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History of the Pavillon de Breteuil

A brief outline from 1672 to the present day

[Text of a brochure published by the BIPM in 1991]
At the time of the signing of the Metre Convention and the foundation of the BIPM in 1875, the Pavillon de Breteuil was already more than two hundred years old...

These pages present some of the history of this fine building in beautiful surroundings.
photo of the entrance to the BIPM


At the time of the signing of the Convention du Mètre and the foundation of the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures (BIPM) in 1875, the Pavillon de Breteuil was already more than two hundred years old. Built by Thomas Gobert for 'Monsieur' and inaugurated by Louis XIV in 1672, it had seen the glories of Louis XIV and the turbulence of the French Revolution, had been restored and refurbished by the Emperor Napoléon and, finally, had been seriously damaged in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. This short account of the three hundred years of the Pavillon de Breteuil is meant to complement the description of the scientific work carried out by the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures entitled Le BIPM et la Convention du Mètre.

Very little of what is presented here is the fruit of our own researches. Instead it is based upon what has been written or told to us by others. We have drawn heavily upon a history of the Pavillon de Breteuil, written some forty years ago and to the best of our knowledge never published, by Mme H. Kranz-Manoncourt. We are pleased to acknowledge the contribution of M. and Mme de Breteuil in particular for the copy of the Baron de Breteuil (now hanging in the Château de Breteuil) and of the Abbé de Breteuil and for other information on the Baron. We are also pleased to thank Mme O.A. Schmitz, in charge of the museum of the Parc de Saint-Cloud, for helpful advice and information much of which was in a brochure accompanying an exhibition on the Château and gardens of Saint-Cloud in the museum of the Domaine National de Saint-Cloud in 1989. The copy of one of the earliest plans of the present site of the Parc (from the Manufacture Nationale de Céramique de Saint-Cloud), the 'plan terrier' of the Hotel d'Aunay of 1577 (Maison de Gondi), was also kindly supplied by Mme Schmitz. We are also very grateful to M. P.-X. Hans, Inspector of Historic Monuments, for helpful advice and notes on his research into the early history of the buildings of the Parc de Saint-Cloud. From these it appears that the existing building of the Pavillon de Breteuil is indeed the original Trianon de Saint-Cloud of 1672 which was transformed in 1743 to its present form and not, as had previously been thought, a new building erected on the site of the demolished Trianon.

We hope that what we have assembled here will go some way towards answering the many questions asked by visitors to the Pavillon de Breteuil about the history of what is, by any standards, a fine and elegant building in beautiful surroundings.

T.J. Quinn
August 1991

On 11 August 1672 Louis XIV, King of France, inaugurated a small pavilion which his brother, Monsieur, had had constructed by Thomas Gobert the King's architect and engineer, at the southern extremity of the Allée du Mail in the Parc de Saint-Cloud. Begun in 1670 and finished at the end of the following year, the Trianon de Saint-Cloud, as it was then called, stood halfway up a hillside overlooking the Seine. A fine example of the architecture of the 17th century, this pavilion, having a flat roof and belvederes in the classical style, was built to hold fêtes and receptions and to embellish the already magnificent park and Château de Saint-Cloud. It is known today as the Pavillon de Breteuil.

The origins of the Domaine de Saint-Cloud go back to the year 1577 and stem from the marriage of Henri Duc d'Orléans, the future Henri II, to Catherine de Médicis. In 1577 Catherine, who by then had become very influential as Queen Mother and Regent, bought for Jérôme II de Gondi the small Domaine d'Aunay, about 12 arpents (5 hectares) in extent situated on the banks of the Seine at Saint-Cloud. The small house on this domaine then became known as the Maison de Gondi. Jérôme and his son Baptiste II virtually rebuilt the house, thereby beginning what was to become the Château de Saint-Cloud. It was in the Maison de Gondi that Henri III died in 1589 after being stabbed by the Dominican monk Jacques Clément, on the banks of the Seine at Saint-Cloud.

The gardens of the Maison de Gondi were soon decorated and laid out in the Italian style with fountains, cascades and statuary, probably designed by the Italian master Thomas Francine. In the year 1618, however, Jean-Baptiste de Gondi, presumably for financial reasons, sold the property. It was acquired by Jean de Bueil, who died soon afterwards, and in 1625 the estate was bought by Jean-François de Gondi, Archbishop of Paris. Jean-François made many improvements to the estate including, once again with the help of Thomas Francine, the construction of many ornamental water effects. These include the Cascade de Gondi and the Grand Jet, still extant, in the square pool in the lower park.

After the death of Jean-François de Gondi in 1654 the property passed to Philippe-Emmanuel de Gondi and then to his nephew Henri, Duc de Retz, who decided to sell in 1655. Barthélémy Hervart, a financier of German descent, became the new owner. Hervart made further acquisitions, increasing the area of the property to about 12 hectares. He also increased the size of the house and made yet further improvements to the waterworks in the gardens. The estate had by then taken on a certain grandeur and on the 8 October 1658 a sumptuous fête was organized in honour of the young Louis XIV, his brother known as 'Monsieur', his mother Anne of Austria and Cardinal Mazarin. This, it turned out, was an unwise thing for Barthélémy Hervart to do, for Mazarin had been looking for a country house for the King to give as a present to Monsieur. A little more than two weeks later, on the 26 October 1658, Monsieur (Philippe d'Anjou, then d'Orléans) took possession of his new property at Saint-Cloud which the unfortunate Barthélémy Hervart had been forced to sell.

In 1661 Monsieur married his cousin Henrietta, sister of Charles II of England, and they took up residence in the Château de Saint-Cloud, or the Maison de Gondi as it was still sometimes called. Already from 1659, and during the forty years that followed, Monsieur devoted himself to his estate, increasing it in size from 12 hectares to nearly 600 hectares, undertaking major building works to enlarge and improve the Château and laying out the park on a grand scale, buying land right down to the Seine. As well as building the Trianon (Thomas Gobert) some 500 toises (1 km) south of the Château at the southern extremity of the allée du Mail and the 'Grande Cascade' (Antoine Le Pautre) he had the gardens laid out by Le Nôtre.

The first known drawing of the Trianon de Saint-Cloud is an engraving by Pérelle and Poilly in 1674. It shows an asymmetric building perched on a balustraded terrace over a formal garden laid out in the French style. Ten years later a second engraving by Pérelle (after Gobert) shows a satisfying symmetry and apparent completion of the building, although in this engraving the terrace, which exists to this day, is missing (evidence of the liberties taken by engravers of the period!). At the bottom of the sloping ground below the Trianon, far steeper than it appears on the first engraving of Pérelle, was the magnificent fountain of Venus (1673). It is shown, viewed from the Trianon, on an engraving by Mariette. The fountain of Venus was at the centre of the 'Grand Parterre' and in the middle of the fountain the goddess was seated on a chariot in the form of a shell; behind her was a cupid holding a parasol formed by a jet of water and four Tritons lying in the water appeared to be blowing bubbles from their shells. All figures were gilded. This fountain, along with much of the layout of the Parc de Saint-Cloud, is attributed to Le Nôtre, the greatest landscape designer of the age. All that now remains of the 'Grand Parterre' is the curvature in the massive retaining wall which separates the property of the Pavillon de Breteuil from the lower Parc de Saint-Cloud.

It is probable that the existing circular pool, some 12 m in diameter and nearly 2 m deep, in the middle of the formal garden just in front of the Pavillon de Breteuil dates from the time of Gobert. The pool is still fed by water from the lakes at Ville d'Avray, some 5 km to the West, through the network of cast-iron pipes originally made to feed the fountains and pools of the Domaine de Gondi in the 17th century. Although repaired and extended since that time, much of the original cast-iron system still remains.

In the years that followed its completion in about 1680 Monsieur, Duc d'Orléans, used the Trianon as a pavilion for fêtes. Giving the illusion of an inhabited property, the Trianon contained (according to an inventory made just after his death at Saint-Cloud in 1701) a drawing room, a bedroom, a dressing room and an office. It was furnished and decorated with great taste and refinement. Mention was made of a six-branched gilded chandelier in the drawing room, a Turkish carpet, mirrors and paintings. In the bedroom there was a four-poster bed and rich curtains and hangings. It seems, however, that Monsieur never stayed in the Trianon.

During the regency of Philippe d'Orléans from 1715 to 1723 the Trianon became a hermitage. It took the name of Pavillon du Mail during the time of Louis d'Orléans (1703-1752), son of Philippe d'Orléans and grandson of Monsieur. In 1743 it was modified by Louis d'Orléans for the marriage of his son Louis-Philippe d'Orléans (1725-1785), the Duc de Chartres, to Princess Louise-Henrietta de Bourbon-Conti. The Pavillon was then apparently given by Louis to the Abbé de Breteuil, his chancellor, as an official residence.

The Pavillon du Mail became known as the Pavillon de Breteuil in 1785 when it became associated with the most distinguished member of the Breteuil family, Louis-Auguste le Tonnelier, Baron de Breteuil (1730-1807), nephew of the Abbé de Breteuil.

The Baron had a distinguished career in the diplomatic service of the King. He was ambassador to Russia during the reigns of Elizabeth and Catherine II. He was then ambassador to Sweden where, in the midst of an acute conflict between two factions of the Diet, he managed to swing the assembly to the interests of France. The Baron was later sent to Naples and subsequently to Vienna where he represented Louis XVI in mediating between Prussia and Austria over the Bavarian succession: he was the principal figure in negotiating the Treaty of Teschen signed on 13 May 1779. The Baron returned to France in 1783 and was made Minister of the King's Household and Minister for Paris. In 1784, along with the Minister of Finance, Calonne, he was charged with negotiating the purchase by Marie-Antoinette of the Domaine de Saint-Cloud from the Duc d'Orléans. On successful completion of this transaction, which marked the final departure of the Orléans family from Saint-Cloud, the Baron was rewarded by being given the administration of the Domain and the Pavillon du Mail - henceforth the Pavillon de Breteuil - as his official residence. It is recorded that for the first visit of Marie-Antoinette to Saint-Cloud the Baron prepared a fête in her honour. This was to have taken place at the Pavillon de Breteuil on 26 September 1785 but was cancelled at the last moment on the news of the death of the Queen of Sardinia.

The Baron was a man whose humanitarian and social views were far in advance of his time. During his period as Minister for Paris, he introduced far-reaching reforms in the hospitals and prisons of the city. He also took a great interest in the world of science and became a member of the Academy of Sciences on 11 December 1785. It was to the Baron de Breteuil that Cassini IV turned in 1785 for support in his request to the King for substantial funds to re-equip the Paris Observatory. These funds were supplied. Cassini and the Baron also devised a scheme to teach English to some of the best French instrument makers with a view to sending them to England to learn skills which, at that time, were more advanced there. Following a dispute with Loménie de Brienne the Baron resigned from the King's service in 1787. He was recalled two years later and from the 11th to the 16th July 1789 he was the King's chief minister. The Baron fled the country on 17 or 18 July 1789. The last service he was able to render to his King was a mission to other European sovereigns. For this he was entrusted, on 6 October 1790, with a literal 'Carte blanche', a blank sheet of paper carrying nothing but the King's signature.

In 1793, his estate was declared a property of the State and put in the charge of a caretaker, as an annex to the Château de Saint-Cloud. On his return to France in 1802 the Baron de Breteuil asked for the return of his estate, but the Pavillon had by then been reintegrated into the Domaine de Saint-Cloud and was considered state property.

The plan of the Pavillon de Breteuil and of the Parc de Saint-Cloud in 1793 (Archives Départementales des Yvelines) clearly shows how things were at that time and allows subsequent (minor) modifications (including a change in the centre roof line, rounding of the 'Grandes Salles', and new outbuildings) to be recognized.

In 1799 the Pavillon de Breteuil was occupied by a detachment of the army and was left in a sorry state. In 1799 citizen Maréchaux, architect of the Château, sent the following report to the Minister of the Interior: "... they have entirely destroyed the wood panelling and partly burnt the floor boards for heating and have removed the locks so that there are substantial repairs to be made..." Nevertheless, Maréchaux proposed letting the Pavillon on condition that the tenant carry out the necessary repairs.

In 1802, soon after his installation in the newly restored Château de Saint-Cloud, the First Consul gave orders that the Pavillon de Breteuil should also be restored. It had been renamed Pavillon d'Italie as Napoléon had wanted to give it to Marescalchi, the Italian Foreign Minister. The building then took the external form it has today, the corners of the octogonal sections at each end becoming rounded (the present day 'Grande Salle' and salon of the Director's apartment) and the centre of the Pavillon being raised by a new upper section.

By 1806, although the main building was not yet finished, the outbuildings were being used as lodgings for twenty-four of the Emperor's horses, various members of his retenue and two park keepers. In the same year, work was carried out at the request of the Empress Joséphine to install a bathroom in the Pavillon for her to bathe in 'Barèges water', a sulphurous water whose vapours might, it was feared, damage the gilt in the Château.

In 1807 the apartments of the Pavillon d'Italie were finished and made ready for the arrival, in August of that year, of Jérôme, King of Westphalia and the youngest of Napoléon's brothers, who had just married Catherine de Würtenberg.

In March 1810 the Pavillon d'Italie was made ready for the Emperor himself to spend a night there. The intention was that this visit should take place while the Archiduchesse Marie-Louise stayed at Saint-Cloud, on the eve of her civil marriage to the Emperor. It seems that, at the last moment, Napoléon decided against the plan. In the same year the Pavillon d'Italie served as the residence of Caroline Murat, Queen of Naples and in 1811 the Princes of Holland [Napoléon-Louis and Charles-Louis Napoléon Bonaparte (later Napoléon III)], sons of Louis Bonaparte, stayed there. According to contemporary reports, the Emperor furnished the Pavillon with much taste and magnificence.

The Austrian occupation of 1814 seems not to have left any scars at the Pavillon de Breteuil. As soon as the Comte d'Artois moved into the Château de Saint-Cloud in July 1814, the architect Le Père was ordered to arrange the necessary rooms in the Pavillon de Breteuil so that the Prince could take showers there. The following year allied troops siezed the Pavillon. In marked contrast to the earlier Austrian occupation some, in particular those of General Blücher, did a great deal of damage. On 23 November, Le Père took advantage of the departure of the troops and removed the mirrors that had survived the pillage to the Château de Saint-Cloud for safety.

Under the Restoration, in 1817, some repair work was begun. The following year the Pavillon de Breteuil was the subject of various proposals: the Comte de Pradel, Director of the Royal Household, offered it to the Comte de Hoguerté; the Marquis de Vernon, first equerry of the King, requested it for an equerry of the Comte d'Artois. Despite the repairs of the preceding year, the Pavillon de Breteuil was not yet habitable. Major work and heavy expenditure were required and nothing was left of the furnishings. It was even suggested that the only way to make use of the Pavillon de Breteuil would be to make it into lodgings for grooms!

In 1820 there was some question of putting the Pavillon at the disposal of the Duchesse de Berry but she insisted on complete redecoration. The cost would have been 7000 francs; this was thought to be too expensive and the idea was dropped. The 'Garde des Sceaux', de Serre, finding his lodgings at the Château de Saint-Cloud inadequate when the Court was in residence, expressed a desire to live in the Pavillon de Breteuil and requested that it be repaired. He was less demanding, doing only the essential repairs and putting up ordinary wall paper to avoid re-doing the paintwork; the total expenditure came to about 1500 francs.

In 1822 the Pavillon de Breteuil passed to the Governor of the Château de Saint-Cloud, the Vicomte d'Agoult. A one-time émigré who was in the Prince's army during the campaign of 1792, the Vicomte accompanied Louis XVIII to Verona, to Mittau and then to England. Promoted Lieutenant-Général on the return of the Bourbons, he became the first equerry to the Duchesse d'Angoulême and then in 1821 was made Governor of Saint-Cloud. For his arrival the Pavillon de Breteuil was once again refurbished. The same year the Princesse Esterházy, wife of the Austrian Ambassador in Paris, spent several short stays in the Pavillon de Breteuil. The Duchesse d'Angoulême, living in the Château de Saint-Cloud, visited her frequently on these occasions.

During the year 1823-1824 the Duc de Blacas d'Aulps, first gentleman of the King's Bed'Chamber, lived at the Pavillon de Breteuil with his family. Also an émigré, the Duc, at the Restoration, was made Minister of the King's Household, Secretary of State, Grand Master of the Robes and Intendant General of the Crown buildings. As Minister of the King's Household he had charge of the refurbishment of the Château de Saint-Cloud for the first visit of Louis XVIII in 1816.

The Pavillon de Breteuil was inhabited for a few months in 1830-1831 by Maréchal, provisional Governor of the Château. On his departure the building was left unoccupied but for a caretaker who looked after the remaining valuable furniture. In 1831 the Pavillon de Breteuil was put at the disposal of the Duc de Castries, Governor of the Château de Meudon, who had been obliged to give up his usual lodgings at Meudon in favour of Dom Pedro, Emperor of Brazil, during the latter's stay in France. The next record of the Pavillon de Breteuil shows that in 1842 it was given to the Comte de Montalivet who, having left the Ministry of the Interior in 1839, was appointed 'Intendant' of the Civil List, a post he was to continue to occupy until 1848. In November 1842 a note in the Journal des débats mentions that the Comte de Montalivet was laid up at the Pavillon de Breteuil with an attack of gout!

During the 'July Monarchy' (1830-1848) Louis-Philippe, following the practice of his predecessors, began staying at Saint-Cloud. After the fall of Louis-Philippe in 1848 the Pavillon de Breteuil, like the Château de Saint-Cloud, came under the care of the Ministry of Public Works. During the four years that followed, just before the re-establishment of the Empire, various attempts were made by the Ministry to let the property, which was described as "a country house with garden and outbuildings". The letting, which included furnishings, was put up for auction.

Of those who rented the Pavillon the most notable was the Princesse Mathilde Bonaparte, daughter of King Jérôme de Westphalia. First cousin of the Prince Louis-Napoléon, whom she nearly married, the Princesse Mathilde was separated from her husband Prince Anatole Demidoff and lived in Paris during the last years of the reign of Louis-Philippe. When Louis-Napoléon became President the salon of the Princesse Mathilde rapidly became a celebrated venue of writers and artists. Each summer, from 1849 to 1853, she set up house at the Pavillon de Breteuil. According to her biographer, Joachim Kühn: "Mathilde lived at the Pavillon de Breteuil surrounded by her closest friends. She set up a boudoir with soft cushions and delicate porcelain where she read the latest novels and poems. Under the roof she made a workshop with walls hung with textiles and covered with paintings and sketches. There she painted with the painter Giraud, in the corner Nieuwerkerke modelled a bust while one of the ladies present read aloud. In the afternoon Nieuwerkerke would take her riding in a carriage through the nearby woods of Meudon, Marnes, Ville d'Avray or Versailles. In the evenings she would often receive visits; Exelmans, Castellanne, Prince Lucien Murat would bring all the latest news from Paris..." Other visitors would have been Saint-Arnaud, Alexandre Dumas, and Doctor Véron; this last was famous for his pills and later became Director of the Opera. Just a few steps away at the Château de Saint-Cloud was the Prince-President who gave fêtes at which Mathilde presided. At the re-establishment of the Empire in 1853 Mathilde was still to be found at the Pavillon de Breteuil, but this was to be her last visit. The only subsequent mention we have of the inhabitants of the Pavillon de Breteuil before the fall of the Empire in 1870 is a brief mention in the Moniteur Universel of 3 October 1869: "... the Château de Breteuil inhabited in turn by the Princesse Mathilde, the Grand-Duchesse de Bade and the Grand-Duchesse Marie de Russie...".

In 1870, just a few months before the fall of the Empire, Napoléon III apparently gave his approval for the installation of an astrophysical observatory at the Pavillon de Breteuil, naming a certain Dr Jules Janssen as Director (later to become Director of the Meudon Observatory).

During the siege of Paris the Pavillon de Breteuil was seriously damaged by shells aimed by the French at a Prussian battery installed on the hill just above the Pavillon. The stables and outbuildings in the courtyard were completely demolished but the servants quarters in the Petit Pavillon just to the south of the main building were untouched. This was the condition of the Pavillon when, in 1875, the French government offered the site to the Comité International des Poids et Mesures for the establishment of the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures (BIPM).

The installation of the BIPM had been foreseen in the Metre Convention, signed in Paris on 20 May 1875 by seventeen nations. The International Committee agreed to accept the offer of the Pavillon de Breteuil as the site for the BIPM and work began to renovate the Pavillon and to construct a new laboratory building to house the instruments and equipment required for the technical work of the BIPM.

10th CIPM, 1894 2nd CGPM, 1895

Thus began the present existence of the Pavillon de Breteuil. In 1884 the laboratory building called the Observatoire was opened, and in 1889 the 1st Conférence Générale des Poids et Mesures sanctioned the new international prototypes of the metre and kilogram and formally required that they be deposited at the Pavillon de Breteuil. The Observatoire was extended in 1929 thanks to a gift by the Rockerfeller Foundation. Since then, extensions of the activities of the BIPM have required the construction of additional buildings: in 1964 two laboratory buildings were opened for work on ionizing radiation (these required an extension to the site, bringing it to about 4 hectares); in 1984 a building for laser work was opened; in 1988 a new library and office building was inaugurated; and, most recently, the Pavillon du Mail was inaugurated in 2001.

Since 1875 there have been thirteen directors of the BIPM and they have all, with the exception of Govi, during whose time the Pavillon de Breteuil was being repaired, resided in the Pavillon de Breteuil.

The status of the BIPM vis-à-vis the French Government was formalized in an agreement signed on 25 April 1969 between the Comité International des Poids et Mesures and the French government. The site of the Pavillon de Breteuil is now considered international territory and the BIPM has all the rights and privileges accorded to an intergovernmental organization.

The Baron de Breteuil would, we hope, have been pleased to know that, after its chequered early career, the pavillon that bears his name in the Parc de Saint-Cloud has become the permanent home of an international scientific organization, known the world over for the precision of its work.

[Updated 2013]