Updated: Feb 28
October 2017 I stood on Place de Cheverus gazing up at the vast facade of this house. I later learnt was called L'Hotel de Hercé. Why L’Hotel, when it was a family home, a question in the future we were asked the most. A “L’Hotel” is a particular style of French townhouse a ‘Hotel particulier’’, originally owned by noble families. We stood Matt, me, and our translator with the Mayor of Mayenne, having just finished our meeting about opening a business here. We had a town to choose too, not just a house. The Mayor was full of enthusiasm for our project and suggested a brisk walk to view one of the houses we had inspected. We all stood gazing up, M. Angot stated ‘this is the house you must buy! You have no idea of the significance and history you will be buying, but you will learn, look in the archives"! His words often echo back to me as he was right. Fresh from our first round of inspections we were a long way off buying. Purchase negotiations we learnt were as much about meeting the owners, as the price. The purchase of a families patrimony is a serious matter.
Later the same day we visited a local museum, I picked up a Mayenne Tourism booklet, entitled Place Cheverus et Hercé, Mayenne! The booklet opened up in my hand to a page with a photo of the very house on Place de Cheverus we had inspected, there it was in a historical guide book! We learnt its name L’Hotel de Hercé and of course, the information was in French! It was an uncanny and unforgettable moment, as we were waiting on approval for a second inspection! Was the universe sending me a message, this is your house! Matt had dreamt of a house with cherry trees, an archway and a dovecote. L’Hotel de Hercé had all three, well, the dovecote was for rabbits, but it looked like a dovecote. The Mayor's words repeated in my mind and looking back to that day, I see our fate was sealed. That was when we really began our new journey from Sydney to life in Mayenne; the Mayor was right we bought the house.
I had much to learn about the impressive square I was to call home. Famous in the Department of Mayenne, a listed precinct on French National Estate of Historic Monuments. An exemplar of fine 17-18thc mansions and Hotel particulier. Place de Cheverus and Place de Hercé, are a pair of planned Squares, designed by the king's Finance Minister Colbert in the late 1660s. He was in charge of a nationwide program to enhance and revitalize the neglected regions including the town of Mayenne. Colbert's brief included the addition of public gardens and freshwater. He designed a pair of fountains and, one still flows with cold clear water. The location for the new squares was carefully chosen outside the existing city gate, on the upper ridgeline of the Mayenne river valley. With fresh clean air away from the lower old medieval town, and the working riverfront lined with industrial watermills. This was a new style of living for the nobility, lured to town by Royal Appointments in the Law Courts, as Mayors, in town finances and lucrative contracts for tax collection. The new fashionable houses were warmer and filled with light, with Versaille style reception rooms. A stark contrast to cold damp medieval chateaux, isolated for many months in winter by impassable roads.
In 1719, the newlywed de Hercé couple came to live in town, their home took their name L’Hôtel de Hercé. The family we know for certain was in residence by 1726 when its most famous inhabitant was born, the future Bishop of Dol, Monsignor Urban Renée de Hercé. They came from ancestral chateaux to live in a Hotel particulier and the facade looked the same then as it does today. The façade is simple, an elegant early neoclassical style. Rising over three accommodation levels, defined by bands of 5 pairs of windows. The window size reducing on each level, increasing the sense of height and indicating the importance of the rooms on the entry-level. We have been told 5+ windows denotes a nobleman house, 4 or less merchant class. There were rules for just about everything when it came to class distinction. The centre of the roof is marked by a rare cupola, with 360-degree views and makes the house one of the highest points in Mayenne. It is quite a climb from the entrance up three different staircases to the very top.
Building funds were saved to spend on the interiors, featuring oak parquetry floors and sculptured wall panelling, to be seen only by the eyes of those who are fortunate enough to be invited inside. The contrast between the unembellished facade and ornate interiors was a deliberate architectural feature of Hotel particulier of the period.
A Hotel particulier is a distinct architectural style of a French townhouse. They can be palatially grand in Paris, to a more modest country town version such ours. They feature a distinctive range of characteristics with carriageway gates as the only entrance off the street, there is no street front door. The house front door is enclosed within a private courtyard. Each house inhabited by only one family and its staff and was often a family’s second home. The ancestral Chateau usually supplied the townhouse with cheese, fruit, vegetable and game. Townhouses were a conspicuous symbol of disposable wealth. Even in the 18th century, significant funds were required for construction, purchase of land, architect, expensive interior decor, and ongoing maintenance, and staff (maids, cooks, grooms, cook). The houses were busy places with large families and staff, living and working from the cellars for cold stores & wine, and often the kitchens, to huge airy dry attics for drying washing in poor weather, and dry goods storage. The number of lockable doors dividing the cellar and attic spaces is a reminder of the value of wine, flour, sugar and coffee in household storage. There are also outbuildings of the coach house, stables, laundry room, servants' rooms and often a well.
Once your horse and or carriage has arrived inside the gates you alight in the privacy and safety of a cleaner paved or gravel courtyard. The house entry featured an imposing pair of front doors opening to a vestibule stone-floored entry and a grand staircase. The ground floor or noble floor featured impressive reception rooms divided into “parade rooms” and “company rooms” for friends. The rooms featured the tallest ceilings, highest windows with new techniques allowing for new larger panes of hand made window glass, an expensive luxury. The salons were furnished with expensive tapestries, gilt mirrors and furniture, family portraits, timber wall panelling and crystal and bronze candlelight fittings. The public rooms overlooked the street providing a glimpse of the lavish decoration inside. The private apartments were located upstairs with garden views, better heating and lower ceilings and exposure to the sun. The features of wall panelling, marble fireplace, wall upholstery and mirrors continued. A testimony to the design, the house floor plan today is exactly as it was designed 300+ years ago.
On coming to live in our French home, the size of the rooms and house was a huge spacial shock after a small Sydney apartment. We discovered our 18th-century house adapts perfectly to modern life. The grand salon six sets of windows open up in summer transforming the space into a garden room. The fireplace draws and heats the salon winter. We adapted one of the reception salons to a dining room, a new concept introduced into France in the 1760s. The wall panelling, original mud and horsehair plaster behind the wall upholstery still insulate the interiors. The granite floors in the foyer perfect for winter damp or muddy feet, the Grand Salon parquetry floors still spectacular. The sweeping oak staircase climbs to two living levels 54 steps top to bottom and flows with a gentle ease that's quite remarkable. The stairs, hallways and doorways are characteristically wide enabling the ladies gowns of the 1720s to move with ease through the house. A few modern concessions have appeared, the kitchen is no longer in the cellars, moved upstairs over a century ago, but wine can still be found ageing down there. Plumbing and electricity and heating were all in place by the 1930s.
So what is it really like living in such a house? Wonderful, surprising, a huge undertaking to refurbish, but L'Hotel de Hercé was never just a house, it is a family home that grabs your loyalty and devotion, and is as much a family member as either one of us.
Thank you for reading
Vanessa Williamson 26 February 2021
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