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Monday, December 16, 2013

My Odd Little Maison Ouvrière

A topic that I am tenaciously investigating right now is my house.  It is a weird little house. Though there are many detached houses (pavillons) in Porchefontaine, mine does not resemble any other in the immediate neighborhood old or new.  The front facade is covered with a funny yellowish brick and each individual brick has "EBD" stamped on it.  I have seen exactly the same bricks used for early 20th century apartment buildings in other parts of Versailles.

Around the front porch are wood railings and decorative woodwork.  There is a small niche carved into a corner where two outside walls meet.  Decorative ironwork can be found around just one window (a garde-corps) and on the old door which has an opaque glass window that opens behind a grille like this one.

In the back and on the sides I can't tell what's there because it's covered with what is commonly called crépi, a kind of cement/mortar that forms a protective layer on the exterior of many houses and apartment buildings (sometimes walls too).  The house itself  is elevated about one meter from ground-level and there are steps going up/down front and back.

The roof reminds me of old houses I saw in Tokyo and is, I think, a pyramid hip roof  because it has a peak sloping off into four corners covered with tile, not slate. And there is not enough room under the roof for an attic and there is no access from inside the house so it's pretty much wasted space. To get under the roof you have to get a ladder, climb up, carefully lift off a section of tile and drop in.

What the fireplaces might have looked like
Inside the house the floor plan is interesting:  3 small rooms, a tiny kitchen, a closet with a toilet and a bathroom.   Smack in the middle of the house is a long corridor and there are doors off the hallway to each room with oval porcelain door knobs.  Once upon a time there were corner fireplaces (wood or coal) in at least three of the rooms and there was flat panel wainscoting (still visible behind one of the radiators) and crown molding around the 3 feet high ceilings.

What we call in the U.S. "French doors" with 8 clear glass panes separate the two largest rooms (living and dining) which means there is a lot of light - the sun rises on the living room side through the tall windows/doors that open onto the front porch, and sets on the dining room side (east-west orientation).

Here is the floor plan from my files and to give you an idea of the size, the biggest room in the house, what is shown here as the salon,  measures roughly 3 x 3 meters (about 10 x 10 feet).

 The house is basically a 55 square meter (592 square feet) box plunked in the middle of a lot with a front courtyard and a big back garden.

Who built this house?  Why did they build it here?  What did it look like when it was first built?

I've been looking for answers to those questions and this is what I have unearthed so far.

From the documents the notaire gave us during the sale, I have a few names and a few crumbs of information that he passed along after his due diligence on the property.  The property was sold at a public auction in 1876 or 1877.  There were some interesting conditions to the sale:   the right to access the property with a horse or a car and that owners assumed full responsibility for the "conduire des eaux de toute nature" from the property to the street at their own cost, risk and peril. The owners were also responsible for a creek, called the ru de Marivel, that ran adjacent to the property.

The property finally passed to a Madame Wynhaut who sold it on September 3, 1929 to Madame Seitz who was, I presume, the builder of this house.

The city architect in a telephone conversation said that he knew the house well as an example of a maison ouvrière (working-class housing).  It is, he said, one of the last of its type remaining in Versailles - a style of architecture common in the late 19th/early 20th century in working-class neighborhoods like Porchefontaine, a quartier populaire on the other side of town about as far away from the Château de Versailles as you could get.  In the early years of the 20th century it even had its own slum called le Camp du Maroc.  The year this house was built, the city of Versailles was just beginning to put  in water, sewer and gas services.

People had wells in their back yards and outhouses.  Almost all the roads were dirt roads with the exception of my street and that was only paved up to the train station.  There is a very good site here that has pictures of the area in the 1930's.  Scroll down to the section entitled Le Halte and the photo right after the postcard  4. Avenue de Porchefontaine - Rue de la Ferme is an old picture of my street.  My house is on the right hand side (I think I see a corner of the roof).  The architect has no old photos of the house in his files but the day we decide to repaint, he said, he wants to come by so he can know what color the woodwork was when it was first built.

So looking back at the house as it is today what might we be able to deduce from the information presented so far?  Let's have some fun speculating....

 Madame Seitz might have been a person of modest means, perhaps a widow (this is the period after the sanguinary First World War).  She had some money because she could buy property and build a house but not enough to do so in the nicer parts of town.  She might have been a shopkeeper in the area or a rentier with a small income.

Or (and this idea came from a craftsman who passed by the other day) it was associated with the Truffaut gardens and housed a worker (and his family)  who was employed either in the show gardens or in the fertilizer factory.  The craftsman was very insistent that this house would not have been suitable for cadre (management) but he could see it being offered to a working-class family as part of a company policy of paternalisme industriel.

"But it's so small," I said. "How could you fit a family in this little one-bedroom house?"  He just looked at me and then patiently explained a little about the living conditions of the French working class in the early 20th century.  Even a very small house like this one, a single-family dwelling with room for a vegetable garden, he said, would have been a dream come true for a family in that era.

And there we have it - I'm looking at my house through late 20th/early 21st middle-class American eyes and I'm trying to put myself in the context of another world that had very different rules and conditions from the one I grew up in and the one I live in now. Today's world where we take for granted things like running water (hot and cold), where we can turn up the thermostat if we don't feel like firing up the purely optional wood stove, where there is a minimum wage and standards for decent housing, and where a sick women recovering from a life-threatening illness can sit at a computer and type these words knowing that she is warm, doesn't have to spend 70% of her non-existent income on food, and won't end up sleeping in a tent in a bidonville.

Damn.  Kinda looks like progress, doesn't it?


Blaze said...

Fascinating. I lived in a house built in 1925 for 24 years.

I always felt the history wrapping itself around me in a hug--along with giving me all the challenges of maintaining an older home.

