A legendary but outmoded Parisian department store that once catered to the locals has been replaced with a five-star luxury hotel and an expensive duty-free concept store that bears only a superficial resemblance to the original Samaritaine beloved by five generations of Parisians.
How did that happen? It’s a bit of long story, but one worth telling. Especially since most of the articles you’ll read about La Samaritaine’s “reopening” are nothing but whitewashed public relations fluff. Call it stylish, audacious, luxurious and exclusive…but don’t call it La Samaritaine.
In this Article
- What Made La Samaritaine the Parisian People’s Department Store
- The Decline of La Samaritaine: Not Fashionable, but Still Loved
- What Has Replaced La Samaritaine
- Why Parisians Won’t Fall for It
What Made La Samaritaine the Parisian People’s Department Store
La Samaritaine was for the people. It was affordable, centrally-located, had everything the locals needed, and offered some of the best views over the city. It wasn’t chic nor necessarily fashionable, but accessible to everyone and anyone.
This wasn’t just by chance, but by design.
La Samaritaine was founded by Ernest Cognacq in 1870. The 1946 edition of the Michelin Green Guide Paris says the name comes from the 17th-century building on the Pont Neuf commissioned by King Henri IV to pump water from the Seine to the Louvre and the Tuileries, decorated with a bas-relief of the Samaritan woman giving water to Jesus. The pump was removed in 1813, but Cognacq, who sold fabrics from a stand on that very same spot on the Pont Neuf when he was starting out, used the name when he opened his first department store on the Rue du Pont Neuf. This is known as Magasin #1 (rented out since the 1990s, currently to Zara, Sephora, and Kong Bar & Restaurant on the top floor).
Two years later Ernest married a former Bon Marché saleswoman, Marie-Louise Jaÿ, who helped him run his quickly expanding empire. Soon they acquired the neighboring buildings on Rue de la Monnaie and opened Magasin #2.
The couple commissioned Art Nouveau architect Frantz Jourdain to harmonize the design of the ensemble of stores over a period of years from 1904 to 1928 that would become the “Grands Magasins de La Samaritaine”. Ironically, Parisians didn’t like his “flashy” polychrome corner domes when they were finished in 1910 (they didn’t like Hector Guimard’s gorgeous Art Nouveau Metro entrances either, go figure).
Ernest and Marie-Louise revolutionized the department store experience, being the first to tag items with fixed prices (ie no haggling necessary), to allow and even encourage clients to touch and try the merchandise, to offer purchase on store credit, and to use advertising campaigns.
The Cognacq-Jaÿ power couple were also social entrepreneurs who offered their employees daycare services at the store as well as a retirement home in the suburbs. They founded the Cognacq-Jay Foundation to “help society’s social solidarity” from health and aging to education. Even up until the department store’s closure in 2005, employees talked about the Samaritaine “family”, with many generations of the same family working there over the years.
Without a direct heir, La Samaritaine was handed down to the couple’s grand-nephew Gabriel Cognacq in 1928, assisted by Georges Renand, who managed the finances.
In the 1930s La Samaritaine expanded all the way to Rue de Rivoli with two new stores (Magasin #4 is connected to #2 by a walkway, and #3 has been rented out to Etam for several decades, soon to reopen as a Uniqlo). In 1933 Magasin #2 was expanded to the Quai du Louvre with a new Art Deco façade overlooking the Seine by architect Henri Sauvage, replacing the “controversial” polychrome domes but preserving the rest of the Art Nouveau facades on the side streets.
Under Gabriel and Georges’ management, La Samaritaine became the largest department store in Paris after World War II, ahead of Galeries Lafayette and Printemps. In the 1960s they launched their famous ad campaign, “On trouve tout à La Samaritaine!” (You’ll find everything at La Samaritaine!)
Some of the most memorable commercials from that era can be found online, including this one with “Queen Elisabeth”:
And one with King Kong:
The Decline of La Samaritaine: Not Fashionable, but Still Loved
But the heyday ended in the 1970s, some say partly due to the departure of Les Halles food market to Rungis and the opening of the Forum des Halles shopping mall. Despite the slow decline of La Samaritaine throughout the 80s and 90s, it was still the place to go for the average Parisian and curious visitors.
Although it was considered a bit outdated (and even bordered on “dingy”), it was where you could find pretty much anything at a reasonable price, from hammers and fishing rods to bathmats and pet food. “I remember buying needle and strong thread in the basement in 1982 to mend my suitcase,” said one Secrets of Paris reader.
Not that you couldn’t enjoy a bit of Parisian glamor as well; you could get a chic hat, try a new perfume, and shop for a new summer dress without fainting at the price tags. Another Secrets of Paris reader shared how when she was a student in Paris “years and years ago” she purchased a full-length double-breasted black coat winter coat at La Samaritaine, hoping it would help her fit in more with the Parisians. “I was an American in Paris who wore overalls and white sneakers(!). It was a stretch for me at the time to pay $150. Wish I still had the coat now.”
And, of course, there were the views.
The 1972 edition of the Michelin Green Guide Paris gave it three stars: “From the upper terrace of Magasin #2 (elevator), arranged as an orientation table, we enjoy magnificent views overlooking all of Paris.” And they even include an illustration:
I took many of my earliest tour clients up to see the views. You could also have a cool drink or a sandwich at the Restaurant de la Terrace just behind the big letters spelling out La Samaritaine overlooking the Seine. If the weather wasn’t great you had several options inside, including a Mariage Frères tearoom on the third floor and Le Toupary Restaurant on the fifth floor, both with great views of the Pont Neuf.
In 1992 Cédric Klapisch made his first full-length feature inspired by Parisian department stores like La Samaritaine, “Riens du Tout” (Little Nothings). In a bizarre glimpse of things to come, it portrays a fictional Parisian department store, the Grandes Galeries, headed by a new CEO, Mr. Lepetit (played by Fabrice Luchini), who tries to make the company profitable by teaching his employees how to be “good with people”. Ironically, once he succeeds the store is closed and sold to Japanese buyers who want to turn it into a luxury hotel. Even if you can’t understand the French, you’ll die when you see the scene in the trailer when they’re being taught how to smile (and if you can follow French or find a version with English subtitles, you might wonder if it wasn’t the inspiration for The Office):
The proliferation of discount chains and online shopping spelled the end for La Samaritaine. Although some also blame it on LVMH’s greed. The luxury conglomerate (LVMH stands for Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, owned by multi-billionaire Bernard Arnault), bought La Samaritaine in 2001 and, although they were told of the buildings’ dire need of structural renovations by the Paris Prefecture, did nothing more than a few cosmetic refurbishments until the store was abruptly closed for failing fire code inspections right in the middle of the 2005 summer soldes.
Shocked and angered, many of its 1400 employees immediately called “foul” and their workers’ union sued LVMH for purposefully allowing the building to deteriorate so they would have a pretext to close the store for good and replace it with a luxury hotel overlooking the Seine.
“That wasn’t the plan at all,” claimed CEO Philippe de Beauvoir at the time. But in 2009 the Paris Court of Appeals condemned La Samaritaine and its CEO for “endangering life and risks caused to others for non-compliance with obligations in safety and prudence” as well as concealing the seriousness of the situation of the store. LVMH had to compensate the employees for the loss of their jobs.
Then they got busy on planning permission for that luxury hotel. The fighting between city officials, urban planners, and various historical preservation groups would delay the permission for another six years.
In the meantime, Parisians moved on, with wistful glances up at the rooftop terrace when passing by, and several scenes for a very bizarre 2012 film, Holy Motors (with Kylie Menogue and Eva Mendes), are filmed in the empty building:
Supposedly LVMH’s original grand plan was to raze most of La Samaritaine and rebuild it into a luxury hotel, private apartments and offices, with a swanky new undulating glass “curtain” façade on all four sides. After much haggling and the City’s refusal to change the zoning, they ended up having to keep the store, its historic Art Nouveau fresco and staircases, three of the historic facades, and throw in some social housing units and a daycare. Of course, there already was a daycare, and the department store’s space would be greatly reduced to make room for the new luxury hotel. They finally get their permission to start gutting Magasin #2 and demolishing Magasin #4 along the Rue de Rivoli.
Over the past six years, news would periodically appear in fashion and lifestyle magazines about how the shiny new Samaritaine would be opened in 2017, with artist drawings and fanciful descriptions. Then it got pushed to 2018. Then 2019. Parisians are used to this. I think most locals stopped paying attention. Then Covid.
They could have opened last summer, when all of the other Parisian department stores reopened (well, until that whole second and third wave business shut them down again). But they wanted to wait for the tourists.
That pretty much dispelled any lingering doubts about who the new “Samaritaine Paris Pont-Neuf” (as it’s now formally called) was really for. But since the scaffolding had finally come down, we could at least take photos of the three historic facades which, aside from being given a good cleaning, haven’t changed, and the new glass “curtain” façade on the Rue de Rivoli wing, which actually looks pretty cool.
