Monday, July 1st, 2013
The beautiful and historical city hall of La Rochelle, parts of which date to the late 15th century, was devastated by a fire that devoured the building from around 2:00 PM Friday to 5:00 AM Saturday when the firefighters were able to extinguish it. The hundred or so employees working in the building were all evacuated safely. Only one person was injured: a firefighter briefly hospitalized for smoke inhalation. Most of the contents of the building — furniture, art, historical artifacts — were rescued in time, including pieces of great historical significance like a death mask of King Henry IV, the mayor’s chair dating to 1628 and the first great seal of the city which dates to 1199.
The building itself, on the other hand, a listed historical monument since 1861, has been severely damaged. The Renaissance roof over the great banquet hall and the hall of the municipal council was burned to cinders and collapsed. The heat was so intense some of the masonry exploded. The interior has water and fire damage to cope with, especially the wooden floors. Bolstered by scaffolding in place for a current restoration, the façade now seems to be out of danger but will take detailed examination to ensure there are no unseen structural problems.
According to mayor Maxime Bono “Nothing irreplaceable was lost. We may be able to recover the wood flooring in the banquet hall which is the heart of the area most affected by the fire. A part of the structure corresponding to about 50% of the total surface area has not been damaged and will be returned to service within the week.” After the debris is cleaned, the collapsed roof will be covered with temporary metal sheeting to help protect the interior and the masonry from further damage from exposure to the elements.
The mayor is not entirely upbeat. He said it will take at least two to three years and dozens of millions of euros to repair what was destroyed, and I suspect that rough time estimate will turn out to have been overly generous. Also, administrative documents were lost, which means a lot of people are going to have a lot of paperwork to fill out all over again.
There are conflicting reports on where the fire originated. It appears to have started somewhere on the second floor, possibly in the archives room, possibly in the banquet hall. The cause is also unknown at this point, but an accidental short circuit in an electrical panel is the top theory right now.
La Rochelle’s city hall is a combination of Renaissance and Gothic styles. The now-destroyed wooden roof over the great hall and council hall was built during the early 16th century. Although it could easily be mistaken for a chateau, it is not an appropriated aristocratic palace; the building was deliberately constructed to house the city government which has worked out of this office for eight centuries. The arched galleries within, the painted ceilings, the castle-like design of the building complete with turrets and crenelations have earned it a reputation as one of the most beautiful city halls in France.
La Rochelle is justifiably proud of its history and the many historical buildings that have survived some very hard centuries. The western French city on the Bay of Biscay has been at the center of epic battles from the Hundred’s Year War through World War II, most famously during the French Wars of Religion. La Rochelle was a Hugenot center, so much so that in 1568 it declared itself an independent Calvinist Republic. It was besieged by French naval forces in 1572-1573 and successfully held out until the Edict of Boulogne, also known as the Peace of La Rochelle, stopped that round of wars in July 1573.
That’s not the most famous siege of La Rochelle. Alexandre Dumas saw to it that the siege of 1627–1628 would overshadow the one 50 years earlier by making it the setting for a good piece of the action and much of the political intrigue in The Three Musketeers. Remember how they ate breakfast on the battlements while being pummeled by Hugenot artillery? Spoiler: the Musketeers (ie, Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu) won.
Here are a couple of videos of the fire that will depress you. View of the interior after the fire and crews rescuing the contents:
External views of the building at various points in the conflagration: