In Stitching up Paris we take you to rue de Choiseul for a treasure trove of old fashioned haberdashery at one of our all time favourite stores: Ultramod. This street is much more than a one-shop stop on a stitcher’s day out in Paris. Around this cosy neighbourhood we’ve got snippets of history and architecture, and a story of socially minded entrepreneurship to share with you.
Opposite the metro station (on rue de Quatre Septembre) look to your right for the large Haussmannian building now called Le Centorial (currently trussed up with scaffolding for another facelift).
It is part of the original magnificent headquarters of Credit Lyonnais that was constructed between 1876 and 1883 on the prime corner block facing rue de Quatre-Septembre, bound by rue Gramont and rue de Choiseul on the sides and running right through to boulevard des Italiens. It is no longer the bank’s HQ, and following a large fire in 1996 the building was split into separate portions as part of the repair project. Earlier that year the building was used as the department store film set for the movie Le Cri de la Soie (mentioned on page 35 of Stitching up Paris). Funnily enough the original building was designed in such a way that it could have been converted to a department store in the event of bankruptcy!
The fire is just one of the notable events in the history of this building. On the exterior wall facing rue de Choiseul there is a plaque marking the damage from the explosion of a German “plane bomb” in January 1918. The current re-plastering facelift stops at the bomb scars and frames them, leaving the marks of history clearly visible; a sign of respect in the midst of urban regeneration. The past is always present in Parisian streets.
The bank building was designed from the outset to impress its customers and the public; it was open to anyone and was so popular visitors required a ticket. While it is no longer officially open to the public it is possible to enter up the steps on rue de Quatre Septembre, go through the first doors and stand in front of the security desk where you can see into the lobby behind the large glass doors. The security guard will greet you with typical French politesse and allow you to peer through the glass doors into the huge hall where light streams in from the arched dome above. The metal frame of the dome, and the high metal-framed windows were originally built by the engineering workshops of Monsieur Gustave Eiffel. These were some of the historically significant features of the building that were preserved in the post-fire repair project.
Sadly you will only see the unusual double-helix staircase if you are there for business with the companies that have office space in the building. The staircase design was modeled on the one in the famous Chateau de Chambord in the Loire Valley and allows the same staircase to be used by two people without them meeting each other on the stairs. Historically, one staircase was said to be used for management and the other for employees – and ne’er the twain would meet.
Back outside, cross over rue de Quatre Septembre to the other part of rue de Choiseul and wander down the end of the street to the entrance to Passage Choiseul. Just to the right is café Joyeux. A socially minded entrepreneur has established a number of coffee shops in France all staffed by people with Down Syndrome, autism and other cognitive disabilities. This cheerful cafe is a recent addition to the chain, providing opportunity for the staff to show their capabilities and earn a living.
The café appears to live up to its name with an atmosphere that is always buzzing with activity and joie de vivre.