For a mere two days out of the year, the Palais l’Élysée opens its doors to the public as part of the European Union’s Heritage Days celebration. Located in Paris’ ritzy 8th arrondissement, the sumptuous yet stately residence of the French president retains the ornate details that are the hallmark of traditional architecture while still feeling modern and livable. Last weekend for the annual event, I waited in line for an hour amongst a crowd consisting equally of tourists and locals for the rare chance to step inside the exclusive palatial estate.
To stroll through the mansion’s open floor plan is a bit like time traveling, in that each of the palace’s many residents have left vestiges of their presence in the design and décor; just a hint of the Élysée’s rich history. Its story begins in the early 18th century, when architect Armand-Claude Mollet laid the first foundations for a hotel for the Count of Evreux. At the time the surrounding area was largely still farmland, but the construction sparked a long process of urban development ultimately leading to the modern-day Faubourg Saint-Honoré district.
For the first century of the Élysée’s existence, the estate existed in a state of flux with its ownership constantly shifting between royalty and social elites through a series of sales, bequeathals and more unsavory means – such as Tsar Alexander I taking up residence there as his troops occupied Paris in 1814. After Napoleon I signed his abdication in the antechamber known as the Salon d’Argent, the Élysée returned to the Crown’s ownership but was used as a guesthouse for important visitors rather than a residence.
Napoleon Bonaparte lived at the Élysée from 1848-1852, and planned his famous coup d’état in the very same room that his predecessor resigned in. And finally, in 1874, the first President of the French Republic, Marshal Mac-Mahon, set the precedent by making the Élysée the official residence of the Head of State.
On either of the UN’s Heritage Days, the public enters through the Rooster Gate on Rue Montalivet, passing by the sloping lawn that hosts the president’s Bastille Day party up towards the house. Entering through the Salon d’Argent, the ground floor contains a diverse array of styles reflective of the Élysée’s previous inhabitants, from the futuristic-looking Paulin Dining Room commissioned by President Georges Pompidou’s 1970s renovations, to the library that served as office for a majority of presidents during the Third Republic, and finally the exquisite Salle des Fêtes – the lavish ballroom that dates back to 1889 and is still used for official ceremonies.
The second floor reminds visitors of the business side of the Élysée’s affairs, providing a peek into rooms currently used for meetings and conferences. Yet tucked between these modern chambers are further reminders of the residence’s long history, like the wood-paneled Salon des Portraits, which features contemporaries of Napoleon III, and the tapestry-covered Salon Cleopatra.
By the time I descended the Murant Staircase and exited out to the main courtyard on Rue Fauberg Saint-Honoré, such was the stillness inside the grounds that I had nearly forgotten I was in central Paris. Despite the fact that the estate far predates the bustling metropolis as we know it today, the Élysée somehow endures as a tranquil oasis, as though the walls surrounding it are somehow made of more than stone. For the highest-ranking official it’s perfect – being physically located right in the thick of things but simultaneously isolated from it. So while I don’t envy François Hollande for his title and the responsibilities that come with it, I can’t help but be a bit jealous that it enables him to live in one of the most eclectic homes in the City of Light.
Equal parts museum and château with a dash of political dignity, the Élysée stands in a class all its own as a marker of how much France has evolved and a gatekeeper for her future.
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