On the corner of Rue du Mirail and Rue Saint-François, a stone’s throw from the busy thoroughfare that is Cours Victor Hugo, sits one of the city’s most curious buildings: Hôtel Saint-François*.
Originally known as Hôtel de la Perle, this “immeuble de rapport” (residential rental property) was completed during the reign of Emperor Napoleon III in 1855 by the entrepreneur Antoine-Théodore Audubert (1819-1893).
The five-storey, 70-window building featured so many architectural and technical innovations that its first residents must have felt they’d instantly travelled forward in time to the 20th century! Train rails were used as support beams, a restaurant-bar was located on the ground floor, there was running water on all floors, gas lighting in the staircase, electric doorbells (an 1831 invention), a phonic communication system to be able to liaise with the concierge at all times and a rooftop terrace with its own communal washhouse!
The frustration of not being able to see inside the property, which is today reportedly under the single ownership of a Portugal-based landlord, is somewhat cushioned by the various wonders to behold on the two façades of the building, such as its most distinguishing feature, visible on the Rue Saint-François wing: the eerily lifelike (but long-since headless) sculpture of a builder, perched on a ledge and positioned in such a way that he is left propping up a second-floor balcony.
Legend has it that the sculpture pays tribute to an overly-ambitious builder who died while similarly holding up a heavy block as it was being sealed into the building. It is now thought however that the sculpture was simply put there to embellish the premises and that it was modelled on one Jean-Louis Fargue, a reputedly strong builder who played a major part in its construction.
A couple of metres or so below the feet of “Jean-Louis”, just above an ornate eagle with its outstretched wings, the distinctive and easily-identifiable square-and-compasses symbol of Freemasonry can be spotted on the first-floor balcony railings. This coincidentally forms a letter A (which no doubt pleased Audubert) but features mainly because the building was the meeting point of the influential local Masonic lodge, “la Loge du Béton Triangulaire”.
Turn the street corner and above the main entrance is another curio: framing the doorway and holding up another balcony are a couple of statues. The male figure (technically a "telamon" or "atlas") on the left clearly senses there is too much distance between him and the female figure (or "caryatid") on the right. To be able to take in the view of her attractive, exposed features, he is therefore brandishing a telescope…
25th May 2012 edit: the building has been temporarily registered as a national monument in order to preserve the staircase banister. More news as it comes in...
- Find it: Rue du Mirail/Rue Saint-François, Bordeaux
- Part of the staircase banister can be seen in this 2010 Sud Ouest article covering the controversy surrounding the elevator, while the building's national monument status is explained here. Meanwhile, further photos of the exterior can be seen on this Petit Patrimoine page.
*NB: Some sources refer to the building as Hôtel Darche d'Estrade and it is also now simply known as Immeuble Mirail Saint-François, but to avoid confusion we'll stick with Hôtel Saint-François, which is how it continues to be generally known.