A Gem of a Museum Not Far From Paris


Barbara Shortt

PARIS --- In the gentle hills of Picardy, about an hour north of Paris, lies an obscure country museum built in the ruins of a 17th-century château. Informally known as the American Museum at Blérancourt, it has drowsed since its creation shortly after World War I. Plans to renovate and expand it were interrupted by World War II, and it was not until the 1980s that project was finally reborn.

Two views of the museum.

J.M. Monthiers

The result is a jewel, and in 1989, the professional journal Le Moniteur cited the Paris architects Yves Lion and Alan Levitt (himself a Canadian) for the project. Though the award surprised the architectural community, it was a shrewd choice: the renovation of the old museum and creation of a new wing, the Florence Gould Pavilion, along with a sculpture court and three new American gardens, is everything that a renovation and addition to a historic building should be. The museum now plans to renovate an existing North Pavilion, and add another symmetrical wing by the same architects.

The evolution of the museum buildings ----which include a pleasant private hotel-restaurant in the château gatehouse, overlooking the gardens --- began with Salomon de Brosse's early 17th-century château for the Duc de Gesvres, a precursor of de Brosse's Luxembourg Palace in Paris. It was largely destroyed during the revolution, possibly because Saint-Just came from Blérancourt. (His house there can still be visited; one wonders what the Duc de Gesvres might have done to influence the boy who became the merciless Saint-Just.) During the 1920s, the château remnants were partly rebuilt, in a derivative style, to house J.P. Morgan's daughter Anne.

Lion and Levitt have respected the original work and the later changes while creating a volume that is unashamedly modern, yet in harmony with the old stones and forms. This is something architects always claim to do, yet rarely deliver. Here there are no visual collisions, no jarring materials or colors; all joinings are graceful. The new pavilion, a cube of buff stone matching the original 17th-century stone, seems to float above the old splayed moat foundations. This effect is achieved by a continuous dark band of glass separating the old volume from the new.

Inside, the warm pale wood, gray and white marble and metal surfaces, lit by skylights and floor-level "clerestorey" windows, form a fluid and seamless composition of spaces, moving from the entirely new structure to the gutted 1920s pavilion (which formed the original museum) and down to the 17th-century stone-vaulted cellars.

Officially called the Musée National de la Coopération Franco-Américaine, the château-museum was created by Anne Morgan in conjunction with a host of Vanderbilts and other Social Register francophile Americans, French countesses, and expatriate American writers who had supported the French during World War I, especially as drivers with the American Field Service Ambulance Corps. (Hemingway, Dos Passos, e.e.cummings, Julian Green and Gertrude Stein were some of these drivers.) Its collection of historic photographs and fine drawings from the war, and memorabilia including a 1914 ambulance, now occupy the clerestorey-lit 17th-century basement level.

Blérancourt's original purpose, to memorialize this war effort, has been vastly expanded: It now forms the core of an American Department of the French National Museum system. Blérancourt's curator, Pierre Rosenberg, inspector general of museums in France, has selected a refined and sensitive collection of a few hundred late 19th- and 20th-century paintings, drawings and sculpture from among the holdings in the Musée d'Orsay and others. The most famous pieces, such as Whistler's "Mother," were not moved here, but there is a brilliant Childe Hassam, a fine Sargent portrait, an elegant Whistler drawing, a Calder, sculptures by Malvina Hoffman, Ivan Albright, John Storrs. Fine works by lesser-known artists predominate, some by French artists who worked in America. There is nothing dubious or murky; the whole collection radiates an American energy.

Three gardens have been planted with American flowers and trees by landscape architect Madison Cox.

The museum complex is within walking distance of Blérancourt village, which has some fine old buildings. Swimming, tennis, horses, and fishing are available nearby.

To get to Blérancourt, take the exit for Compiègne or Noyon off the Al, the Autoroute du Nord; it is between these towns and Soissons. The gardens are always open free. The museum is open every day but Tuesday, from 10 A.M. to 1 P.M., and 2 P.M. to 5 P.M. Admission 10 francs and 5 francs Group visits with guide are available. Book store. Tel:

The Hostellerie Le Griffon, in the gate house, has 23 rooms at 280 to 300 francs; menus from 90 to 180 francs. Closed Sunday nights, Mondays, and Christmas week. 25, place du General Leclerc, 02300. Blérancourt; tel: Lodging is also available in town.

Barbara Shorn is an architect who writes frequently on architecture and travel subjects: