To its fans, La Samaritaine – a vast art nouveau and art deco edifice on the banks of the Seine facing Pont Neuf – is one of the architectural delights of Paris.
Now the bulldozers are rumbling towards the former department store to destroy the last remaining parts of its historic facade, as campaigners make a last-ditch legal challenge to stop the demolition.
On Friday, judges postponed ruling on an appeal by locals and historians to revoke the building permit given to the luxury goods group LVMH – owned by France’s richest man, Bernard Arnault. The group, whose brands include Louis Vuitton and Moët, is redeveloping the site.
The Paris administrative tribunal said the case needed to be decided by a larger college of judges, and it would announce its decision at the end of the month.
LVMH’s €460m (£380m) plan for the site includes a luxury hotel, duty-free shop, designer stores and offices, as well as local authority apartments, a day centre and creche.
Three of the four facades were knocked down in February, reportedly immediately after judges said they would accept the opposition campaigners’ legal case but failed to order a halt to demolitions. The fourth is scheduled for the same fate. LVMH said after Friday’s decision: “For the moment, the work continues.”
The company insists the facades have to go. A number of buildings forming part of the store and dating back to the 17th century have already been pulled down. The scheme has been backed by the new mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo.
Under designs drawn up by Japanese architects, the facades will be replaced with “a set of etched glass waves”. Opponents say the new structure will look like a shower curtain.
Even before the store was closed in 2005 – apparently for safety reasons – it had seen better days.
In 1870 an ambitious travelling salesman, Ernest Cognacq, who had been hawking his wares from under an arch of Pont Neuf near the former site of the city’s first mechanised pump, the Pompe de la Samaritaine or pump of the Samaritan, opened a small shop.
With the help of his wife, Marie-Louise, and her 20,000-franc dowry, Cognacq expanded the business, acquiring neighbouring properties with the aim of building his ideal department store.
By 1925, La Samaritaine – by then four separate stores known somewhat unimaginatively as Magasins 1, 2, 3 and 4 – had been transformed by the art nouveau architect Frantz Jourdain and was reporting annual sales of more than 1bn francs.
In 1933, the store was given another makeover, by the architect Henri Sauvage, who reshaped it according to art deco principles. But the shop went into decline in the late 1970s and 1980s, and was bought by LVMH in 2001.
The company leased off two of the magasin buildings and in 2005 decided to shut the other two.
Julien Lacaze, of the Society for the Protection of the Landscape and Beauty of France, said Friday’s legal development was “overall, good news”, adding: “All the judges of the administrative tribunal will be asked to decide … they can completely rejudge this affair that doesn’t just concern La Samaritaine but the future of building in Paris.”
Marie-Line Antonios, director general of La Samaritaine and in charge of the renovation project, insisted the new glass facade would “fit in with the landscape”. She said it was about creating a “la nouvelle Samaritaine”.
LVMH says its project will create 2,100 jobs, and the new store will open in 2016. A spokesperson told Le Monde the project had been “entirely studied and approved” by the relevant government authorities.
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