La Hôpital Saint-Louis

photo: les bains, hosp saint-louis

From the inner courtyard, view of the hospital's baths.

Out-of-Town Plague Palace

Paris:- Friday, 10. September 1999:- I have had a long off-and-on interest in Catherine de Médicis' Château des Tuileries. If it had not been destroyed in 1871 it would be an important part of the Louvre today.

After Henri II was wounded by Montgomery in a tournament on 29. June and died on 10. July 1559, Queen Catherine decided to leave the Maison Royale des Tournelles and move to the Louvre. At the time it was a small, primitive fortress.

Catherine de Médicis did two things: she ordered the total demolition of the Maison Royale des Tournelles and the beginning of the construction of the Château des Tuileries, both around 1563. But taking a certain prophecy to heart, she never lived in it and the building had a chequered history until it disappeared.

Catherine's history was no less chequered. As an ugly Florentine banking heiress, widowed in 1559, she became regent in 1560, for Charles IX who was 10, unstable and neurotic. He has been preceded by his brother, Francis II who lasted a year, and was quickly followed by Henri III - the last of the Valois, who died in 1589.

However, Catherine's daughter, Marguerite of Valois married Henri de Navarre, and this Henri became the famous IV and the founder of the Bourbon line.

Their marriage date was somewhat overshadowed by the Saint-Bartholomew's Day Massacre on 24. August 1572; during which Henri had to quickly convert to Catholicism inphoto: central maison, hosp saint-louis order to keep his head and have a honeymoon. Nobody knows how many wedding guests died, but the numbers were in the tens of thousands.

Through luck and blunt determination, he eventually became king of France, reverting to whatever religion he had before becoming Catholic at swordpoint - when Catherine's Valois clan were no more - and he inherited 40 years' of trouble.

One of the hospital Saint-Louis' four central 'maisons.'

But he was a tough guy, probably the number one Bourbon as well as the first - who almost as fond of the ladies as the later Louis' - the one who had the Pont-Neuf completed, the Place des Vosges built on top of the old Maison Royale des Tournelles - destroyed by his mother-in-law Catherine - built the Place Dauphine, plus a lot of other things, one of which was the Hôpital Saint-Louis.

I am at the Pavillon de l'Arsenal looking at the maps of Paris featured in its current exhibition. The Château de Tuileries shows up plainly on them, for several centuries.

While I am doing this peering at old maps, I am wondering not so much what I will write about it - but how to photograph this present-day Parisian blank space - the one that does not link the Louvre's present Pavillon de Marsan to the Pavillon de Flore.

My eye drifts over a late 16th century map to a large blank space which has something big in it. Way out, beyond the city wall, in the middle of the open countryside by the road to Meaux, is the Hôpital Saint-Louis.

I scan down a row of displayed maps, moving forward in time: the city's walls come down and move further out until the Hôpital Saint-Louis is within them; then on a modern map, thephoto: central bild, hosp saint-louis hospital is well inside Paris. In the tenth arrondissement, near the Canal Saint-Martin.

In all these views, the hospital occupies a considerable area of land. Why have I never noticed it before now?

One of the long outer walls of the hospital's inner square.

Since it is old and large and seems to still be there, I forget the disappeared Château des Tuileries, and jump into the métro and ride up to the Jacques-Bonsergent station.

This puts me on the Rue de Lancry, which coincides with the fact that it is part of the old road to Meaux; which leads across the Canal Saint-Martin, straight into the Rue de la Grange aux Belles, where the front door of the hospital used to be located.

At the corner of the Rue Bichat I flip a mental coin and find the current main entry about 150 metres down it, facing the exceedingly short Avenue Richerand.

All along the Rue Bichat I realize the building opposite is typical of early 17th century 'royal' construction; with its varied windows, roof shapes and wide chimneys. The brick and stone entry lodge has a drop-bar to stop cars, but not pedestrians.

Just inside there is a 40-metre space and another pavillon of brick and stone with a steep roof. I pass through it and find myself in the central square courtyard, which is about a squarephoto: central courtyard kilometre of agreeable park; with a central flower bed and graveled paths, a lot of grass, many trees and some hospital staff as well as patients recuperating in the bright sunshine.

The inner courtyard of the Saint-Louis hospital.

