Saturday, July 13, 2013

Recollection: Piscine Molitor, a swimming pool in Paris ... and July 14, 2013

The Piscine Molitor (piscine is the French word for swimming-pool) was built in Paris in 1929, Avenue de la Porte Molitor (Gabriel Jean Joseph Molitor was a Marshal of France (1770-1849.)  The swimming pool was designed to look like an ocean liner with 3 levels of cabins.  It also had many Art Deco decorations, including stained glass, as the stained glass shown on top of this post, made by master glassmaker Louis Barillet (1880-1948.)  If anyone has read the fantasy novel by Yann Martel entitled "The Life of Pi" or seen the movie (in French it is called "L'Odyssee de Pi") you may remember that the main character was named "Pi Patel."  This was short for "Piscine Molitor," a name that was given to him by his Francophile parent in honor of this Paris swimming pool.  Below are the cover of the book in English and a poster of the French movie.

This Parisian swimming pool was officially opened in the summer of 1929.  American athlete and film star Johnny Weissmuller (1904-1984) was the celebrity featured at the grand opening.  Weissmuller was famous in France as he had been performing in many water shows in Paris.  Johnny was born an ethnic German (Banat Swabian) who immigrated to the United States with his family as an infant.  He grew up to win many medals and five Olympic gold medals for swimming (including some in the 1924 Paris Olympic Games) and had unmatched world records during his lifetime.  He played "Tarzan" in the 1930s and 1940s and had a distinctive Tarzan yell.  Below are vintage postcards and photos of Johnny Weissmuller at the Parisian pool.  (Click on collage twice to enlarge.)

Piscine Molitor was famous for fashion, theatrical performances, movie backdrops and figure skating training.  As an aside - the unveiling of the first modern bikini was held at Piscine Molitor at a fashion show in July 1946.  Louis Reard (1897-1984) was a French automobile engineer but his mother had a shoe shop for the nude cabaret Les Folies Bergeres.  Louis invented this tiny swimsuit and had to use a nude dancer from the Casino de Paris as a number of regular models refused to wear and show it.  The swimming pool had two pools, one indoor and the other outdoor with sand on the sides.  Below are vintage postcards of the pool.

When I was a teenager I went to this swimming pool often in summer with my friends.  It was not so popular anymore but it still was very nice.  Below are postcards of that era.

But I preferred to go there in winter when they turned the pool into an ice-skating rink (patinoire in French) where French ice-skating athletes used to train.  My friends and I would take the Metro to the station Michel-Ange Molitor then walk to the rink.  Once there we could turn around and around the rink on the ice to some lively music tempo.  When the music stopped boys could come to ask girls to turn around the rink with them during the next music piece, just like in a dance hall.  Ice-skates could be rented there but my parents gave me a pair of white ice-skates for Christmas and I almost wore them out.  We went to other ice-skating rinks in the area and I found some old photos showing the two boys who went with me most often.  They were brothers, Pierre and Billy.  Their father had been the French Consul in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and their mother was born there.  Below on top left is Billy, then next are Pierre and me (I was fifteen then.)

The open-air pool that was turned into ice and used as a skating rink in winters closed in the 1970s.  The summer pool fell into disrepair and was closed in 1989, boarded up and scheduled to become a housing project and a parking lot.  There were many protests and a group of concerned citizens formed "SOS Molitor."  They stopped the demolition of the pool and had it placed on the list of France's historic national monuments.  Below is the last photo of the pool taken on August 18,1989 before it was closed (photo courtesy City of Paris.)

However it sat for over 20 years and graffiti artists made it their private realm.  (Photos courtesy City of Paris / Mairie de Paris.)

I read in a French newspaper that renovations have begun.  The main structure (cannot be safely salvaged) will be razed but the historic frontage wall facing the stadium will remain.  The Art Deco green balustrades, some doors and windows will be kept, if possible, or reproduced to the original patterns.  It will be the rebirth of the mythical Piscine Molitor.  Below are photos showing the beginning of the renovation (courtesy City of Paris.)

The plans are for two pools, one covered and one open, a health spa, a luxury hotel, a restaurant and shopping with an opening date scheduled for 2014.  Below are photos showing the project of the future complex (courtesy City of Paris.)

If I were in Paris in July though I think I would go to "Paris Plages" (Paris Beaches.)  The Paris mayor started these beaches a dozen years ago during the months of July and August (July 20 through August 18 this year) for the Parisians who cannot go away on vacation.  Some streets are closed along the river Seine, sand and palm trees are brought in.  There are activities for children and adults from 9 am to midnight each day.  Some people can play "petanque" (bowling) others can go canoeing on the Seine, or simply lay in a lounge chair with an ice cream and a book.  This year mini-golf and Tai-Chi are also offered.