What Has Replaced La Samaritaine
Two weeks ago they finally opened, with a visit from President Macron the day before the rest of us could come inside. Like Disneyland, the employees all gathered to applaud and wave little yellow flags (the new official “color” of Samaritaine Paris Pont-Neuf, to match the peacock fresco) as the first clients walked through the doors.
The Magasin #2 is now referred to as the Pont-Neuf store, and the Magasin #4 with its shiny new façade on Rue de Rivoli, is the Rivoli store. They’re separated at ground level as before by Rue Baillet, with a glass walkway connecting them on the first three floors.
The biggest disappointment was finally confirming that the new Cheval Blanc five-star luxury hotel (which won’t open until September) has taken over the entire Art Deco section of the building facing the Quai du Louvre, including the rooftop and the views over the Seine. Not only are those big letters on the rooftop spelling out La Samaritaine now gone for good, there’s currently no name on the Seine-facing façade at all.
This means that inside the Samaritaine Paris Pont-Neuf store there are no windows overlooking the Seine. There is no access to the rooftop unless you’re at the hotel. Rooms facing the Seine start at €1450. No word on the price of a sandwich Le Tout-Paris Brasserie and Cocktail Bar (or the three other dining establishments at the hotel), but I’m guessing it’s not the kind of place anyone can casually pop by with friends for a drink.
Back to the inside of the Luxury Concept Store (as the former department store now calls itself), and its lack of views. There are windows, but only looking out to the narrow side streets (and even then, the curtains and shades were mostly drawn closed).
Weirdly, if you go to the top (5th) floor, there’s a dark alcove with some seats facing a large flat screen that shows a recording (not a live feed) of the view you’re missing. You read that right. A big screen showing you the view of the Seine, Louvre, Pont Neuf, Ile de la Cité, and the Eiffel Tower in the distance.
“Relax into a comfy sofa and soak up the panoramic view of the Seine and its surroundings transmitted on 4K screens in a virtual atrium; delight in the beauty of the magnificent glass outlook,” says the website. And people were dutifully sitting there staring at it. As if every single one of us hadn’t just spent the past 18 months staring at screens instead of looking at Paris with our own eyes.
Is it pretty? Sure. Is it the most luxurious store in Paris? I wouldn’t say that. The historic architectural details have been cleaned up, such as the staircases, the glass floor tiles, the atrium and the famous peacock fresco on the top floor. The wrought-iron beams and railings along the mezzanines have all painted a very pale bluish-white instead of their historic green color, which I think gives them a strangely ice-castle feel. And perhaps it’s the reduced size overall, but with the escalators, the visual effect is a bit cramped throughout the historic part of the Pont Neuf store.
Head towards the Rivoli store and there’s a second atrium and mezzanine levels around modern escalators, which is all brand new so the feeling is more fresh and modern…but also just like any other shopping center you’d find in any large city around the world.
The Rivoli store has three levels which continue the beauty department and spa, plus floors dedicated to the “Designer’s Lab” and streetwear. They’re going for an edgy, street-art vibe with the décor, with concrete floors punctuated by metal Parisian street buttons and even a few concrete roadworks separators with the florescent yellow paint stripe that enrage the #SaccageParis protestors.
If you didn’t look closely at the actual products (and their price tags) you might feel like you’re in any of the chain stores catering to young shoppers along the Rue de Rivoli, which you can see out the windows (not exactly a view anyone’s clamoring for, but at least there’s daylight).
The Dining Experience
The “ten restaurants” are spread throughout the two stores. I use the quotes because most of them are nothing more than food stands, where you get something at the counter and then look for a place to sit to eat it. Most seating, even when there’s “table service”, is right next to escalators or busy shopper thoroughfares, such as the Dînette that calls itself a “salon de thé”. Although I generally and like the foods at from Maison Plisson and the coffee from the Brûlerie des Gobelins, I didn’t see any tempting space to enjoy them. Ernest is the only completely separate restaurant (and Eric Kayser bakery) with its own street entrance and dedicated seating area. But the setting is completely modern with views of the construction site next door and the Rue de Rivoli, not exactly a “luxurious” environment or even a particularly stylish one.
The top floor of the Pont Neuf store, with views of the historic atrium and peacock fresco, is sold as the ultimate dining experience, divided into four areas under the name “Voyage”.
One area is dedicated to the aforementioned giant screen showing Paris. One is Studio Krug (or just “K”), a private room just off the chef’s kitchen that can be privatized for groups of 6-8. One is a cocktail bar with stools along the counter and some tables next to a DJ table. And the fourth is the “formal” restaurant serving lunch or dinner at more comfortable tables and booths. A few green plants hang from the black ceiling à la Rainforest Café, and if you’re sitting right up against the windows you can see the (somewhat exaggerated description of) “stunning view of the rooftops of the Église Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois”. This dining section is slightly more blocked off from the crowds milling about taking photos of the ceiling than the others, but the overall effect on the top floor just feels like an airport food court.
The website says “This eclectic 100-m² space that blurs boundaries is a vibrant place where fine dining, mixology, art, poetry and music all come together.” I read this several times and returned to the new department store twice in three days to double-check they were talking about the same place I had visited.
Somehow, the restaurant setting at the original La Samaritaine felt far more luxurious and special than the ones at the new Samaritaine Paris Pont-Neuf. They had great views and were separated from the milling crowds of tourists so you felt like you were escaping for a special moment of self-indulgence. I have no doubt the food and the cocktails at the new restaurants are top quality, considering the hype about the Michelin-starred chefs they’ve recruited. But with so many other amazing dining options in Paris in more luxurious (or at least quiet) settings, it will be hard to lure in the Parisians. Even BHV has better options (and views).
There’s a €95 coffee-table book for sale about the Samaritaine Paris Pont-Neuf, a very expensive brochure with pretty photos that attempts to position the store as an “architectural gem [that] once again offers an authentically French shopping experience, blending the chic of avenue Montaigne with the trendy vibe of the Marais. French art de vivre is elevated here, beyond simply a retail space, offering new experiences, an array of restaurants, conferences and exhibitions, a spa and even a five-star hotel.”
Regular Parisians don’t shop on Avenue Montaigne, and the Marais has more international chains than independent boutiques at this point. But it sounds great to tourists who are in Paris to shop. Power to them if they can afford it. These descriptions won’t be attracting the average locals, though.
Especially when they realize Samaritaine Paris Pont-Neuf is actually a duty-free store. All department stores advertise their duty-free shopping, but LVMH handed over the management of Samaritaine Paris Pont-Neuf to DFS, the Hong Kong-based company that runs airport duty-free shops and other tourist-targeting luxury “travel retail” centers around the world. Their name is everywhere. La Samaritaine doesn’t even have its own website anymore, it’s simply a page on DFS’s website amongst its collection of other duty-free shops (which is probably why they had to tack “Paris Pont-Neuf” onto the name so the tourists would know where it is when browsing the list): https://www.dfs.com/en/samaritaine.
Not only do Parisians not benefit from duty-free shopping in Paris, neither do any French or European Union residents (however the Brits finally get their post-Brexit silver lining). Psychologically, Parisians are programmed to avoid any places that might be particularly attractive to tourists. So putting that up front and central as part of the new Samaritaine Paris Pont-Neuf won’t do much to woo the locals back.
As for the shopping itself, the “concept store” concept means there are fewer things, but they’re all exclusive and generally expensive. If you remember the original Parisian concept store, Colette, with its designer clothing next to comic books and street-art-decorated sneakers, you get the idea. The Pont Neuf Store has seven levels with a beauty department, luxury goods and accessories (including a “Loulou” boutique at ground level selling kitschy “made in Paris” souvenirs like chocolate bars you only see for sale in tourist shops), ladies and men’s fashion, and jewelry and watches.
There’s no home section, gardening supplies, kid’s toys, small appliances, or anything that would need to be sold on stocked shelves. Everything is arranged in a way that makes each item seem precious and rather untouchable (“What would Ernest think?” I wonder). And if you’re going to shell out the dough for one of the many “exclusive to Samaritaine Paris Pont-Neuf” items in the store, you probably want it to feel that way. Like a unique treasure you’ve discovered in Paris.
Passing into the contemporary Rivoli store you’ll find some of the latest covetable streetwear brands (or at least I assume they are if they’re charging €150 for sweatpants). Again, everything is arranged in such a minimalist fashion – no stacks of folded items or racks crammed with everything in multiple sizes – that it didn’t feel like the kind of place you’d casually try on the clothes, any more than you’d casually walk into Tiffany’s and try on the earrings (but hey, maybe someday when I win the lottery I just might).
I did spot some cool recycled Veja’s for just €90 and reconditioned Stan Smith’s for €110, which I’d buy if I was in the market for new sneakers.
