Conservation France

Experts condemn plans for historic Paris post office

Architectural historian leads fight to prevent building being converted—with a hotel on the roof

Built between 1880 and 1888, the France's largest post office is nicknamed the “Hôtel des Postes”

Heritage experts are protesting against plans to convert France’s largest post office—an example of Third Republic architecture—into a mixed-use municipal and commercial facility, complete with a hotel. They have asked the mayor of Paris to block the construction permit and have asked the minister of culture to make the building a national heritage site.

“The matter deserved to be put in the public arena,” says the architectural historian Jean-François Cabestan, the main opponent of the proposal to restructure the Poste Centrale du Louvre (Central Post Office of the Louvre), which was built between 1880 and 1888. Cabestan, who teaches at the Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, is a member of Paris Historique, an organisation that protects heritage in the French capital. He was among the 200 people who met at the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art (INHA) in November to discuss the future of the building, nicknamed the “Hôtel des Postes”.

Poste Immo, the property manager for La Poste, France’s postal service, is leading the project, which is due to be completed in 2017. The plans reduce the floor space dedicated to postal work to around 20% of the 35,000 sq. m building, which is underused because of the decline in post in the digital age and restructuring of the service. “The upper parts of the building have been practically unused since the sorting facility was moved to [the suburb of] Gonesse in 2006,” a postal worker says. Around 17% of the site will be used for municipal facilities and 60% for commercial ventures, including a luxury hotel on the roof.

Untold riches revealed

In July 2012, a jury comprising the directors of La Poste and Poste Immo, city officials and architects awarded the commission to convert the post office to Dominique Perrault Architecture. A construction permit was later submitted to the Commission du Vieux Paris, the municipal body that considers heritage as part of development applications, before the commission visited the building and made an unexpected discovery early last year. “No architect, not even specialists of industrial architecture, imagined the richness hidden [within] the Hôtel des Postes; [the building] was known only to postal workers,” Cabestan says. Within the structure, which was heavily modified in the 1960s, is what architectural historians have described as “a masterpiece of industrial architecture of the Third Republic”. Designed by the Prix de Rome-winning architect Julien Guadet (1834-1908), the building forms a block between the rue du Louvre, the rue Étienne Marcel, the rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the passage Gutenberg.

City’s “cathedral of chutes”

Although the upper storeys were rebuilt after a fire in 1975, the ground and first floors have kept their 19th-century framework. The first floor—nicknamed “the cathedral of chutes” by postal workers, in reference to the slides that once transferred mail between floors—is laid out in several parallel spaces, with naves formed by large metal arches. The space will be gutted to fuse two exterior courtyards, with some of the metal arches added to the building’s exterior. The original courtyards, marked by an elevation of brick and metal, will disappear, and the flooring will be demolished to create a second basement. Cabestan calls it “a irreversible [gutting] of the building that completely deforms the work of Guadet”. But Dominique Perrault Architecture’s website says: “It is a heritage project that preserves and interprets Guadet’s concept of ‘transformable building’.”

The building is not designated as a Monument Historique, which would make it a national heritage site. It benefits from a “protection of the city of Paris” in the local urban plan, which “only deals with the façades [of buildings]”, an official from the municipality says. As part of the proposals, some of the joinery on the structure’s windows will be removed. The municipal commission, which wants the building to be classified as a Monument Historique, disagrees with many of the plans but is limited to a consulting role.

The construction permit was signed by the city services and posted on the building in November. A letter sent to the mayor last month by Pierre Housieaux, the president of Paris Historique, calls the project “a real regression in heritage practices in France”. Poste Immo and Dominique Perrault declined to comment during the appeal, although Perrault has said that he will attend the next meeting at the INHA, scheduled for next month.

Metal arches on the building’s first floor (above) will be moved outside under the controversial plans
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