In France, it is quite common to marvel at the facades of these private mansions that occupy our city centers. In fact, it is not uncommon for them to even be home to museums or to be open to visitors. Paris currently has 400, but according to some sources the capital has counted up to 2,000 in the past. Though term private mansion has become part of everyday architectural language, what is it that actually makes it so special? Used in France, Belgium, and Switzerland, this term covers a type of housing with a very specific French character.
The private mansions: characteristics of exceptional real estate properties
Private mansions: its definition and word origins
In terms of semantics, the term private mansion does not actually contain any strict characteristics in terms of its word origin. Simply put, this term is used to refer to an urban residence of significant size, which is occupied by only one owner. In this respect, it differs from the idea of a hotel, which can be occupied by several households or families simultaneously. In general, the private mansion can be differentiated from a simple town house by its size and prestige.
The French term for “hotel particulier” is obviously confusing. However, it is a fact that since the end of the 17th century, the semantics of the word "hotel" have overlapped with the semantics of both private townhouses and inns where one can rent an apartment by the night. Not to mention the hotel used as a prestigious building, as in the expressions "hôtel de ville", "Hôtel-Dieu" or "hôtel de région" for example. The common denominator for these three types of hotels is hospitality, which can be observed in all three buildings. However, it was only at the end of the Old Regime that the term private mansion became permanently known.
The private mansion and its link to high-end real estate
The characteristics of a hôtel particulier reveal the important aspects that are the basis of its prestigious reputation. Some are associated with the names of large families who once resided there: the Hôtel de Rohan, the Hôtel de Soubise and the Hôtel de Nesles are among good examples. Depending on the roles associated with the different cities, the social classification of those who built private mansion varies. In Paris, large aristocratic families linked to the monarchy were at the origin of their construction during the Old Regime.
After the Revolution, the great industrial and financial bourgeoisie continued building these properties. In more trade-oriented cities, such as the ports of Nantes, Bordeaux and Marseille, shipowners had a prestigious reputation and build the city's main residences. In cities with more of a parliamentary status, such as Aix-en-Provence, Poitiers, Grenoble or Rennes, private mansion are the work of nobility, who performed high administrative functions. The blatant ostentation of some residences is most often aimed at rising above simple bourgeois houses, and for affirming one's status.
Changes in the layout of these exceptional properties
The layout of the main buildings in a private mansion is primarily defined by the urban constraints that regulated its construction at the time. There however have been changes in architectural practices over time. Until the Renaissance period, private mansions were built on the street side. However, from the 17th century onwards, the street lost its social prestige, and architects sought to keep surrounding buildings away from it. Nowadays, we can observe many private mansions built around a courtyard that overlooks the road.
With this type of arrangement, and land permitting, a garden is generally planted on the other side of the main building, allowing its occupants to escape the frenzy of urban life. This is why these properties are called "between courtyard and garden", an expression that has been used in everyday language. After the Revolution, as trade and commerce flourished at the foot of the facades, the main buildings would return to the streets. In the most luxurious private mansions, the property is enclosed by wings, giving them a majestic appearance.
The private mansion, a symbol of social status
Unlike a mansion, where isolation is a primary characteristic, the private mansion is a residence in the heart of the city. For its builders, it has always played an important role in society, which was to promote prestige or social status to the society. That is why their courtyards and facades are particularly well groomed, generally decorated with a carriage entrance that is still to be admired today. Today, private mansions are an inseparable part of French cities, which we still appreciate admiring.