19 January 2019

Fascinating F1 Facts: 52

Much of the FIA is now housed in a drab building next to the airport in Geneva, Switzerland.

Las Vegas, it is not.

The Chemin de Blandonnet, with the emphasis on bland, is not quite in the same league as the FIA's traditional home in the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

Then again, there are not many addresses that do come close to the Place de la Concorde.

Originally, before the French Revolution, this 18-acre space was known as the Place Louis XV, after the French king who planned it. There used to be a statue of him in the Place, but it was torn down when the people rebelled in 1789. They renamed it the Place de la Revolution and a guillotine was kept busy removing the heads of royalists and it was there in 1793 that King Louis XVI - Louis XV's grandson - was executed, a few months before his wife Marie Antoinette departed in similar fashion.

By 1795 it was renamed Place de la Concorde, although the name did not stick until after the second French Revolution in 1830.

Back in 1758 Louis XV had commissioned the architect Jacques-Ange Gabriel to create two identical buildings on either side of the Rue Royale, on the north side of the Place. He wanted them to house government offices but while the eastern building would house the naval headquarters, the western one was not built and the land behind Gabriel's façade was divided into four lots and sold, with the owners free to build what they wanted, on the understanding that the façade was left unchanged. These were numbered 4,6, 8 and 10 and were bought by people with a lot of money to spend, who wanted to build townhouses, where they could stay when they were not living in their chateaux in the country. Such residences were known as hôtels particuliers (singular hôtel particulier) and were usually named after the family that owned them. They were not hotels in the sense we know today. They were often very grand affairs, usually built around courtyards, hidden from the outside world and away from the hustle and bustle outside.

Number 4, on the corner of the Rue Royale was bought by the Marquis de Coislin. Number 6 was designed by the architect Pierre-Louis Moreau for the Treasurer-General David Rouillé de L'Étang. It was passed down through his family to his great-niece, who was married to the Marquis of Plessis-Bellière, but when her daughter died without an heir and she decided to leave it to the Catholic church, with the intention of it becoming a convent. This led to a series of lengthy legal actions from other family members who challenged the Will. This was not settled until 1901 when Pope Leo XIII agreed to sell the building to the Automobile Club de France. This organization had also acquired number 8 next door. This was known as the Hotel Moreau or the Hotel Cartier. It was built by Pierre-Louis Moreau for his own use but was then passed on in his family, his daughter having married politician René Lambot de Fougères. By 1830 it was been passed on to another politician Louis-Denis Péan de Saint-Gilles. At one point part of it was transformed into a café owned by the celebrated Corrazza company, famed for its lemonade.

Number 10, incidentally, was called the Hotel Aumont until it was acquired by François de Crillon, after which it became known as the Hotel de Crillon. This became a hotel in 1907 when it was acquired by the Société du Louvre, a hotel group, which transformed it into one of the most famous hotels in the world.

Between 1898 and 1912 the ACF transformed numbers 6 and 8 into one integrated building, which covers an impressive 113,000 square feet and include a swimming pool, a rooftop terrace, a squash court and a spectacular library.

The FIA, which was established by the ACF, leases part of the building and uses the number 8 entrance.

After the German invasion in 1940 the buildings were requisitioned by the dramatically-named General Bogislav von Studnitz, one of Hitler's Panzer generals, who (in passing) would die a bizarre death in 1943 when he was inspecting some railway lines in Greece, using a draisine which was hit by a speeding locomotive. The Hotel Crillon served as one of the German headquarters during the Occupation and in 1944 there was violent fighting as the  Second French Armoured Division arrived in Paris. The 12e Régiment de Chasseurs d'Afrique fought its way up the Rue de Rivoli in their Sherman tanks, supported by infantry and resistance fighters. The lead tank arrived in the Place de la Concorde to find a German Panther tank there and the two then exchanged fire. The French tank was faster and the Panther was destroyed, but almost immediately the commander of the Sherman was killed by a sniper.

Legend has it that the resistance fighters shouted to the tanks about "the fifth column", meaning that the snipers might be Frenchmen working with the Germans, but one of the tank commanders misunderstood and took aim at the fifth column from the left of Gabriel's façade. It was destroyed. Although this was repaired after the war, the stone used was not as good quality and so one can see the difference.

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