Feb 23rd, 2024, 10:00 AM

Transport to an Era of French Opulence at the Hôtel de la Marine

By Isabella Logue
Image Credit: Isabella Logue
Hôtel de la Marine may have played a key role in French Revolutionist history, but is this lesser-known museum worth a visit?

Gold gilded walls glistening in ballrooms, crystal chandeliers sparkling in the sunlight, ornate furnishings with embroidered pillows and hardwood carved by artisan hands. Walking through the halls of Hôtel de la Marine feels like you transported back to the 18th century at the height of French opulence and grandeur. This building witnessed France as a monarchy, a dictatorship under the siege of German Nazis, modern day France, and everything in between. 

In 1774, under the reign of King Louis XV, Hôtel de la Marine was built in "Place Louis XV," which is now known as Place de la Concorde. Originally constructed to house the royal Garde-Meuble (royal furnishings), the building's purpose was soon transformed due to the upcoming French Revolution. In fact, the beginning of the revolution can be traced to Hôtel de la Marine. The first shots of Bastille day, 1789, were fired from the building, marking the start of the French Revolution. Afterwards, the site became the location for many executions. 

After the Revolution, Hôtel de la Marine became the location for the Ministry of the French Navy, where it remained until 2015. Under WWII Nazi occupation, German naval forces used the building as their headquarters until 1944. Not only was this building the location for many decisions that affected WWII,  it was where a decision was made that changed French history. In 1848, Victor Scœlcher drafted the decree in his office inside the Hôtel de la Marine that abolished slavery in all French colonies, freeing thousands of enslaved people.

Image Credit: Isabella Logue

The incredible history of Hôtel de la Marine doesn't end there. Picture the movie Ocean's 8: Sandra Bullock leads a girl-gang of bandits in an elaborate plan to sneak into the Met Gala and steal the priceless jewels stored inside. This is almost exactly what happened in 1792 within the walls of Hôtel de la Marine. Over the span of 6 nights, a band of men snuck past the guards of the Hôtel stealing crowned jewels that were estimated to cost around 23 million pounds. According to the official Hôtel de la Marine website, "under cover of night, the thieves scaled the facade of the Garde-Meuble using ropes, leaning on the street lamps of the Place de la Revolution. Reaching the first-floor balcony, they were protected from the view of possible passers-by and were able to break a window. They then made a hold, still visible today, in the interior shutter of the living room where the precious jewels were stored." Mystery of that fateful night prevails, as questions about how it was possible, if there was help from the inside, and where all the jewels ended up, still remain unanswered.

At 241 years old, the Hôtel de la Marine was shut down for restoration and renovation from 2015-2021, where it is now open to the public and regarded as a national monument. 

Today, visitors from around the world marvel at the remarkable interior. Though unarguably beautiful, is it really worth visiting? While touring the museum, I noticed that there were no descriptive plaques. Guests must rely on the headphones for information, which provide the listener with a descriptive and playful story. The narrator is in character, and there are even sound effects that coincide with where you are in the building. As interesting and unique as this method may be, I found myself wishing I had something to read and process at my own speed. 

Image Credit: Isabella Logue

The standout feature of the Hôtel de la Marine is its attention to detail and ability to transport the visitors into the past. Along with the sound effects heard through the headphones, the museum uses props to make the rooms look as if they were frozen in time. From food being served at the dinner table, to candles lighting the bookshelves, you really feel like you are part of the history. My favorite example of this is the ballroom. Positioned around the room are rotating screens that display life-sized visuals of people dancing while dressed in ballgowns. But that's not the coolest part: the screens are mirrored, reflecting the visitors as if they were actually at the ball. 

The crowds are minimal and the experience is unlike any other; the Hôtel has a wonderful view of the city, overlooking monuments such as the Eiffel Tower and Hôtel des Invalides. Taking only 30 minutes to complete and just a few minutes walk from numerous cafes and the Tuileries Garden, the Hôtel de la Marine is the perfect place to visit if you're looking for an immersive glimpse into french history and opulence.