ON 15th JUNE 2005, La Samaritaine, one of the Parisian Grands Magasins closed its doors for the last time. For the last eight years it has stood empty looking increasingly down at heel and rather sad. Even though work to redevelop the building has just begun the Parisian icon that was La Samaritaine is set to disappear forever.
In 1856, an aspiring young entrepeneur, Ernest Cognacq, opened a small shop called Au petit Bénéfice in the rue de Turbigo in Paris. The venture was a failure and the shop soon closed. Undaunted, Cognacq took to the streets as a hawker selling fabrics of various kinds. He eventually set up a pitch on the Pont Neuf, on the site of the former Pompe de la Samaritaine, a large hydraulic water pump named after the Samaritan women at the well in St John’s Gospel.
Pompe de la Samaritaine – The original pump was built in the early 1600’s. This revised version was built between 1712 and 1719. It was demolished in 1813.
Cognacq’s enterprise prospered and by 1869 he was able to rent a small room across the street from the Pont Neuf in the rue de la Monnaie, which he turned into a shop and called La Samaritaine.
Cognacq’s success was assured when, in 1872, he married Marie-Louise Jaÿ. Not only was she a very active and intelligent woman, she had been the première vendeuse au rayon confection, head sales woman of the clothing department in Aristide Boucicaut’s Au Bon Marché – she came with a tidy sum of twenty thousand Francs.
Ernest Cognacq and Marie-Louise Jaÿ proved to be a formidable team. Inspired by the success of Aristide Boucicaut’s retail revolution at Au Bon Marché and with the help of Marie-Louise’s twenty thousand Francs combined with Ernest’s more modest savings, they set about expanding the enterprise and building the foundations of what was to become the Grands Magasins de La Samaritaine.
Cognacq’s plan was to establish the ideal, and ideally managed, department store. He arranged La Samaritaine as a collection of individually owned outlets, each managed by petits patrons who operated in concert yet autonomously, a model still found in today’s Grands Magasins.
The growth of the business was rapid. To increase the sales space Cognacq bought up neighbouring buildings – 19, rue de la Monnaie in 1886; 3, rue Baillet in 1889; 17, rue de la Monnaie in 1891; 20 rue de l’Arbre Sec in1893; the buildings located at the corner of rue Baillet and rue de l’Arbre Sec (5-7, rue Baillet, 22, rue de l’Arbre Sec) and at the corner of rue Baillet (1, rue Baillet, 21 rue de la Monnaie) in 1898 and the buildings between the impasse de Provence and rue des Prêtres-Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois in 1903.
All the buildings were made into four separate stores each specialising in different product ranges and rather unimaginatively but very practically named Magasin 1, 2, 3 and 4. The impact on sales of the additional floor space was astonishing. By 1875, sales had topped eight hundred thousand Francs, by 1882 they had reached six million, by 1898 fifty million and by 1925 sales were over one billion Francs.
This dramatic expansion included major architectural changes that gave La Samaritaine its characteristic look. Between 1903 and 1907 the French architect, Frantz Jourdain, applied an Art Nouveau aesthetic to the buildings and by 1933 another French architect, Henri Sauvage, had reworked the architecture to reflect the aesthetic principles of Art Déco.
Towards the end of the 1970’s and into the 1980’s La Samaritaine began to lose its competitive edge and its prosperity began to decline. In 2001, the luxury goods group, LVMH, bought La Samaritaine and it soon became clear that the end was in sight. Magasin 1 and Magasin 3 were leased to other retailers and then in 2005, for safety reasons we were told, LVMH announced that La Samaritaine would be closed and the buildings redeveloped. And it was closed and it remains closed and it is likely to do so until some time in 2016.
La Samaritaine on rue de la Monnaie, 1923. Image: Ministère de la Culture (France)
So what is to become of La Samaritaine?
Well, it will become a mixed-use development designed by the Japanese architects SANAA. The plans include a luxury hotel, the Cheval Blanc, owned by LVMH, two midsize stores – DFS, a duty-free emporium and Louis Vuitton – both owned by LVMH as well as one department store, as of yet unidentified. In addition, there will be 20,000 square metres of office space, 7,000 square metres of social housing along the rue de l’Arbre Sec side of the building, a day care centre and a crèche to accommodate 60 children.
It’s pretty clear that the new development is aimed at attracting big-spending tourists and especially Chinese tourists. To that end, I understand that it is planned make the entrance to the DFS duty-free store large enough to accommodate tour buses.
I went to have a look at La Samaritaine the other day and found a demolition crew at work removing the metal beams that formed part of the covered walkway between Magasin 2 and Magasin 4.
La Samaritaine – Work in Progress:
The site was dominated by the hissing sound of the oxy-acetylene cutting gear cutting through one the beams. Once cut, it was lowered and then cut again into smaller, more manageable pieces and loaded onto a truck.
In the rue de la Monnaie, where once La Samaritaine stood proud and inviting, it was very much work in progress. I was able to circumvent a rather threatening security guard and peek inside the former Magasin 2 to find that it was a completely empty shell shrouded in dust.
Some will argue that this renovation project is part of a bold and innovative vision for the future of the city – and they may be right. LVMH clearly think that the vast amount of money they are investing here will give them a competitive edge and reward them with pots of money – and they may be right too.
But glitzy, fashionable, overpriced hotels, offices and department stores with entrances designed to accommodate Chinese tour buses do nothing for me at all. Call me old fashioned, but I mourn the loss of the La Samaritaine that I was so familiar with.
But before I get completely carried away with my romantic vision of the past, perhaps it’s worth remembering that Ernest Cognacq and Marie-Louise Jaÿ also had a bold and innovative vision of the future – and they too made pots of money!