A Loft for Louise
One couple’s unexpected ascension to a haven on Ile Saint-Louis
It was all about the river and the rooftop, but I hadn’t yet coined the phrase when the search began. Too bad, because it contained the keys to what David and Louise were looking for and that I didn’t find until the last minute...when it was almost too late.
A property search is not always, as they say in French, un long fleuve tranquille. With retirement now closing in fast, David and Louise hired me to find their Paris pied-à-terre, but how would I know exactly what they wanted if they didn’t know themselves?
David saw himself everywhere. He was an enthusiast and couldn’t wait. Louise didn’t see herself anywhere....at least not quite. No doubt, in the center of her reserve, she knew what was right. And so I zig-zagged them across Paris, sampling apartments like so many hors d’oeuvres.
We start off on the Quai des Célestins, in a 1950’s building with a fabulous view over the Seine. Ile Saint Louis on one side and the Jardin de L’Hôtel-de-Sens on the other. It really makes you want to open windows...until you hear the maddening traffic noise. No, this will never do.
Then we discover property in a hôtel particulier tucked discreetly behind rue des Rosiers. It has French renaissance character (lots of big wooden beams) and a few high ceiling moments. Lovely view on an interior courtyard. Very calm. Except for the living room, it’s in bad shape. David always sees the potential, and I am on his side. But this is stretching it. Louise weighs in on the verdict:
“Not sure I want to walk out my door everyday into a falafel feeding frenzy that feels like a flock of pigeons.”
A couple minutes away on rue du Bourg Tibourg, there is a 5th floor apartment with a lousy configuration and a disappointing balcony. We tug and stretch the floorplan in every direction, but nothing feels right. Then we visit a large 5th-floor apartment on Boulevard Beaumarchais. This is the clear winner based on price per square meter, but there is wasted space, and the kitchen is closed in. The views are not bad, but the street noise rises even to the 5th floor.
Enough of the Marais. We set off toward the rue du Chevalier de Saint-George near Madeleine, just down the street from the very first Paris Ikea. What an auspicious name, and a practical selling point! The apartment meets all criteria: two bedrooms and two bathrooms, move-in ready. It’s a serious candidate I think, but Louise is tinkering around in the master bedroom’s walk-in closet, with its nicely hung men’s suits.
“Well, it does have good closet space” is the best she can find to say.
Next, we’re off to see a rooftop loft with a grandiose view over the Opéra Garnier. We scout the rue Godot de Mauroy, one of those unexpectedly trendy streets in a central office district. The building is grandiose, fitting for any high-image professional firm (should David decide never to retire). The newly renovated loft is bobo like the street: all the right colors, the industrial feel, vintage furnishings, open kitchen, and an authentic zinc bar. David and I think it is all so cool. We are both itching to make an offer. We walk outside to the small terrace, of which there are two, to admire the view and think things through. Louise has taken the other terrace, but if we talk loud enough she can hear. She makes herself clear:
“So, will we each have our own terrace then?”
Now isn’t that a silly detail in the greater scheme of things? Or maybe it’s a defining moment in a life-long marriage?
“A deal-breaker,” I quietly concede. Two separate mini-terraces make no sense.
Unfortunately, this is the last apartment on the list of visits. David and Louise leave Paris tomorrow. Has my mission failed? I check my emails and see an alert. A new property has popped up today: 65 square meters on Ile Saint Louis where miracles may still occur.
“Too tight” I’m already thinking, as I call the seller’s agent to inquire.
“The first scheduled visit is at 17:00 today. If you can make it by 16:15 I can let you in before.”
It’s now 15:45 as we hit the road running.
“It’s true, you should at least see what it’s like on Ile Saint Louis. There is so little property available there,” I explain, not expecting much more from the excursion.
We scurry across the Pont Marie, which happens to be where we started the day. The seller’s agent is out on the street, eyeing her watch. I can’t say she is delighted to see us. Her scheduled visit at 17:00 is supposedly very promising... an Italian buyer who was almost ready to sign over the phone. We walk up the 17th-century wooden staircase to the 5th floor. Miraculously, there actually is an elevator…for two. We make it to the top. More stairs. We make it to the top again, where everything seems to stop.
We have walked into a painting, where everything has its place. Our eyes are all drawn to the same focal point: wide glass sliding doors open the living room onto the terrace in a single-room continuity. The terrace, big enough to seat six, is framed by two flanks of zinc roof that cover the bedrooms, each with a window looking over the terrace. The entire view from the terrace is onto a classical Hôtel Particulier: at its base a large elegant door opening into a private garden, and at its top, slate-colored shingles and a steep roof with spiked chimneys. Four floors high, six windows wide, it is a perfectly-centered view on splendid symmetry.
All of us instinctively count several seconds of silence as we admire this unexpected gem.
I had felt something similar as a kid when I climbed tall trees. Suddenly I would find myself above all the branches, in my own world away from all the commotion, swaying in the breeze. I notice Louise is also feeling something (no doubt nothing to do with trees). David is feeling something as well, no doubt having to do with Louise.
We break out to discover all of the nooks and crannies of this rooftop charmer. David is grinning like a boy as he discovers the odd configurations that make use of all possible space. I am amazed as I check all required criteria off the list. Once we have seen it all, we gather in the living room and take a seat. David and I are looking out the south-side windows, offering a view over the zinc roofs and orange chimney tops of the Island. Louise is looking wistfully out toward the terrace.
“This place really has it all: the river and the rooftops” I comment with a smile.
“And for such little space, it feels so spacious!” David notes.
“It’s the vaulted ceiling that makes it so, as well as the terrace” I suggest.
It is so quiet that I can hear the seller’s agent’s watch ticking. I can also hear Louise’s heart beating, and that is exactly what I want to hear. All of this was for her--the multidimensional her. David’s mother had lived in Paris many years before, to research and write a book. Now she was gone, but the idea of this Paris homecoming would please her still.
Louise deserves it too. She gave up a 20 year chunk of her brilliant academic career to raise the family. It’s one of those astonishing things women do to keep the world afloat. Every village in France has its monument to the men who died in war, but nowhere are the mothers and wives recognized who gave them life.
No doubt that is why all eyes are on her as we sit together waiting for a verdict to fall. She’s keenly intelligent but not the expressive type, so we need to read the signs. Once I sense a softening in her face--a light from memories gone and of things to come--I feel the time has come to plead the case. A wave of nostalgic lyricism comes over me.
“There was a time when I spent a honeymoon night at the Hôtel Jeu de Paume just next door, you know. There was a time when I played my violin at the tip of the island as the lovers strolled by and by. There were times of sipping champagne by the Seine at dusk, sucking Berthillon sorbet as it drips down the cone on balmy afternoons. There was a time when I came to the island to greet the dawn, every single day. Now it is your turn. You cannot regret this choice. You will be happy in this place, and so will every person who sets foot here. I’d say it’s enchanted. Not just the apartment, but the island. It’s not just Paris, it’s Ile Saint Louis, sanctified by the two arms of the Seine that hold it dear and cleanse its banks. I am overjoyed for you, and so grateful to be a part of this.”
Louise seems quietly pleased at my discourse, while David is pulling out his pen to sign.
Behold, the blessed feeling of something meant to be.
As a fair post-scriptum to this happy ending, the bliss had to be postponed because of leaks in the zinc roof. If you don't know how to recognize the state of zinc roof with a 100 year useful life, well I didn't either...but now I do!