Friday, August 26, 2022

From Hôtel des Sacqs de la Hérissandière, Hôtel de la Cloche Perce... to... Hôtel de La Salle.

One of the older historic buildings here in Reims - the Hôtel de La Salle - dates back to the 16th century. Listed as monument historique one hundred years ago, it is in fact miraculous that it actually made it through the hostilities of 1914-1918 which led to the destruction of most of the rest of the city. Today the Renaissance façade, inset with the benevolent figure of Jean-Baptiste de La Salle tending to one of his charges, stands elegant and proud, with little to indicate the past perils in almost 500 years of existence.
Its survival is not unlike that of the nearby Musée-hôtel Le Vergeur - set on Place du Forum in the heart of the city and in view of the cathdral, itself symbol of Reims ‘ville martyre’ during WWI. Indeed, both hôtels were saved from total obliteration in the aftermath of the war thanks to the intervention of individuals committed to the preservation of the cultural and historical heritage of Reims.
Hugues Krafft, co-founder of the Société des Amis du Vieux Reims in 1909, undertook the restoration of Hôtel Le Vergeur that he had purchased in 1910. Likewise, the biscuit manufacturers, Maison Fossier, of ‘biscuit rose’ fame, owners and occupants of the premises of what we now call Hôtel de La Salle, successfully brought the building up from the ashes during this same post-war period.
Again, both sites had once housed elements of significant architectural value and beauty and as such their preservation was deemed important to le patrimoine rémois. The hôtel de La Salle still possesses its ornately decorated escalier à vis, an external winding staircase in stone that turns clockwise on ascent, overlooking the court yard with an elegant architectural style reminiscent of the Château de Blois in the Loire Valley.
Constructed on the orders of affluent nobles and merchants of the city, both hôtels attest to the wealth and status of those who had originally commissioned them centuries ago. Although Jean-Baptiste de La Salle was born into an illustrious household in Reims to a father who was a king’s counselor and a mother from the Moët champagne family, the hôtel was not built on their behest nor on their behalf.
Initially known as Hôtel des Sacqs de la Hérissandière, it was in fact constructed in 1545 for an affluent cloth trader, Henri Choilly. And although the statue of Jean-Baptiste de La Salle looks down on us today from the façade of his birthplace - as if it had always been there - this is a relatively recent addition from the 1950s, taking position in an empty niche presumably once occupied by the figure of the Virgin Mary (but not the one below).
The hôtel only entered into the possession of the de La Salle family from 1609. Jean-Baptiste was born there in 1651, the eldest of eleven children. Despite being educated for a life in the legal profession, Jean-Baptiste followed a religious vocation and went on to become the patron of Christian teachers.
Lasallian schools are to be found on the five continents today and indeed a community of Brothers now occupy the Hôtel de La Salle, bought by the lnstitut des Frères des Écoles Chrétiennes in 1956. One of the Brothers kindly showed me around on a ferociously hot afternoon !
Although few of the original artifacts have survived to the present day, the rooms have been set out to reflect aspects of its past and displays show Jean-Baptiste de La Salle's life, work and legacy.
The façade of the building is decorated in the Renaissance style, with pillars, ionic capitals and a frieze running along its length, all bearing symbols of the cloth trade. The oddly-slanted carriage doorway is flanked by two allegorical caryatids, referred to as Adam and Eve. The male figure seems to be somewhat cramped in this tight corner with the wall of the adjacent building encroaching on his space at a rather strange angle.
This can be explained by the fact that the street that we see today only came into existence during the restoration period of Reims in 1921 when the Hôtel de la Cloche Perce, as it was then known, was still in such a sorry state that it might even have needed propping up. And so, as always, I wonder what this city – and others past and present - would be like today without such war devastation and have to be grateful for what remains to us now.

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