Paris Public Toilets: The Renovated Lavatory Madeleine is an Art Nouveau Gem
As any visitor to Paris soon discovers, finding a public restroom can be a challenge. If you don’t want to buy a coffee you have to rely on the grey Sanisettes which, when you find one, may or may not be functioning.
So the appearance of new public toilets in the center of Paris is very welcome. And not any old toilets, either. Beneath the Place de la Madeleine, an Art Nouveau beauty has just reopened after 12 years.
In 1905, the sanitaryware company Porcher opened its luxury public toilets under the square. They were the first public facilities in Paris, inspired by London’s example which had provided them since the 1880s. In keeping with the times they were decorated in the fashionable Art Nouveau style with stained glass and decorative tiling, bronze taps and even a shoe-shining chair on a dais, like a throne. This was the era when ladies and gentlemen used the facilities to freshen up their appearance, not just for bodily functions, and appreciated the comfort and luxury this new amenity afforded.
However, over the years they became shabby and dilapidated and in 2011 they closed, despite being listed as an historic monument. After a lavish renovation, the public restroom reopened to the public this week (February 20, 2023).
To be precise, it is the ladies toilets which have been restored. Since the 1990s the gents has been used by the RATP and to cater for both sexes; part of the ladies’ room was discreetly altered to provide men’s facilities. But when you descend the steps from Place de la Madeleine it does feel like stepping back in time. The mahogany doors, the typically sinuous flower design in the stained glass inserts, continued in the green tiled frieze below the ceiling, have all been lovingly restored to their former glory. A touch of early Art Deco appears in the beveled mirrored pillars.
Even the shoeshine chair is back, although there is no longer a shoeshine “boy” to clean your footwear from the dirt of Paris sidewalks. In keeping with the era of their construction, the cubicles are spacious (although sadly not wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs), each with its own washbasin. Fear not, though, the actual sanitaryware is 21st century.
There is a small display of Art Nouveau memorabilia, including a photograph of a vespasienne, the outdoor, barely concealed urinal that was for decades as much a feature of Paris streets as Morris Columns or Wallace Fountains.
The exterior stairwell and walls of the toilets are still unrestored; there is a problem with the cracked mosaic and once the cause has been identified, this will also be restored. If there is one jarring note, it is that the original mosaic “Dames” above the doorway has been covered by a nondescript, modern “Toilettes” sign. There is already a unisex sign at the top of the stairs so this seems unnecessary.
Using the toilets is not free, sadly: there is a charge of 2€. But it seems a small price to pay to use the most beautiful restrooms in Paris.
The Lavatory de la Madeleine is open 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. every day. The 2€ charge is to cover the costs of an attendant and cleaning. Not accessible to wheelchair users.
Lead photo credit : Art Deco-style mirrored pillars at the Lavatory Madeleine, courtesy of Pat Hallam
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