Paris Pagodas: The Remarkable Story of La Pagode in the 7th

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Paris Pagodas: The Remarkable Story of La Pagode in the 7th
Paris has two remarkable and unusual pagodas. Curiously, neither was built as a sanctuary or shrine. On the outside, one is bold and conspicuous while the other is discreet and hidden in a thick bamboo and gingko garden. A closer look reveals that both have unconventional architecture and sumptuous interior design. Their histories are engrossing, sprinkled with a little mystery. In the first installment of a two-article series, I will share the story of La Pagode, a delicate, Japanese-style pagoda situated in the prestigious 7th arrondissement. It was built in 1896 by a prominent man as a birthday gift for his wife. Later, it became a fabled cinema. The exquisite architectural jewel and enchanting bamboo garden are historical monuments. Today, La Pagode’s situation is in a state of… suspense. The second article will tell the tale of the Pagoda Paris (or the Red Pagoda), an imposing, Chinese-style pagoda located in the upper-class 8th arrondissement. The Mythical La Pagode The year is 1896 – the height of the flamboyant Belle Epoque era – and François Emil Morin, a director of the grand department store Le Bon Marché, is trying to think of a unique birthday present to give his wife, Suzanne Kelson – a woman with an impulsive personality. She is known as “Amandine,” meaning “much loved,” and Monsieur Morin is wholly infatuated with her. He is so eager to please her that every evening he brings a little gift from the store to coax squeals of pleasure from her. This birthday present should be something that really takes her breath away; something that would be the envy of tout Paris. Japonisme is all the rage and he finds inspiration in that. He would build her a beautiful pagoda! Monsieur Morin sets out to buy the property at 57, rue de Babylone (a short walk from Le Bon Marché). He hires top architect, Alexandre Marcel, who coincidentally is also fascinated with Japonisme. Monsieur Marcel orders panels, paints, frescos and statuary directly from Japan. He incorporates these and adds special French touches, non-existent in Japan at the time, like art nouveau stained glass windows and, for the interior, lots of gold-leaf Asian baroque ornamentation, fanciful furnishings and a lovely stage. Despite delivery delays and workers not showing up for work, the pagoda is completed on the day of Madame Morin’s birthday. A crowd on the street watches as Amandine, escorted by her ebullient husband, arrives at the pagoda in a carriage, her eyes covered with a silk scarf. He dramatically whisks the scarf away and for a long moment Amandine is indeed frozen breathless. When she recovers, she shrieks enthusiastically, showers kisses on her husband, then runs toward the Pagoda to discover and take charge of her new playhouse. Monsieur Morin couldn’t be happier. From then on Amandine plunges into organizing lavish banquets, balls, thematic evenings, concerts, and plays. One after the other. La Pagode becomes the focal point of Paris’ upper class, crazy social life and Amandine reigns over these extravaganzas dressed in elaborate Japanese costume as Empress of the Rising Sun. One day, only a few months later, a dark cloud appears over Monsieur Morin. At one of her festivities Madame is introduced to a good-looking, suave young man named Joseph Plassard. Amandine, falls madly in love with him right away. Poor Monsieur Morin. He not only loses his beloved Amandine to a much younger man but he happens to be the son of his co-director at Le Bon Marché, Jules Plassard. Quelle humiliation! They divorce; the goodhearted M. Morin gives her La Pagode; and Amandine and her new, 15 years-younger husband sail off for the New World. A saddened but resigned Monsieur Morin is left to his reveries of happier times. Apparently, however, the lavish parties continued with Amandine’s best friend assuming the role of Empress of the Rising Sun. Amandine dies in 1917 and La Pagode becomes part of the estate of Joseph Plassard. He remarries. With his new wife, Antoinette Mougel, they buy up the mansions surrounding La Pagode. The parties continued. In a short documentary on La Pagode, a woman recalls attending one of these famous parties. “Stepping through the gate into the garden was like entering a fairyland with candles flickering everywhere,” she said. The orchestra was in black tie and she danced the night away in the opulent hall. “It was unforgettable.” This extraordinary era in La Pagode’s history continued until 1927 when the hosts could no longer carry on. The property was put up for sale. However, due to the unusual architecture, offers were not pouring in. For a few years La Pagode languished idly… until… a Chinese diplomatic delegation showed up. They were in search of a building for their embassy. They thought La Pagode’s architecture was perfectly suitable. Who could have dreamt of anything better? Everything was going smoothly until the diplomats decided to have a closer inspection of the building. They didn’t like what they saw and promptly terminated the lease. What happened? The panels and frescos the architect had ordered from Japan depicted battle scenes of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 where the Japanese were the valiant victors. La Pagode closed. Then, in 1931, its doors reopened and voila! La Pagode had reincarnated into a cinema! The only cinema ever in the distinguished 7th arrondissement. The program catered to serious cinéphiles showing quality avant-garde films. During World War II when Paris was under Nazi occupation, the theater closed again; yet the place still buzzed with activity….
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Lead photo credit : Cinema La Pagode in 1977, by Guerinf/ Wikipedia

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Dorothy Garabedian is a retired, expat American from central California living in Germany and now devoting her time to writing on travel, culture and lifestyle. She has traveled around the world and lived in Uruguay and the European cities of Brussels, Paris, Frankfurt and Moscow. Read more of her work on her blog, Detours and Diversion: https://dorothygarabedian.wordpress.com

Comments

  • Michael James
    2019-04-12 06:53:41
    Michael James
    Great piece. Took me straight back to 1984, my first year in Paris and when I first visited the cinema at La Pagode. I can't remember the film but who is going to ever forget the cinema. It would be a travesty if this jewel was lost. Luckily there are enough people with resources to save such gems from either property developers or burger chains! Another haunt of mine was Brentano's bookstore on Avenue de l'Opera which happens to have opened at almost the same time, in 1895. It closed in 2011 through no fault of its own but being caught up in the bankruptcy of Borders bookstores (owned by KMart!) in the US, but eventually the Paris store was rescued by a Franco-Iranian businessman. I know the world and its cities have to change, but being replaced with burger joints or Starbucks would just be too much to bear. I'm not sure I knew that La Pagode dates from 1896 which happens to be the very year of birth of cinema--for the world and in Paris when the first cinemas opened. Even if La Pagode didn't become a cinema until the 30s. The Lumiere brothers showed their first film in 1894 but the first regular cinemas opened in Paris and Berlin in 1896. It is one of those special things about Paris. I suppose there is some Chinese mega-city that has more today, but back then Paris was said to have more cinemas than any other city (400 screens) and checking thru Pariscope was a weekly ritual. The whole world knows Paris thru cinematography and those of us who lived there know it too thru its cinemas. I wonder if Studio Galande in the Latin Quarter still shows Rocky Horror Picture Show on Friday nights at midnight! It had been showing it non-stop for almost ten years when I saw it in probably 1984 too. Reading my copy of Cinemas of Paris (eds. Frodon & Iordanova, 2016) in the article by Sue Harris, I see that "a specialist cinema shop Ciné-Images, situated across the road at 68 rue de Babylone. Founded by Jean-Louis Capitaine in 1975, the shop is a treasure trove of original film posters and memorabilia, and counts Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee among its clients."

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  • Ruth Ann Pastrick
    2019-04-11 15:39:17
    Ruth Ann Pastrick
    Oh To have visited La Pagoda! It is a wonderful article and film. Thank You

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  • Novella Nied
    2019-04-09 13:50:15
    Novella Nied
    I just read Ms. Garabedian's article on Paris Pagode, with its beautiful photographs, and thoroughly enjoyed every word! Ascona,Switzerland

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