09 February 2024

The Art Noveau architect
who designed the Pavée
Synagogue in the Marais
and Metro stations in Paris

The Synagogue Agoudas Hakehilos, an Art Noveau synagogue on rue de Pavée designed by Hector Guimard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

After Israel and the US, the world’s third-largest Jewish population is in France. I spent an afternoon this weekend in the Marais, which has been the centre of Jewish life in Paris since the 13th century. There I experienced at first-hand the beauty and the resilience of the Jewish community in Paris.

I visited the Holocaust Memorial, the Memorial of the Unknown Jewish Martyr and the Museum of Jewish Art and History, and I strolled through the Rue des Rosiers, known affectionately in Yiddish as Pletzl or the ‘Little Place,’ and the surrounding streets, including Rue Pavée.

The Rue des Rosiers is the main street in the Jewish district in Le Marais, and the neighbouring streets are home to many Jewish restaurants, cafés, bakeries and bookshops.

Jews have lived in the area around the Rue des Rosiers since the Middle Ages, until Charles VI expelled them from France in 1394. But 400 years later, after the French Revolution, Jews returned in large numbers to the same street. Many historians believe this suggests Jewish families had continued living in the area in secret in the intervening centuries, explaining why so many Jews moved into the Marais when the edict was revoked.

Rue des Rosiers and Rue Pavée are at the heart of Jewish life in the Marais in Paris (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Rue Pavée runs at a corner to Rue des Rosiers. Major rebuilding projects, hoarding and fencing make Rue Pavée an eyesore at present, and it is difficult to see the façades of many buildings on the street.

A surprising building on Rue Pavée is the Agoudas Hakehilos Synagogue or Pavée Synagogue at No 10. It was designed in 1913-1914 by Hector Guimard, then the leading exponent of Art Nouveau and the architect who also designed the beautiful Métro entrances throughout Paris.

The story of this synagogue is part of the story of the wave of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who arrived in Paris at the turn of the 19th and 20th century. The Agoudas Hakehilos Synagogue was built for the Union of the Communities, a society formed by nine communities of Orthodox Jews mainly from Hungary, Russia, Poland and Romania, and headed by Joseph Landau. It is also known as the Guimard Synagogue because of the architect, who had married Landau’s niece.

Almost half the building costs were financed by Landau from his private wealth, and the rest of the costs were met a wealthy group among these immigrés, meaning the Jewish community in Paris never had to contribute towards its building. The plan was to provide a spacious and modernised place for Jews used to more intimate synagogues and places of worship in Poland.

The Rue Pavée Synagogue, built as the Agoudas Hakehilos Synagogue, is the only religious building designed by Hector Guimard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Building began in 1913, services were held from October 1913, and it was completed the following year, with its official inauguration on 7 June 1914, a few weeks before the outbreak of World War I. The opening ceremony was not attended by any representants of the Central Consistory, formed in 1905 as an umbrella organisation for Jewish communities after the consistories set up in the Napoleonic era lost their status in public law.

The Central Consistory elects the Chief Rabbi of France, and at the time, Alfred Lévy (1840-1919) was the Chief Rabbi of France.

Instead the famous Polish hazzan Gershon Sirota (1874-1943) was present at the opening. He was one of the leading cantors in Europe during the ‘Golden Age’ of hazzanut or cantorial music, and was known as the ‘Jewish Caruso.’ He later died in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943.

From 1914, the first Grand Rabbi was Rabbi Joël Leib Halevi Herzog (1865-1934). His son, Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog (1889-1959), was a rabbi in Belfast (1916-1919), the first Chief Rabbi of Ireland (1919-1936), and then Chief Rabbi of Mandatory Palestine (1937-1948) and the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel (1948); his grandson Chaim Herzog (1918-1997) was President of Israel (1983-1993); and his great-grandson Isaac Herzog has been President of Israel since 2021.

The community at the Pavée Synagogue has its own Chief Rabbi … the first was the father of Ireland’s first chief rabbi (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

A gas explosion in the synagogue in 1934 destroyed the main hall, but it was rebuilt immediately.

The synagogue was dynamited along by collaborators with the Nazis dynamited the Pavée Synagogue and six other Parisian synagogues on the evening of Yom Kippur, 30 September 1941. However, the bomb in the Pavée Synagogue did not go off and the building was preserved. Then, on the night of 2 and 3 October 1941, it was damaged in an attack organised by far-right Mouvement Social Révolutionnaire. It was partially restored after World War II, but the appearance of the main entrance was altered.

The adjacent building at 8 rue Pavée was bought in 1954, providing a house for the rabbi and a courtyard. The building was officially listed as a monument historique on 4 July 1989.

The synagogue has daily, Shabbat and holiday services. It remains outside the structures of the Central Consistory, grouping the majority of orthodox communities in France, and has its own chief rabbi, beth din, yeshiva, boys and girls schools, mikvah and welfare fund.

The present rabbi is Rabbi Moredechai Rottenberg, son of Rabbi Haim Yaakov Rottenberg (1909-1990) and grandson of Rabbi Markus Rottenberg (1872-1944), who was deported to Auschwitz where he died.

The Pavée Synagogue was Hector Guimard’s last major project before World War I, the only religious building he designed, and the last place of worship built in the Marais district.

