France’s first public ladies room restored

The Lavatory de la Madeleine, the first public toilet in France, has been restored to its belle époque splendor. Visitors will be able to urinate surrounded by floral stained glass windows, glossy mahogany paneling, brass taps, painted ceramic ceiling tiles, mirrored hexagonal pilasters and mosaic floors. They can enjoy period Art Nouveau posters and a display case of other period ephemera while they wait.

The toilets were built in 1905 underneath the Place de la Madeleine in 8th arrondissement of Paris by bathroom designers Porcher. They were showpieces, meant to convey the elegance, beauty and innovation of French design to meet the most lowly of public needs. Inspired by the luxurious public lavatories of Victorian London, it was decorated in Art Nouveau style whose characteristic stylized botanicals adorn the tiles, stained glass and paneling. This Madeleine facility was a women’s restroom. The men’s equivalent across the square is no longer a bathroom, repurposed to install technical equipment for the metro. The ladies room was converted into a unisex facility in the 1990s when some of the stalls were converted into urinals.

The Lavatory de la Madeleine were granted historic monument status in March 2011, just in time to be closed by the city. The mayor of the 8th arrondissement protested the closure, believing the bathroom could be a draw for tourism, but the city found that the traffic was too low (350 visits a day) to justify the maintenance costs. It was also impossible to make the toilets accessible while maintaining their historic character due to the entrance staircase and small stalls.

In 2015, the city council agreed to restore and reopen six exceptional historic toilets in Paris, in the Madeleine facility. Madeleine posed many challenges. It had been used as a rubbish dump after its closure and water infiltration problems caused damage so extensive that it has taken all this time to repair, and they’re not quite done yet. The mosaic entrance is still cracked and is now being studied to determine the cause of the problem before it is restored next year.

The restoration of the woodwork, glass and tiles was finally completed last month but the toilets, sinks and taps have been replaced with similar modern models. An old shoe-shine chair, preserved on the site, adds to the impression of entering a grand “throne room”.

This elevated excretory experience will cost you, unlike the other 435 public toilets in Paris which are free of charge. “You get what you pay for” applies here, however, perhaps better here than in any other context I’ve ever heard of. The €2 fee will cover the cost of an attendant and maintenance personnel tasked to clean the bathroom after every single visit. This will ensure it does not fall into gross disrepair again.