Last week I had the good fortune to have lunch at le Petit Hôtel Bourrienne, a private mansion named after Napoleon's private secretary who was once the building's owner. It was a window into a slice of French life that I hadn't encountered before because the building, while open for tours by appointment most of the year and at set hours during the summer, remains the home to the family that has owned it since the mid 19th century. The downstairs reception rooms are considered one of the best preserved examples in Paris of architecture and furnishings from the Directoire period, the period after the Revolution but before Napoleon became emperor. The family lives upstairs, the elderly mother on one floor and her daughter and husband, whose children have all left the nest, on the floor above.
This was actually my second visit there and it was eye opening on both occasions. First, there's the contrast between the house and the neighborhood. The quartier, in the 10th arrondissement, may once have been elegant, but now it's working class and a mix of cultures, from the Eastern European grocer to the Afro-Brazilian hairdressers. The streetscape is loud with garish signs and busy with people both going about their business and hanging out on the corner. And yet there behind that giant wooden door and a somewhat sterile courtyard are exquisitely painted period rooms and a lush private garden.
Second, both in the public rooms and in the private family quarters above, I couldn't help but be struck by what it must take to maintain it, in terms of both time and money. For each lovingly maintained detail, there was an equal amount of decay. My hostess, a gifted and animated storyteller, had wonderful tales to tell about keeping the ancient pipes in order, seeking authorizations for renovations, giving tours of the property to all manner of people including the prince and princess of Belgium. She had us all in tears with laughter. But she also sighed with sadness when she explained that her family will very likely have to sell the property soon because the costs for needed repairs and day to day upkeep simply outstrip the family's ability to pay. It's a poisoned heritage, she explained.
And with that, she cleared away the lunch plates and brought out the coffee and chocolates.
If you want to visit, make your plans now. The property is also available for rental for meetings and parties or as a film set.
Le Petit Hôtel Bourrienne
58, rue d'Hauteville
Metro: Bonne Nouvelle, Poissonnière