I longed to know more about its past, its heritage and its former occupants, but I never but I never went to the extent you have to learn.

I'm settling into my condo, but it just doesn't have the heart and soul that my house did. I love hearing about yours. I'm sure your home knows how much you cherish it.

I hope you will continue to share with us what you learn.

P. Moore said...

When you talk about your 'tiny house', you are describing your HOME. I bet it shows you how you can be comfortable there and feel at home there, thereby telling many of us that our dwellings often far exceed in physical terms what we really need to have a happy home. Indeed, a lot of the big houses in North America and elsewhere can in fact be a burden, while yours has a story to tell and you have a little more to do to uncover it all.

Ellen Lebelle said...

Your house is so much like mine, in Nogent! It was built in 1928. Yellowish brick, but the brick was disintegrating and we had it painted with a mineral paint, so now it's faded (oof) pink. When it was built, it had the long double living/dining room, like yours, east-west light. We had the double doors taken out to make it a single room, but we still have the chimneys in what used to be the corners. The other small room has become our dining room. We opened the kitchen onto the entry so that we could all fit at the table, kitchenside. Upstairs, 3 bedrooms and a bath.
The family that built the house had more children, 8, in all, so they sold a bit of the property and raised the roof to add another floor in 1937 -- another 3 bedrooms and bath. And they still had room under the roof for an attic, but not much standing space. We have access to our roof! The attic is mostly filled with insulation, now.
The youngest of those 8 children still lives on our block. We knew several of the others, too. One was a teacher at our kids' école maternelle, which is how we found out the house was for sale. She fought with her siblings to bring the price down to where we could afford it.
When we bought it, we had to renovate completely -- electricity, plumbing... When we stripped the walls of their original wallpaper, in one room, we found beautiful drawings of airplanes on the plaster. Our neighbor told us that was the work of his brother, who became an architect. We papered over the drawings, carefully preserving them, but they disappeared later, when we decided to paint rather than re-paper.
Now that we are down to 2, it's really too big for us. Last Christmas, though, we were packed, with all the children (we have 4), partners and grandchildren.
Our late neighbor across the street told us that, before the house was built, our lot was a pear orchard with raspberries. We still have a very productive raspberry patch we think must be from that time. Our old neighbor, who would be 95 had he lingered, lived his entire life in the house across the street and loved telling us about the neighborhood. There were corner bistrots almost at every corner!

Catherine - said...

I hadn't realized that you live in Versailles. What a beautiful area, and the little stories of speculation around your home - how very exciting to imagine who once lived there. Taking stock of our roots is such a great opportunity for imagining how life was. It is certainly eye-opening!

Sauve said...

My French husband tells me that his family lived in an appartement in Paris that was about 50 square meters or perhaps a bit smaller. That was for a family of 4 just 30 years ago. My family was also a family of four and our apartment was 620 square feet. I was a single parent of 3 children and our apartments were never over 600 square feet. My maternal grandparents' home in Pharr, Texas was about 800 square feet with a 2 car detached garage, for a family of 7, and set in the center of 4 acres. They were considered affluent. My paternal grandparents were dairy farmers in Devine, Texas and lived in a house so large my mother called it a barn. They were a family of 6. But actually, the house began as a 400 square feet and was added onto untl it was nearly 1200 square feet, which included the summer sleeping porch.

I think people use to spend more time outside than we do now and backyards were also used to provide food for their families. Now it seems they are mostly used to confine a dog or dogs.

I can't imagine living in one place my entire life. What must that be like? But I have lived in neighborhoods where there were such people and for a cup of tea they had stories to share. We will be moving into a home soon that is only 2 or 3 years old and was built by the couple who sold it to us. I hope to live out my life on that property. If I live to be as old as my grandmother I will have 40 years there and have some stories to share over a cup of tea.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Blaze, It's a fun exercise and I guess it makes me feel more a part of the community here. What I really want is to get the city architect for 20 minutes so he can give me more information that I can use to extend my research.

@P. Moore Absolutely! One of the things that clinched the deal in the purchase of this house was the size. Our old apartment (not big by American standards) felt enormous when the Frenchling left for Canada. I felt like I was rattling around in a huge cage and it was not fun to clean. I find that having a smaller space feels good. It means that my sposue and I talk to each, watch videos together, read together. And there is only one bathroom to clean and I can dust AND vacuum the entire house in under 10 minutes. These days I have a very hard time understanding the attraction of three bathrooms. :-)

@Ellen, Oh thank you thank you for telling us about your house. Could you put a picture up on your blog? I think this property might have been an orchard or a garden plot at one point. The map I have from 1889 does not show a house here and from the pictures the place was pretty rural at that time. I talked to one neighbor who said that he talked to people here who remembered cattle being driven up my street and through the gates at the octrois to be taken to market. I think gathering these stories is not only fun for us but a service as well. The older residents are a gold mine of info and it seems sad to think that their experiences might pass with them.

@Catherine, it really is a very nice area. Most of the info about Versailles you will find on the web is about that gaudy monstrosity on the other side of two (the castle) but Versailles is a real city with its own fascinating history. I feel really blessed to have landed here. If you ever come to visit I will take you on a walk. :-)

@Sauve, Every Wednesday I go to visit a 90 year old Frenchwoman who has been living in the same apartment for all of her adult life. Hers was a family of 4 and there was only one bedroom. No dining room, the main room is a combination living and dining area and a huge old table fills most of the space. When I look at the floor plan of my house I suspect that the bathroom was put in later and that there was probably one big room with a wood or coal stove where everyone could congregate. No reason that the other rooms which we use as living/dining room could not have been bedrooms.

I would love to hear about your new house. I haven't had many opportunities to be in modern French houses. What is yours like?