Occasionally, while walking in Paris one gets a glimpse of the courtyards that lie behind the uniform facades and intimidating doors that define the streets of the city. Throughout the urban history of Paris, legal edicts and defacto practices have created a dichotomy between hidden private domains and grand public spaces. At the end of the 16th century, the standard typology of the hôtel particulier (an artistocratic private home) was one of deliberate separation from the street, with the main residential quarters located between the courtyard and the garden. More than just about isolation, the design was about aesthetics. Simon Philippe, author of The Embellished City, contends that the plan of the hôtel particulier was “defined by a subtle and balanced composition, based on symmetry.” The mansions of Louis XIV’s era were also “intended to give the impression of being as large as possible.”

The architecture of the Place Royale (now the Place des Vosges) turned this practice upside down by locating the residential quarters on the street side, thereby bordering the public domain. Hilary Ballon argues in The Paris of Henry IV: Architecture and Urbanism (MIT Press) that  “the plan of the Place Royale pavillion does not derive from the aristocratic hà´tel but from the bourgeois house,” supporting Ballon’s claim that the Place Royale was intended for bourgeois tenants and aristocratic landlords. Nevertheless, the interior courtyard remains the common denominator between the two housing typologies.

Many of the hôtel particuliers have been converted into museums and public buildings, such as the Hôtel de Soubise and the  Hôtel Carnavalet, but Reid Hall, located just by the Luxembourg Gardens, is an example of a private courtyard with a mixed industrial and aristocratic history. And, because it’s a school – you can visit!

Rear Courtyard and Grand Salle of Reid Hall

Reid Hall was constructed in 1799 as a porcelain factory for the Dagoty Brothers, whose wares have been ended up in Versailles and the White House. In 1834 the building was converted into the Keller Institute, the first Protestant school in France following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. In the 1890s, American philanthropist and social activist Elizabeth Mills Reid converted and expanded the school into “The American Girls Club,” a response to an all-male American artists club just nearby. It became infamous for far more than art however, as American girls developed a reputation in Paris for “shocking” and “carefree” behavior that defied conservative European norms.

Clockwise from Top Left: Reid Hall facade from hotel lobby window | Reflections in the courtyard | Distortion through old windowpanes | The Salle de Conference & Courtyard

During WWI, Reid turned the building into a hospital where it remained in the hands of the Red Cross until 1922. Afterward, it became an intellectual center for university women, with guests including Gertrude Stein and Nadia Boulanger. During WWII it became a refuge for Polish students and Belgian teachers, and in 1964 was bequeathed to Columbia University, who continues to run its NY/Paris architecture program and French studies in the premises. Guests in the past have included Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida,  and Simone de Beauvoir. These days, the courtyard and hallways are still brim with students from numerous American universities, and both English and French can be overheard.

Contrasting Staircases in Reid Hall

How to Get There:
4, Rue de Chevreuse @ Rue Montparnasse
Metro: 4 to Vavin

Get in touch with the author @untappedmich.