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When news hit in 2005 that one of Paris’ historic department stores was being shuttered, locals reacted with understandable sadness and dismay.
After all, since 1869, La Samaritaine– with its boldly-lettered Art Nouveau facade looming over the Seine River and the Pont Neuf bridge– had been a reliable fixture in the city landscape. Nay. It was a positively iconic one.
But due to major building safety concerns and some dubious business decisions, the nineteenth-century store so dear to many Parisians closed its doors in 2005.
At first, it was semi-eulogized. Would it be razed to the ground and give way to some sleek 21st-century mall or high-end hotel? Quelle horreur.
Luxury-goods behemoth LVMH wholly acquired the site in 2010, driving fears that its fate might be just that. This struck some as rather ironic, since the Samaritaine had never been a store catering to the very-wealthy.
It opened in the midst of a new industrial era that saw the price of consumer goods drop, and “fineries” become accessible to larger tranches of the population.
It was, according to social historians, a store targeting the growing working and middle classes of the nineteenth century.
The department store was often aspirational for its customers, to be sure. But unlike its posher Parisian counterparts, Le Bon Marché and Galeries Lafayette, it tended to serve a more modest clientele.
Now that it had been taken over by the owners of Louis Vuitton and countless other high-end brands, would it be remade in the image of the luxury industry– and thus become out of reach for the average citizen?
The answer is a bit complex. It turns out that LVMH gave in to a reigning local desire to preserve the historic building’s legacy. The fact that the building itself is a listed historic monument also helped keep the pressure on, no doubt.
At the same time, it does look as if the historic store is set to be reborn as an ultra-luxury hub in the city center.
The New Samaritaine: Excitement & Controversy
Fifteen years after its closure, La Samaritaine is now poised to rise from its ashes, re-opening in April 2020 after an extensive revamp.
The building will host a large department store of the same name in line with its heritage. But it will also see the opening of a new palace hotel from the 5-star Cheval Blanc group on its premises (confirming suspicions that the revamp would at least partly cater to the luxury industry), as well as a nursery, office space and nearly 100 social housing units.
The redesign was awarded to Japanese architectural firm Sanaa, whose renovation efforts aim to blend the building’s historic elements with contemporary features and touches.
The original building is incorporated in the design, with the grand staircase and breathtaking glass-topped atrium restored to their former glory. The iconic facade is also being brought back to life, thanks to the efforts.
Overall, most are excited to see the store re-open later this year. But some local residents have complained about safety and noise issues around the building site.
A small fire broke out on the construction site in 2018, troubling neighbors and spurring some to say LVMH needs to take more measures to ensure the site is safe.
Given how knee-jerk Parisian conservatism tends to give way to openness and excitement towards the new, I suspect that the city’s denizens will soon embrace “La Nouvelle Samaritaine” as a welcome return.
After all, both the Eiffel Tower and the Centre Georges Pompidou were initially the subject of much hand-wringing and, well, open loathing when they were first unveiled. Now they’re so accepted that they’re almost seen as a “natural” part of the urban landscape.
Besides, La Samaritaine has long been a key part of the cityscape. Its re-opening will likely seem pretty seamless as a result, rather than disruptive.
A Bit of History– & Why to Visit When it Reopens
The store was opened by business magnate Ernest Cognacq in 1870, and designed by architects Frantz Jourdain and Henri Sauvage.
Many of the building’s iconic Art Nouveau and Art-Deco style elements– from the elaborate painted lettering, floral motifs and glass elements gracing the facade to the airy glass atrium held together with metal beams– only appeared during early-20th century expansions and redesigns.
The store quickly became popular among Parisians for its slogan, “On trouve tout à la Samaritaine” (One can find everything at La Samaritaine“. It drew status-conscious passers-by in with its glamorous promise of fineries sold at relatively reasonable prices.
By the 20th century, there were 11 stores and a “luxury” branch that has since closed.
Even today, there’s something about standing on the Pont-Neuf at sunset and taking in the facade, which seems to glow and reflects the light and water.
It’s an easy stop after visiting nearby monuments and attractions such as the Louvre, and can be an excellent stop on a self-guided tour of Paris’ most-beautiful bridges.
Location & Getting There
The Samaritaine is located on the right bank of the Seine, in close reach of the city center and facing the Pont Neuf.
The closest Metro station is Pont Neuf, but you can also exit at the Chatelet station (a major hub) and walk for about five to ten minutes.
- Address: 19 Rue de la Monnaie, 75001 Paris (1st arrondissement)
- Metro: Pont Neuf (Line 7) or Chatelet-Les-Halles (Lines 1, 4, 7, 11, 14)
- Tel: +33 1 56 81 28 40