Since I am talking about Paris and today is July 13th, I'll mention that tomorrow is "Le Quatorze Juillet" - July 14, the French National Holiday.  Anglophones call this "Bastille Day" but no one in France would.  The storming of the prison on July 14, 1789, was a symbol to fight he "oppressors" of the people, which at the time numbered two: the aristocracy and the clergy.  Actually, some historians claim that the revolution was more against the Church than the nobility.  At the time there were only seven prisoners in the prison of the Bastille: 4 forgers, 2 legally insane and one libertine (or prostitute) - that's all.  (Drawing below by Louison, City of Paris.)

The 14 July 1789 ended absolute monarchy and the monopoly of the Church - all the churches and their wealth became property of the nation.  The First Republic was created soon after with the "tricolore" flag - blue, white and red which are symbols of the Republic - Liberty, Equality and Fraternity for all French people.  Although it was also the start of many killings of the aristocracy and priests and the system of "de-Christianization"  (4000 parishes were abolished with churches becoming hospitals, jails or being demolished, and priests deported to far away islands.)  This may not be well known, but it should be noted to understand why France is the most secular country in Europe where religion is tolerated but must stay a private matter with little influence on social life and none in governmental affairs.  The French Revolution also brought forth the fundamental "Declaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen" (the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen) which inspired democracy all over the world and was adopted by the United Nations in 1948 as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Below is Le Drapeau Tricolore (tricolor flag)by Francois Georgin, engraver - mid 19th century.

The people of France celebrate equality, solidarity and social gains obtained from the start and since the Revolution and the symbolic taking of the Bastille.  The 14th of July is a traditional national holiday with fireworks and dancing in the streets.  There is a military parade down the Champs-Elysees in Paris and this year the country of Mali, Africa, is invited to join the parade (as 12 other African nations) - 60 Malian soldiers next to French soldiers who fought in their country.  There will be 4800 men and women in the parade, about 265 vehicles, 58 aircraft and 35 helicopters going down the avenue tomorrow, Sunday 14 July 2013.  Painting below is Rue Montorgueil, Paris 1878 by Claude Monet, French (1840-1926.)


DJan said...

Bastille Day was a good reason for some friends in Boulder to have a party, and we would celebrate French independence day, partly because it fell right in the middle of summer. I think one year we even had a costume party. When I started reading this post, I knew that the name Piscine Molitor had some meaning, and then I remembered it from the book and the movie! Great post, as usual, VB. :-)

Scriptor Senex said...

Gosh, what a fascinating post. Thank you for all the information. I bet thinking of the skating brought back many happy memories for you!

OldLady Of The Hills said...

I love reading about the history of that pool (It was HUGE!!!) and the fact that the people saved it from being demolished and that it will finally re-open as a NEW place, yet honoring the OLD....!

I remember Johnny Weissmuller very well....He had quite an amazing career, didn't he?

Wishing you a Happy July 14th, my dear....I would say Bastille Day, but now that I know this is incorrect, I will no longer use that expression...!

Will you get to see a tape of that Parade? It sounds quite fantastic, and I love the painting by Claude Monet....1 said...

How I enjoyed reading this post Vagabonde..
The story of the swimming pool is fantastic.. the people won.. it will be stunning when finished..and the history will remain.
I remember going ice skating too with my friends.
we had such fun.
A very full day tomorrow in Paris.
The history of that era has always been fascinating.
happy weekend.
val xx

Thérèse said...

Toujours plein d'interessants details dans vos billets. Et dire que j'allais a la piscine la-bas lorsque je travaillais a Paris et n'avais jamais fait attention au decor! Aucun souvenir! :-( Honte a moi...

The Solitary Walker said...

Fantastically interesting, Vagabonde! I do so appreciate your committed and carefully-thought-out posts.

Mary said...

Such a fabulous post Vagabonde, as always!

Loved the story and pics of the piscine and am so thankful it has been saved! Will be an awesome complex again once completed.

I've heard of the Summertime 'Paris Plages' and think it's a great idea for Parisians stuck in the city (oh to be 'stuck' in Paris - I wouldn't mind one bit!). I would love to kayak along the Seine and see the sights from another angle.

Have a wonderful 14th of July - thanks for sharing so much interesting French history.

Hugs, Mary

David said...

Vagabonde, They sure don't make Tarzan's like they used to! I'm still waiting for a good Tarzan I own and have read all of the books. I really like the 'beaches' created along the Seine. That was definitely a case of meeting a need by thinking outside the box. FYI...Paris is our daughter's favorite city in the world...followed by New York and Chicago. Re: your feedback on Franklin and Brentwood TN. Our son's family lived in Brentwood for about a year and they really loved it. We've been to the Lovelace Café a couple of times but we think that it's slipped as it's expanded and become more 'famous'. Thanks for another very interesting blog! Take Care, Big Daddy Dave

Rosaria Williams said...

Happy Independence Day, Vagabonde! I just adore the wealth of information you share here.

Joy Weese Moll (@joyweesemoll) said...

Thanks so much for this! I loved the Johnny Weissmuller photos and your personal photos of the ice rink. My husband and I both appreciated your reflections about July 14th and feel we have a much better understanding, now, of how the French think about it.

Magic Love Crow said...

Fantastic post!! I love all the information! I love that stain glass piece!
(I just wrote to you through Etsy. I would like to confirm your address, please. Thanks.)

