Once upon a time, a visit to Paris was not complete without a trip to the soaring Art Nouveau department store of La Samaritaine, on Rue de Rivoli.
A store has stood on the site since 1870, with the present building completed in 1910, and its Art Deco extension added in 1928. It stood as a balconied masterpiece of fluid architecture, and a cornerstone of elegant Parisian life. After falling into disrepair, however, it was forced to close in 2005 for safety reasons.
Now owned by the fashion conglomerate LVMH, it is back, following a $894 million re-fit.
Opened in a grand ceremony on Monday by French President Emmanuel Macron, who described the building as a "wonderful French treasure", it has been brought back to life as a luxury department store, offices and hotel, to draw tourists to the city.
Blessed with a prime location, it has two fronts, one on Rue de Rivoli, facing the bridge of Pont Neuf and the river Seine, and the other, complete with Art Nouveau enamelled signage, sitting on Rue de la Monnaie.
As part of the restoration, it will house five-star hotel Cheval Blanc Paris, which is slated to open in early September, that will feature four restaurants and a Dior spa. With 72 rooms, each will overlook the river. The building will also have office space, and even a daycare nursery.
As Paris’s newest luxury department store, it is already filled with high-end goods, while the basement – all 3,400 square metres of it – has been reconfigured into Europe’s largest, most exhaustive beauty hall.
The decade-long restoration work, undertaken by four different architectural teams, has saved all of the most famous elements of the interior.
This includes the fabled peacock frescoes that lined the top floor, and that have now been returned to their former, shimmering glory, as has the astonishing glass roof that spans the central atrium. The work spans four buildings, one of which will offer affordable housing.
However, not everything has been greeted with enthusiasm. The rippled glass wall fitted to the Rue de Rivoli entrance, replacing a bland 19th-century door, has been dismissed by detractors as resembling a "shower curtain".
While it is seemingly impossible to please everyone, the return of this grand building is a welcome moment for Paris, which has struggled with numerous lockdowns since the start of the pandemic. Now, as the city starts to reopen, the re-emergence of La Samaritaine may mark a brighter future to come.