The Pavée Synagogue is built on a narrow strip of land between older houses. It is developed in height, with the elongated windows and continuous columns of its façade emphasising its vertical impact. Inside, the synagogue is vertically arranged also, with two levels of galleries on each side of the nave to deal with the lack of width. The synagogue is Guimard’s only religious building. It has a narrow façade clad in white stone, whose surface curves and undulates while highlighting verticality.

Guimard used reinforced concrete for the building and he chose white stone for the exterior. Light enters through a number of windows in the façade, but much of the natural lighting is provided by the large glass window of the back wall.

The synagogue originally had skylights too. They were covered when the roof was renovated, but are still visible from inside.

Like with his previous projects, Guimard designed the interiors as well, organising the spaces and creating original furnishings that matched the architectural motifs of the structure. His furnishings include luminaires, chandeliers, brackets, and benches, as well as the stylised decorations and cast iron railings.

The triangle is a recurring symbol in the ornamentation and triangles were also present over the entrances, but were substituted by a single Star of David when the façade was restored.

Inside Pavée Synagogue (Photograph: G Freihalter / Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The architect Hector Guimard (1867-1942) was a prominent figure in the Art Nouveau style, and he is best known for the glass and iron edicules or canopies, with ornamental Art Nouveau curves, that he designed for the entrances of the first stations of the Paris Metro.

Between 1890 and 1930, Guimard designed and built some 50 buildings, 141 subway entrances for Paris Metro, and numerous pieces of furniture and other decorative works. However, Art Nouveau went out of fashion in the 1910s, in the decade he was designing the Pavée Synagogue. By the 1960s, most of his works had been demolished, and only two of his original Metro edicules were still in place.

Guimard met the Belgian architect Victor Horta, one of the founders of Art Nouveau, in Brussels in 1895. and was strongly influenced by the Hotel Tassel, one of the earliest Art Nouveau houses.

Guimard’s earliest building was the cafe-restaurant Au Grand Neptune (1888), on the Quai Auteuil in Paris. His first recognised major work was the Castel Béranger in Paris, an apartment building with 36 units (1895-1898), when he was just 30.

The Hotel Béranger quickly brought Guimard new projects, including villas, a concert hall, and, most famously, entrances for the stations of the new Paris Metro, which was planned to open in 1900 in time for the Paris Universal Exposition.

Guimard’s Metro entrances were controversial from the beginning. After complaints that the his new balustrade at the Opera station was not in harmony with the architecture of the Palais Garnier opera house, the entrance was dismantled in 1904 and replaced it with a more classical model.

New stations continued being built using his design but without Guimard’s participation. Between 1900 and 1913, 167 entrances were installed, of which 66 survive.

The Agoudas Hakehilos Synagogue on Rue Pavée was designed by Hector Guimard as Art Nouveau was already out of fashion

By the 1910s, Guimard was no longer the leader of Paris architectural fashion. But he continued to design and build residences, apartment buildings, and monuments, and to experiment with skylights. The Agoudas Hakehilos Synagogue on Rue Pavée is one of his notable works from this period.

By the time World War I began in August 1914, Art Nouveau was already out of fashion, the army and war the economy took almost all available workers and building materials, and most of Guimard’s projects were shelved. He gave up his workshop, left Paris and lived through most of the war in Pau and Candes-Saint-Martin, where he wrote essays and pamphlets calling for an end to militarised society.

When he returned to Paris, he was unable to keep up with the rapid changes in styles and methods, and his firm finally closed in July 1925. One of his final works was the Guimard Building, an apartment building in the 16th arrondissement (1926-1928). He also designed several residential buildings and several war memorials and funeral monuments, and in 1929 he was named a Chevalier in the French Legion d’honneur.

Despite his successes, his late work appeared old fashioned, particularly compared with the modernism of Robert Mallet-Stevens, August Perret and Le Corbusier.

His wife Adeline Oppenheim (1872-1965) an American painter from a wealthy family, was Jewish, and a niece of Joseph Landau, the principal patron of the Pavée Synagogue. They were alarmed as World War II approached and moved to New York in September 1938. He died at the Hotel Adams on Fifth Avenue on 20 May 1942. His widow died in New York in 1965.

Many of Guimard’s buildings have been demolished or remodelled beyond recognition, and most of his original Metro station edicules and balustrades have been removed.

However, his reputation revived in the 1960s, in part due to acquisitions of his work by Museum of Modern Art. All his surviving Metro entrances – 88 of the original 167 put in place – were declared of historic value in 1978.

The streets of the Marais remain an important centre of Jewish life in Paris with their kosher food shops, bookshops, restaurants and cafés (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Many luxury brand shops have moved onto rue des Rosiers in recent years. A one-time community hammam, or steam bath, was in 2008 transformed into another link in the chain of Swedish fashion retailer H&M.

But these narrow, cobbled streets remain an important centre of Parisian Jewish life with their kosher food shops, bookshops, restaurants and cafés. Throughout the Marais, memorials plaques on many buildings are reminders of the impact of the Holocaust on the Jewish community in Paris.

That afternoon this week, I also visited the Mémorial de la Shoah or Holocaust museum in Marais, the Memorial of the Unknown Jewish Martyr and the Museum of Jewish Art and History, and a number of smaller synagogues in the Marais.

But more about these visits on other days.

Hector Guimard invented his own typeface for his Metro edicules (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Shabbat Shalom

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So interesting.