In this haven Paris seems very far away. Each side of the building has a central lodge and more important buildings at each corner. I go out through the passage of the lodge on the right, and find the 40-metre wide strip again, with the bath-house opposite.

Even though the 17th century effect is spoiled by a chaotic amount of shiny parked cars, I circle around counter-clockwise between the inner and outer buildings. In the northeast corner there is a modern hospital building, but this can be easily overlooked.

I re-enter the central courtyard and exit through the former main entrance on the right. A bit further on is the chapel, which was the first building here. It has immensely stout external buttresses for not much height.

There is an exterior port here; one that looks like the entry to a demolition project, although it leads only to the Rue de la Grange aux Belles. Elsewhere, there are added-on rusty tin pipes snaking out of one building and into another - but the general aspect of the whole complex is of genteel age - 392 years of it.

On Friday, 13. July 1607 King Henri IV set the first stone of the chapel in place. The hospital, named for Saint-Louis because he had died of the plague, was built to handle the overflow of the stricken from the Hôtel-Dieu on the Ile de la Cité in times of plague which had ravaged the city in 1562 with 68,000 killed, and again in 1606 and 1607.

King Henri used the architect Claude de Chastillon, who had also contributed to the building of the Place des Vosges. The building was financed from a part of the royal monopoly on the salt trade, over a period of 15 years.

When new it had no cellar. There was a three-metre high air space under the first floor. Except duringphoto: chapel, hosp saint-louis the epidemics of 1670, 1709, 1729, and so on, the hospital was unused, although it was Paris' best at the time. Beggars and vagabonds lived in it, and it was used for wheat storage in 1731 and 1740.

Built first, the chapel - for a plague hospital.

Originally the Hôpital Saint-Louis only had 300 beds, despite its size. If the plague was raging, two or three victims would share a bed. During the Revolution its name was changed to Hospice du Nord for a time. The sub-floor space was divided into wards and with this renovation the bed-count was upped to 800 in 1801-2.

From this date, the hospital was used mainly for the treatment of skin afflictions - which is still its specialty, as well as contagious diseases.

It was France's first public building to be lit by gas lamps. For this it has its own small gas works, put into operation on 1. January 1818 - a successful experiment which led to the creation of three Parisian public gas works in 1860.

It seems as if the Hôpital Saint-Louis is Paris' oldest hospital. Outdated by the original Hôtel-Dieu, which was founded about 650, or about 820; but described in official letters in 1157. However the Hôtel-Dieu was completely demolished in 1878 and replaced by its present structure in a new location, which opened in 1877.

That the Hôpital Saint-Louis is said to be 'suffocated' by modern additions is an exaggeration. The basic original structure is more intact than the buildings in the Place des Vosges - even if a bit less 'high-rent.' Since it is not a major 'sight,' it is allowed to be engorged by parked cars. None are parked inside the interior courtyard.

The hospital is a block east of where the Canal Saint-Martin makes it 45-degree bend to the right. My old Michelin guide gives both only one star in its 'additional sights' section.

The area around the canal, from the Rue du Faubourg du Temple up to the bend, is increasing in popularity as a area for low-key and local entertainment.

The fact that the Hôpital Saint-Louis is largely unrestored makes it an attractive side-tripphoto: roofline, hosp saint-louis to the past - an unguided trip for the eyes. I have since heard the hospital now has its own modest museum, but did not see this myself.

A roof-line unchanged in centuries.

I walk out the same portal that I came in, and the modest Place du Dr. A. Fournier is so full of light that I quickly get into the shadow of the deserted Rue Bichat and follow it back, towards the canal, with only one stop for a drink at the café at corner of the Rue de la Grange aux Belles.

This is quite a distance from the non-existent Château des Tuileries. But this history has its ellipses - cagey but superstitious Catherine demolishes the Maison Royale des Tournelles and never inhabits her Château des Tuileries - while her son-in-law builds the Place des Vosges and this, the Hôpital Saint-Louis - lasting landmarks.

Maps are landmarks too. The exhibition of Paris' history through them at the Pavillon de l'Arsenal continues until Sunday, 3. October. 21. Boulevard Morland, Paris 4. Métro: Sully Morland. Info. Tel.: 01 42 76 33 97. No entry charge.

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