L’Hôtel de Cavoye

52 Rue des Saints-Pères, Paris, 7th Arrondisement

Rebuilt in 1686, for Louis d'Oger (1640-1716) Marquis de Cavoye, the Grand Marshall of the Royal Household at the Palace of Versailles and King Louis XIV's best friend since childhood. In 1679, Cavoye bought the property from the lady for whom he'd fought a duel several years previously and for which he served two - fairly luxurious - years in prison. He completely remodelled the existing structure (built in 1640 for the King's chaplain, Paul Bailly) to the design of Daniel Gittard (1625-1686), one of the most pre-eminent Parisian architects of the era who was also known for his work on the Church of Saint-Sulpice. It was decorated by the Royal architects Jules Hardouin-Mansart and Antoine Lepautre. Frequent visitors during this period included the great playwright, Jean Racine, and the poet Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux. Rescued from ruin and immaculately restored by an American heiress in 1923, it remains a private home and is one of only a handful of such palaces to remain unchanged since the days of the Ancien Régime....

This house is best associated with...

Elizabeth Wharton Drexel

Lady "Bessie" (Drexel) Dahlgren, Lehr, de la Poer Beresford, Lady Decies

1868-1944

Eva Drexel-Dahlgren

Eva Drexel-Dahlgren, of Paris

1904-1980

Other than Cavoye and his wife, notable residents here included the lawyer known as "Grotius" and a string of notable women: the Duchesse de Villars, the Marquise de Courcelles, and the Princesse des Ursins. During the 19th Century it changed hands several times but over the years became increasingly less cared for. By the 1920s, its expansive courtyard and gardens had become a dumping ground for refuse and the house was dismissed by locals as "La Ruine de Saints-Pères," divided into apartments that still displayed faded splendor but were cheap to rent as there were no modern facilities.

Bessie Drexel's "Unfailing Source of Happiness"

In 1923, it was rescued by the American heiress Elizabeth Wharton Drexel who bought it from the Comte de Beaufort. She recalled her first visit: "a melancholy affair. Beautiful old rooms with exquisite boiseries, the grande salle-de-fetes in ivory and gold, the gracefully curving stone staircase in the entrance hall, the fine old marqueterie floors, the tall spacious windows - everything had been given over to tenants who seemed to think this was a place merely to afford shelter or to be used as shops. And, as for the garden... surely it had not had the care of a gardener for more than a century! I came away... with the fixed determination to own the old house". She nearly succeeded in paying off all the tenants to leave, but couldn't shift one family who lived over the garage and were still there in 1935! She said, "I feel rather sympathetic towards them. I would probably be as immovable".

"Bessie" was then unhappily married to Harry Symes Lehr, a homosexual who admitted he'd married her for her money, and she poured all her love instead into this meticulous restoration project. The panelling in the hall was retrofitted from L'Hôtel Senoch on Rue Bayen and another reception room was redone with panelling from L'Hôtel de Crillon on the Place de la Concorde. Finally, she filled the house with period furniture from Cavoye's time and added her monogram on the pediment above the front entrance. Her famous portrait by Giovanni Boldini was in the library and is now seen at The Elms in Newport

In 1935, she wrote: "My Paris home is an unfailing source of happiness to me. I love it, this mellow old house that has known the joys and sorrows of nearly four centuries. There is something of warmth, almost tenderness in its atmosphere... In this house which has known the happiness of others, I too have found happiness. It has been my privilege to restore it to its ancient glory, to revive its past splendours. In return, it has given me peace... At last I can look back on the past without bitterness... Harry Lehr is dead, so are many who walked along the road with me... These walls within which I live have seen the end of many resentments; so let it be with mine." Despite her marriage the following year to John Beresford, Lord Decies (widow of another heiress, Helen Gould) her happiness was short-lived: In 1940, as the Germans approached Paris, they escaped to London where they both died in 1944 during which time Bessie's beloved home was requisitioned by the Nazis.

Hubert de Givenchy & Bernard Tapie

Amazingly, the house remained in Bessie's family up until 1980 with the death of her youngest niece, Eva Drexel-Dahlgren, whose mother's home in Newport was inspired by La Lanterne at Versailles. The Hotel de Cavoye is a rare surviving example of the palaces built during the Ancien Régime and it still retains its original layout: reception rooms and library off the grand hall on the ground floor with state apartments on the first floor.  

After Eva died, the hotel was purchased for 26.5 million Francs by the celebrated fashion designer Hubert de Givanchy (1927-1918) who carefully restored the interiors and gardens. He sold it on in 1986 to businessman turned politician and TV personality, Bernard Tapie (b.1947). In 1993, Tapie was accused of match-fixing when the football team of which he was president (Olympique de Marseilles) won the the UEFA Champion's League and in 1995 - rather like the old Marquis de Cavoye - he was sentenced to two years in prison. Legal bills nearly forced him to sell, but he held on and it remains his home today. 

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Contributed by Mark Meredith on 14/09/2020 and last updated on 15/10/2020.
Image of the garden facade from the Ministère de la Culture (France), Médiathèque de l'architecture et du patrimoine, di.usion RMN-GP; King Lehr (1935) by Elizabeth Beresford; L'Hotel de Cavoye, Paris-Promeneurs.com; Les Scandaleuses, Louis Ogier, Marquis de Cavoye; Bibliotheques-specialisees, Paris

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