over-enunciating suburban housewives), I nonetheless took a deep breath one day in 1962 and went into the Samaritaine department store on Rue de Rivoli in Paris.

The Samaritaine at that time was spread out over four large buildings, in the fancy Art Déco style that was in vogue at the beginning of the 20th century. The vast size of the store gave me some good opportunities to practice my French because whatever I was looking for was always on some other floor of one of the other buildings. The Samaritaine employees were very patient with me, I must say, and I eventually found whatever it was I wanted to buy.

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the Samaritaine was then at the height of its development, making full use of the 80,000 square meters of floor space in its four buildings. It had departments for just about everything, including hardware and garden implements. And it had a popular café and restaurant up on the roof of one of the buildings, where you could enjoy some great views of Paris for just the price of a cup of coffee.

The old Samaritaine on Rue de Rivoli, photo from 2012

As I have since learned, the decline of the Samaritaine began in the 1970s with the building of the shopping center at Les Halles, just two blocks away. The new shops at Les Halles were more convenient and more modern, and they were aimed at the same class of customers — normal folks like us, with limited financial resources — who had been shopping at the Samaritaine for nearly a hundred years.

The Samaritaine gradually retracted, and by 2005 was using only 30,000 square meters of floor space out of the 80,000 that were available. The final blow came in June 2005 in the form of an inspection by the city fire department, which found that the century-old buildings were nowhere near in compliance with modern safety standards.

After 2005 the four buildings remained more or less vacant for several years, with the exception of a few prime ground-floor sections which were used by small specialty shops.

Distorted reflections in the old windows, 2012

Window glass doesn’t always keep its shape after a century of use. Here the old windows of one of the empty Samaritaine buildings make distorted reflections of the church St-Germain-l’Auxerrois.

The quarter in motion, photo from 2012

At street level on one of the empty Samaritaine buildings on Rue de Rivoli, a block-long mural in 2012 described the development of this part of Paris from the middle ages to the present. The slogan in huge blue handwriting read: Le quartier en mouvement meaning “The quarter in motion”.

The idea was to show that there had been big changes in this neighborhood in various centuries, like the 17th, 19th and 20th, so people shouldn’t get upset about the big changes that were coming in the 21st.

The mural was full of promises about what “The New Samaritaine” would have to offer: urban ecology, economic attractiveness, job creation, preservation of the architectural patrimony, transparency, high environmental quality, social equity and the creation of a new open passageway with a view of the Seine.

Few people believed any of this, which is why the developers went to such lengths to promote their project. A widespread opinion was that the developers wanted to destroy the old façades and build a high-profit luxury hotel on this site, with a few minor ecological and social components thrown in as a sop. A court decision in 2015 confirmed this opinion, so work on the project was stopped while a revised building permit was negotiated.

Demolition in 1848 to create Rue de Rivoli

An old photo on the mural shows the gigantic demolition project that was carried out in 1848 for the purpose of making a wide new street, the rue de Rivoli. (Victor Hugo was opposed to this at the time, and in retrospect I think he was right.)

La Samaritaine from the bridge, 2018

In March 2018 I walked past the Samaritaine to get an impression of what was going on. Hard to say, since the buildings were largely concealed behind large posters, as seen here from the bridge Pont Neuf.

La Samaritaine from Rue de Rivoli, 2018

In this view from Rue de Rivoli, the building on the left has been restored to its former appearance and is being used for retail clothing sales, whereas the larger building on the right still seems a long way from completion.

Location, aerial view and photo on monumentum.fr.

My photos in this post are from 2012 and 2018. I revised the text in 2018.

See more posts on the 1st arrondissement of Paris.

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