Seine-et-Marne, a department located west of Paris, became a fashionable destination for the wealthy elites of the Second Empire and the Third Republic. Country estates from pre-revolutionary years became an object of desire and, when those available did not match the high standards sought, a man of style and fortune thought nothing of embarking upon erection of a new one. Witness Ferrières, the work of the English architect Joseph Paxton, commissioned in 1854 by Baron James de Rothschild. Or his son Edmond‘s purchase of Armainvilliers in 1877, which he razed and rebuilt in the “style normand”. (Emile Pereire, who also vied for the estate, was unsuccessful in his bidding). The “goût Rothschild”, concocted in many of these estates, spawned from their inclination to mix heavy Victorian interiors with exquisite objects, furniture and art. Underlying these acquisitions, lay a passionate fad for the “chasse à courre”, an old hunting style consisting of riding with packs of dogs after the scent of any wild animals until their capture, close in style to the English fox-hunting. Such pastime required extensive landholdings that only the haut monde could afford.
Among the gems matching the aspirations of those families, stands Champs sur Marne, a first-rate destination with a historic pedigree. It was acquired in 1895 by the Jewish banker Louis Cahen d’Anvers and his wife Louise de Morpurgo. It fulfilled all the essentials so fervently sought by these rich individuals. For this particular family, this purchase represented a way to further their integration as Jews into the haut monde. Money was snubbed as the single entry ticket to these circles. Taste and a cosmopolitan spirit were employed as effective barriers to the arrivistes knocking at the door. In turn, those parvenus who were integrated into the “haut monde,” behaved ironically with the same disdain.
The site is an eloquent example of architectural symmetry showcasing the principles of 18 century design, both in the building and on the landscaping. The distribution of the main salons on the axis of the garden is reminiscent of Vaux-le-Vicomte. The harmony that pervaded the site was intact, although in a deplorable state of maintenance. The Cahen d’Anvers proceeded to bring the chateau back to its former splendor aided by the architect Walter-André Destailleur and the landscape designer Duchêne. The refurbishment consecrated Champs sur Marne as a privileged destination for the chic and fashionable. Costumed balls, elegant dinners and hunting parties provided the social allure and glamour that the setting required.
This burst of magnificence turned out to be brief. Charles Cahen d’Anvers, the youngest son of Louis, sold the property to the French state in 1935, only 40 years after his parents fell in love with the place. Perhaps society sprinted dramatically through the 1914-1918 Great War and never caught its breath in the subsequent years. An air of melancholy and tiredness pervaded France and, just a few years before another war occurred, the family relinquished this masterwork.
After a period of relative neglect, the most recent restoration was concluded in June, this time, by the Centre of National Monuments. It is a place of nostalgia and immutable beauty, a reflection of past grandeurs and a lesson on the fleeting passage of fortunes.