Arti said...

I'd never have imagined someone would post about the swimming pool The Piscine Molitor mentioned in Life of Pi (of which I'm a fan, both book and movie). And that someone would be you should come as no surprise. This is another fascinating, highly informative and interesting post. And... I'm glad you've found the 'French connection' in Canadian author Yann Martel's book. Hope you've a chance to read both the book and watch the movie. Both are excellent as you might have known. Glad you've given them a chance to speak for themselves... as per your comment on my post. :)

Mandy Southgate said...

What a travesty that the pool fell into such disrepair! It looked really beautiful. And worse still that parts cannot be salvaged. I think they should restore it to its original condition!

Happy Bastille Day!

Nadezda said...

Happy 14 July! I know this day and always remember the history of French revolution. Interesting story of swimming pool, hope it will be renovated soon and you could see the new 'piscine-molitor'.
Have a nice week!

Anonymous said...

Funny you should write about Paris, because I wrote it in today's and yesterday's post. My hula teacher taught art history and hula in Paris back in the 1990s and still has a hula halau there, taught by her daughter. I visited Paris for 2 weeks in 1969.

There is an Ice Palace down the street from my house. Great place to ice skate!

Patricia said...

Oh what a wonderful post, full of history and some lovely photos. Thanks for sharing
Patricia x

Al said...

What an amazing pool. I'm glad they're able to salvage parts of it.

hidden art of homemaking said...

Your posts are amazing and so interesting. the pool pictures and history and have lived a life of beauty and adventure...and thank you for sharing it with us...
love, Mona

Things and Thoughts said...

Quelle histoire!Combien de choses dont je n'avais jamais entendu parler.Bel hommage pour le 14 juillet chere Vagabonde.J'ai aussi adore la selection des photos.Merci de ce post!

Pat said...

Having been born in 1930 I am very fond of Art Deco and love these old examples.
Johnny W and Maureen O'Sullivan were great in the Tarzan films.
Another very interesting post Vagabond.
Oddly I was known as Pi for the first few years of my blog and then suddenly - nothing to do with me - it changed to Pat.

Pat said...

I forgot to say I really enjoyed the book 'The Life of Pi' and long to see the film.

Jim said...

Thank you so much for this, V! That swimming pool was incredible and so much a part of the culture. I hope this will be the same for the 'new' structure. Really like that deco stained glass piece.
After reading your short history of the role of religion in France's culture now, we in North America could learn a thing or two from this and keep religion a personal/private thing.
Thanks so much for this very informative post. Well done!!

இڿڰۣ FLO said...

j'adore la piscine bisou

Anonymous said...

I have just finished reading this extremely informative post and I have learnt so much. Ultimately I am glad that after such a long period of neglect this wonderful piece of French architecture and culture is being preserved in some form for future generations. The original creators of the pool complex were certainly ahead of their time. I love the idea that the pool was converted to a skating rink in the winter.
The Paris beaches on the Seine are also a wonderful idea. Someone realising that there was an excellent resource which could be further utilised. Well done.'Thank you for such an interesting post.

✿France✿ said...

Je viens te dire bonjour en retard mais que faire
bonjour le changement et le maillot j'adore c'est amusant
dire que maintenant il faut porter le plus beau maillot et tout et tout et moi j'aime pas ç du tout
Mais c'est comme çà
je te souhaite une belle journée

Kay said...

Wow! No kidding? I saw the Life of Pi, but didn't know if that swimming pool was a real or fictitious place. Now I know. Thank you.

Paulita said...

Wow. Terrific history. I had no idea about the connection between Life of Pi and the pool. Those photos from your ice skating days were terrific.

Perpetua said...

As always a hugely enjoyable and informative post, Vagabonde, and especially interesting as I'm in France as I read it. I know about the Paris Plages and of course am usually here for the Fete Nationale on July 14th, but I'd never heard of the Piscine Molitor.

What a gorgeous a=Art Deco building and how sad that it has become so neglected and dilapidated that it can't be properly restored but must be redeveloped.

rhymeswithplague said...

As usual, a fascinating post. Merci beaucoup, Vagabonde!

jocelyn said...

I just learned about 18 things from reading this post--and I adore the postcards from an era-gone-by.

Thank you for always bringing new parts of the world to me.

Margaret said...

For school, my daughter is reading "Life of Pi" for her summer reading. I am going to read it after her and then we are going to rent the movie as we have not seen it yet.

What awesome memories of the swimming and skating place! My oldest daughter (the artist) loves to ice skate and when all the others would come in for hot chocolate, she would skate around by herself under the stars (we had a lighted city rink at night in Northern Michigan) ... I wonder, did YOU wear a bikini?

The renovation of looks amazing - I am so glad the history will be preserved.

LOVE that "vacation" is brought to the people - what a unique idea (and so good for the children)

Your explanation of the events around 1789 are ver interesting to me... I've read and heard different view points, but you make this sound so reasonable. As usual, I find the answers lie somewhere in the middle. :)

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