Until 2005, La Samaritaine was the most popular and least trendy department store in Paris, a Gallic version of Grace Brothers of “Are You Being Served”.
The store clutter of five connected buildings between rue de Rivoli and the Seine was one of the few remaining blocks of subconscious, authentic, and non-touristy granularity in central Paris. You could find everything at La Samaritaine, from briefs to diamond tiaras; puppies in concrete mixers; ready-made curtains with piranha fish.
IN IMAGES Discover the interior of the revamped Samaritaine boutique
Entering La Samaritaine was like playing a three-dimensional game of snakes and ladders. Each story had six or seven different levels, connected by slopes of worn linoleum or by short flights of steps. To switch from curtains to electrical appliances, supposedly on the same floor, you went up a few steps in the showers and bathrooms, turned right and went back down.
After 16 years of abandonment and legal wrangling, La Samaritaine reopened this week – as a supermarket for luxury brands, a five-star hotel and a gourmet rooftop restaurant with stunning views of the river and island. of Cité. It will have private viewing rooms for the super-rich. There will be cafes, where you can eat upscale burgers and caviar-on-baguette.
The staff at the Ancien Samaritaine were the least helpful in Paris and therefore in the world. The new staff will wear chinos and sneakers – and a smile.
The slogan of the old store was “Tout Paris comes to La Samaritaine”. The new store caters to the wealthiest citizens of Yokohama or Shanghai.
The destruction of the ancient Samaritan woman was romantically, historically and socially a calamity. It was also, I suppose, inevitable.
The modern world, and modern methods of retailing, have overtaken La Samaritaine to the other side. People no longer wanted to go to a store in central Paris to buy a concrete mixer or a lawn mower or even a pet piranha fish. The Samaritaine still had 12 models of lawn mowers when it was shut down overnight, allegedly for safety reasons, in 2005.
The world’s largest luxury goods conglomerate, Louis-Vuitton-Moet-Hennessy (LVMH) – spent 700 million euros to rebuild and reinvent La Samaritaine, tearing up sloping floors and worn linoleum while preserving its staircase in art nouveau metal from 1907 -cases and galleries.
A spectacular mural of pale yellow peacocks that surrounds the main atrium was almost lost in the old clutter. It has been wonderfully restored.
There is no doubt that the new Samaritaine will be a great success – once many foreign tourists return to France. The new hotel, Le Cheval Blanc, will be the only “palace”, or five-star hotel, in Paris to have rooms and suites overlooking the Seine.
The transformation is still cruelly emblematic of what has happened in central Paris over the past two or three decades. There is currently a campaign against the alleged rampage (destruction) of the French capital by cycle paths, ugly street furniture and graffiti and poorly maintained gardens. I sympathize with some of the complaints, but not all.
What I regret much more – without knowing how it could have been avoided – is the fact that the inner arrondissements of Paris have lost so much of their quirk and eccentricity over the past few decades.
The boom in international travel (before Covid) transformed the center of Paris into a “Parisland”, a tourist theme park, aware of itself, but still magnificent, like Disneyland 40 kilometers to the east . Even relatively well-off families are driven out by high rents and house prices.
The reopening of La Samaritaine, delayed for a year by the Covid pandemic, is part of a flurry of restorations and reconstructions of emblematic buildings in central Paris this summer.
The Carnavalet museum, which traces the history of the city, has been expertly redesigned and redesigned. The Bourse du Commerce, a spectacular circular building near Les Halles that was dying for decades, was resurrected as an art museum and exhibition space by billionaire art collector and entrepreneur (Gucci and FNAC) François Pinault .
The Hôtel de la Marine, half of the imposing 18th-century terrace that stands on the north side of Place de la Concorde, has been beautifully restored into a series of restaurants and exhibition spaces.
All of these buildings are within a 15-minute walk of each other – and all are a short walk from the Louvre, Palais Royal, and Notre-Dame. They are, in their revisited form, large ornaments welcome in the capital which will be appreciated by Parisians and visitors.
Except for La Samaritaine.
I can’t see the new version of this once great institution as anything other than theft – a loss, a diminishment of what once made central Paris not only beautiful but idiosyncratic and unmistakably itself.
And, anyway, where the hell do you go now in Paris if you suddenly need to buy a jackhammer?