a surreal folie

May 10, 2012 — Leave a comment

The Broken Column house was built in about 1780 by aristocrat François Nicolas Henri Racine de Monville, who lived there until the French Revolution –

Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France, visited the house, taking notes for the construction of her own folie at Versailles.

Thomas Jefferson, who visited the house while he was Minister to France, was said to have been particularly taken by it. “How grand the idea excited by the remains of such a column!” Jefferson wrote to Maria Cosway, the painter with whom he visited the house.

In its prime, the house was spectacular:

It was a false ruin 50 feet high in the shape of a truncated section of a gigantic Tuscan column, evoking the glories of ancient Rome. One of the few examples of 18th century visionary architecture to actually be constructed, the Column House contained a ground floor and three upper stories. The interior of Column House was divided into oval rooms whose walls were decorated with Toile de Jouy. Upper floors were reached by a spiral staircase illuminated by a glass skylight. Rare plants and flowers were hung along the banisters; visitors thus felt the experience of exploring a real ruin that had been invaded by vegetation.

By the 1950s, falling apart, the house still drew admirers like surrealist poet André Breton. John Harris, a writer on architecture, visited the house in 1952, describing its sad state of neglect:

The door to the Column House was broken down, the vestibule derelict. Fallen plaster, splintered wood battens, lumps of stonework, dusty bricks formed piles to be climbed over to get to the spiral stair, which at first glance appeared to defy ascent, not so much from its precarious condition as because of the rubbish blocking the way and the nursery of cats that scattered at my approach. Much of the upstairs decor had survived, however. The reception salons were on the third floor, for the view across the gardens through oval windows, and here, as Siren had discovered, the pretty Louis Seize chimney-pieces were still intact. There were also the unpleasantnesses all too familiar to me from my explorations of empty English country houses: broken glass bottles, human excrement, paper rubbish–all the evidences of temporary and alien refuge.

In the 1980s, with the help of French government subsidies, the house was renovated and revived.  The house and its gardens were reopened to the public on June 13, 2009.

This photo shows the house around 1910, when it was owned by the Frédéderic Passy family –


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