My Odd Little Maison Ouvrière

Now that I am home full-time and working on my house and garden, I thought it would be timely to share this post from 2013 about my odd little abode which a friend here has christened la maison des sept nains (the house of the seven dwarves).

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, for example.  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?

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Published by

Victoria

Born in Seattle, USA. Generation Xer. Lived on 3 continents (North America, Asia and Europe). Country agnostic. Mother of two Frenchlings. MA in International Migration

11 thoughts on “My Odd Little Maison Ouvrière”

  1. There is a French Government website where you can find old aerial photos in some cases going back to the 20s and 30s. I will have find the link for it. I have looked at different parts of Paris but not your neighborhood.

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    1. You want to know something real interesting. It appears that after Traffaut’s closes next to where you now live Le Ferme De Gally across town appears decided to expand. I guess it kind of makes sense Ferme De Gally is kind of what Traffaut’s used to be except I know you have said they are VERY expensive.

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      1. Tim, the Truffaut show gardens and factory in Porchefontaine closed in 1965. The land was then made available for development and they built the apartment complex known as la rosaraie. Some of the trees were left as well as a little pond/fountain. Hard to get in to see because it’s a gated community with a coe to enter and exit. I did sneak in once with my father. 🙂

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  2. Hello from a new follower from Portland, Oregon with a recently purchased 40 sq meter house in the region of the Lot. When I first saw your site a few days ago, I thought perhaps the picture of your house was in Seattle, looking vaguely northwest bungalow-ish. Also reminiscent of San Francisco or the shotgun houses of New Orleans, where you can open the front door and shoot a gun all the way through and out the back. Such an American goal.

    Anyway your house is delightful. I totally relate to your research efforts. I had to re-look up salon and séjour as I was using them interchangeably. If the salle de séjour is indeed thought to be more of a dining room, odd that it’s located kitty-corner from la cuisine and not across from it. On my meandering detour through images of shotgun houses I found a plan of a house with not so much a hall as sequential doors leading from one of its three rooms to the next: first the living room, then the bedroom, then the kitchen. Perhaps an inducement to make the bed.

    You mention 3-foot ceilings. Perhaps you mean 3-meter ceilings or perhaps three feet from crown molding to ceiling. Otherwise, it truly is a maison des nains!

    Thank you for your enjoyable and informative blog. I am now in Portland in my cozy but (relatively) capacious house contemplating what I had planned as a one or two year stint in France next year. The more I read about various financial etc consequences, the more my anxiety soars. Nothing is evident. I arrived at your site after following link after link after link and only here did I hear about AARO. I just joined. Thanks!

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    1. Hi Cherry, Welcome to the Flophouse! Very glad to have you here. I know Portland a little (one brother and a sister live there). Nice city. Tell me more about your house in the Lot region (nice area) – is there a garden? 🙂

      Definitely 3-meter ceilings – thanks for catching that. I still have a hard time envisioning how the space in this house was actually used. It may be that what is now the bathroom was actually another room. I also note that all the rooms however small have doors so they could have used the front room as a bedroom. Then they just made up the beds in the morning. (I have friends in Japan who do this with futons that are stored away during the day.) I so wish they hadn’t removed the fireplaces. The Godin however is a good substitute.

      And thank you for joining AARO. They are good folks and if you live in France they have interesting events and you can make a lot of contacts.

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  3. I found these videos below about the construction of CDG Airport in Roissy, FR around the time of 1967 to 1974(the same time as your neighborhood was changing) to be quite enlightening. It is amazing how rural and rustic Roissy and the surrounding villages were in the late 1960s and how they literally changed overnight to being right in the shadow of one of the world’s busiest airports. Interestingly enough while the French government expropriated significant amounts of land(farmland mostly) for construction of the airport the surrounding villages were left intact although in the case of Roissy it is literally surrounded on all sides by the airport and the various service facilities accompanying it. You can literally walk from Roissy center right to the main Air France maintenance center.

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  4. My house is also a little house, but much newer than yours. My parents built it in 1956, and the rooms were typically tiny. Originally, the house had two bedrooms, a dining room, a kitchen, and a bathroom you had to climb steps to. It was high because underneath was a tiny room much like a stable where all the muck fell. When it started to smell too bad upstairs, it was mucked out and used for fertilizer. The only thing that remains after the renovation over twenty years ago, is the two bedroom and the bathroom, though now connected to a septic tank. The dining room and the kitchen were fused into one long room that runs from front to back, and is still narrow. The attic was transformed into two long bedrooms from front to back and a tiny bathroom. It’s still small, though. There are pictures of when we had relatives over to eat one August fête in 1978. The dining room had the table in the middle, and those that sat away from the door had to sit where they were until the end of the meal. If they got up, everyone had to get up to let them get to the door. I had it easier; I was nine and could slip under the table to cross the room. When I once asked my mother why they built such a small house, she replied that they had had to borrow the money and they didn’t want to borrow more than they knew they could pay. For the record, it cost 12,000 pesetas back then. That would be in today’s money, around €130.

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