Culture

Gérard Depardieu’s Mission to Save an Ancient Monastery in the 6th

In a city with as much history as Paris, there are centuries-old treasures at every turn. Many buildings and sites are classified as monuments and dutifully protected. But sometimes urban projects arise that appear to contradict the Parisian philosophy of patrimony preservation and valorization. Civic organizations like SOS Paris work to defend the city’s architectural heritage from perceived threats, while neighborhood groups often rally together with petitions and protests.

One of the latest projects to cross our radar is a site in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés district (sixth arrondissement) that we had never heard of before. As reported by Le Parisien in a lengthy article, the vacherie (cowshed) of the former monastery once occupied by the sœurs de la Visitation is at the heart of a transformation project fought by neighbors, including the famous actor Gérard Depardieu. Hidden away on the Rue de Vaugirard (near the rue du Cherche-Midi) in the sixth arrondissement, the monastery has been abandoned for more than a decade. The sisters donated it to the diocese of Paris with the understanding that it would never be sold. With a peaceful, tree-filled garden sprawling across more than half of the complex (4,000 m2), the site is a hidden treasure — an island of greenery in a densely populated quarter — with a high wall protecting it from prying eyes.

The diocese plans to launch a project to help those in need, transforming the site into a “a place of solidarity,” with shared accommodations intended “for the most fragile and dependent people.” It would be overseen by associations specializing in such work, housing precarious, disabled, able-bodied and young working people. A center for young children and the partial opening of the garden to the public are also planned.

A building permit was issued two years ago but residents are up in arms against a project that they think would change the landscape and picturesque character of the neighborhood. Several buildings, including the cowshed and henhouse used by the monastery’s sisters in the 19th century, could be demolished. The most prominent opponent of the project is Gérard Depardieu, who happens to own the nearby mansion adjoining the monastery.

Called the Hôtel de Chambon, this immense complex is considered one of the finest properties in Paris and boasts a historic-listed mansion built in 1820 in the Empire style, historical theater, swimming pool, sumptuous reception rooms including an orangery, and rooftop greenhouse with a hanging garden designed by the landscape architect Gil Primard. The rumored value is more than 50 million euros.

Needless to say, the actor last year filed an appeal to annul the building permit. And the Sites & Monuments association launched a petition in 2020 for the Ministry of Culture to save the unique property — which has been signed by more than 1,000 residents. The hope is that these historical agricultural buildings, instead of being destroyed, could be preserved and rehabilitated — perhaps as an educational farm within the garden that’s open to the public. SOS Paris and the National Tree Monitoring Group (GNSA) are also involved, because of the potential damage to the trees and garden if the project moves ahead as planned. The monastery is not yet classified a historic monument, which means that the diocese can potentially carry out its project without any kind of regulation.