Paris Public Toilets: The Renovated Lavatory Madeleine is an Art Nouveau Gem

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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.

Original mahogany doors at the Lavatory Madeleine, courtesy of Pat Hallam

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.

Tiled frieze below the ceiling, courtesy of Pat Hallam

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.

 

Original mirror, modern fittings, courtesy of Pat Hallam

Stained glass mahogany doors, courtesy of Pat Hallam

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.

The shoeshine “throne”, courtesy of Pat Hallam

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 traditional “vespasienne,” or urinal, courtesy of Pat Hallam

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.

The new entrance to the Lavatory Madeleine, courtesy of Pat Hallam

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.

Vestibule and attendant’s office, courtesy of Pat Hallam

Lead photo credit : Art Deco-style mirrored pillars at the Lavatory Madeleine, courtesy of Pat Hallam

More in Le lavatory Madeleine, Paris bathrooms, Paris restrooms, public toilets

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Pat Hallam fell in love with Paris when she was an adolescent. After many years of visiting, in 2020 she finally moved from the UK to live here and pursue her passion for the city. A freelance writer and history lover, she can spend hours walking the streets of this wonderful city finding hidden courtyards, bizarre and unusual landmarks and uncovering the centuries of history that exist on every street corner (well, almost). You can find the results of her explorations on Instagram @littleparismoments.