One of Paris’s most notorious former brothels has been given a new lease of life as an events venue after its owners discovered a treasure trove of erotic artwork under modest wood panelling.
The building in the central 2nd arrondissement had been a maison close (brothel) known as ‘Aux Belles Poules’ (‘poules’ is a euphemism for prostitutes).
Known for erotic tableaux vivants, making it a place of erotic entertainment as well as prostitution, famous clients included writers Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin.
During the occupation the Nazis requisitioned it for their officers and Aux Belles Poules and other brothels were closed after the war.
“When I bought the place in 2011, it was for our IT business,” says owner Caroline Senot.
“The walls were lined with wood, and we knew from the deed of purchase this was because the previous owners didn’t like the original frescos but couldn’t remove them because they are protected.
“At first we didn’t care but after a year or so we became curious and decided to take a look.
“What we found was amazing and it changed everything.”
Behind the wood panelling the original painted glazed tiles were intact and there were mosaics too; a host of ‘beauties’ in a state of semi-undress were depicted frolicking with each other with fantastical creatures including a centaur and a faun looking on.
“It was like a Christmas present, and we had no hesitation. We had to renovate it. We found some photos from 1987, and a painting from the 1930s, but for the rest we had to puzzle it out and guess.
“There were mirrors on the ceilings and we even discovered some of the original tiled floors. Some parts of the frescos were damaged and had to be replaced.
“It took three years, and we were accompanied throughout by the heritage protection body the Bâtiments de France.”
The restoration has been successful although the venue now has discreet modern facilities including electricity, modern sound and lighting systems and free wifi.
Ms Senot says her original aim was to do something cultural, possibly linked to the history of Paris prostitution, but as the idea took shape she saw it would be perfect for burlesque performances.
“Also, I love organising events, so I realised it would be a great venue for all kinds of private and corporate events, so it’s become my full-time job.”
Aux Belles Poules is now used for office parties, birthday celebrations, and film shoots. “It’s very evocative and inspiring,” says Ms Senot.
Capital once had 200 houses of ill-repute
Brothels were banned from the centre of Paris during the reign of Louis IX, so they established themselves along the banks of the Seine. Being aux bords d’eau (beside the water) they were called bordiaux and the women who worked in them were called filles bordelières from which derived the name ‘bordel’ to describe a brothel.
They were referred to as maisons closes because their shutters and curtains had to be permanently closed so the interiors – and in particular the interior activities – could not be seen from the street.
By the 19th century 200 brothels were officially registered in Paris, and just after the turn of the century, a new wave of luxurious ones opened their doors including the ‘One Two Two’ named after its address at 122 Rue de Provence, just behind the department store Galeries Lafayette.
Others included the Sphinx, the Chabanais, and the Etoile de Kléber, and patrons included celebrities of the day like Colette, Jean Gabin, Sacha Guitry and Marlène Dietrich.
Just after the war a prostitute-turned-politician succeeded in cleaning the city up and closing French brothels for good. The Loi Marthe Richard, passed in 1946, is still in force today.
In 2016, the Loi Najat Vallaud-Belkacem made it illegal to pay for sex in France, criminalising clients rather than the estimated 37,000 prostitutes operating in France themselves.
‘Passive soliciting’ has also been decriminalised in line with the concept that prostitutes are victims who are sexually exploited and abused by both their pimps and clients.
Fines can be issued of up to €3,750 and repeat offenders can be required to attend ‘awareness courses’ to educate them about the true nature of prostitution. More than 1,000 people have been fined and several dozen have attended awareness courses.