The beauty department is supposedly the largest in Europe, but it doesn’t feel any larger than any other department store beauty section (or even the never-ending selection available at the immense new Pharmacie du Forum des Halles). I’m pretty sure even BHV has beauty bars and spa services available, so that’s not exactly revolutionary. I saw the same familiar brands in the main section of the department, and some familiar brands in the “Pure” section which I think is dedicated to the “cleaner” brands (organic, fair trade, no animal testing, no parabens, etc), including the original responsible soap company, Dr. Bronner’s. But also many newcomers on the market. It’s always nice to be able to try new beauty products in person before shelling out.
Gift wrapping, personal stylist assistance, hands-free shopping, concierge desk and tax refund services are pretty standard in high-end department stores, so you’ll find them here, too. Without dropping a month or two’s salary to test-drive the luxury shopping experience myself, I can’t honestly say if it’s any different from Printemps or Bon Marché.
But the salespeople were all very nice, smiling, helpful and attentive. Even Americans will be impressed. I wasn’t yelled at even once for taking photos! But I chalk that up to the fact that they’ve only been open for two weeks, the bus loads of tourists haven’t arrived en masse yet, and aren’t we all just so dang happy to see stores open again? Almost every shopkeeper in Paris seems to be smiling on the other side of their mask. If being nicer to strangers is a side-effect of the pandemic, I’ll take it. I suppose a year from now we may all know for sure, ha!
There was one comically familiar moment when I asked a security guard if there was any access directly to the hotel from the store, and he responded, “What hotel”? He seriously had no idea there was a hotel in the building. One of his colleagues finally came to the rescue to explain it wasn’t open yet, but that no, there’s be no direct access except for the hotel guests.
Another familiar moment – if we’d been at Disneyland – was the spontaneous performance by the “Samaritaine Roller Gang” who did a dance routine to 1930s music wearing vintage-style gold lame roller skates (that you could purchase at the “Loulou” boutique, of course) right in the middle of the store. Not sure if that will be a regular thing or if it was just an opening week special.
Under the “Culture” heading on their website you’ll find info about their guided tours (in English every Saturday at 2pm) for €15 which might be an ideal way to visit if you’re there for the architecture and not the shopping.
Why Parisians Won’t Fall for It
“Located in the beating heart of Paris, this iconic landmark will become a must-visit destination for locals and travelers to indulge in what is quintessentially the Parisian experience,” says the website.
The marketing team can write whatever they want, but a few historical architectural details aren’t going to win over Parisians when they realize the views are gone, the dining spaces are uninspiring, and the services cater almost exclusively to the needs of tourists.
Perhaps it would have been better if LVMH had gotten what it really wanted after all and simply razed La Samaritaine to the ground and started over with something completely new, instead of creating what appears to be a compromise that pleases no one (except, I predict, the hotel clients). And honestly, this might have been a more fitting ending to La Samaritaine, to put it out of its misery so we could properly mourn its passing and remember it as it was.
But instead we have a gutted, soulless, shell of its former self that would fit right in with the artificially old-timey facades of Disneyland’s Main Street. LVMH is now gaslighting us all into thinking La Samaritaine has re-opened. But there’s nothing of Ernest and Marie-Louise’s empire but a peacock fresco, a seven-story staircase, the historic facades, and a boatload of marketing spin. They saved the parts that, in the end, don’t really amount to anything but window dressing. They put what used to be open to all Parisians behind a velvet rope, but still implore us to love and applaud them.
Perhaps in this day and age, independent department stores catering to the average resident can’t exist in a city center like Paris. Even Tati couldn’t make it work anymore. And much news was made of Fauchon’s closure on Place de la Madeleine, despite the fact that they’d opened a luxury hotel and expensive brasserie on the other side of the square, ostensibly because even the smallest hotel suite or lunch menu would fetch far more than the price of a small (ie accessible) luxury like an éclair.
“Who Cares? You Can’t Stop Progress. Paris Isn’t a Museum” and other objections
Strangely, those who claim historic preservationists are lobbying for a dead “museum city” don’t see any problem turning Paris into one giant duty-free luxury shopping mall. Both may be attractive to (certain kinds of) tourists. But neither are good for the city’s residents. I love visiting Disneyland, but you can’t live there.
I’m not a naïve idealist, nor am I implying La Samaritaine should’ve stayed exactly the way it was and operate at a financial loss just to please the locals. And it was inevitable, considering the cost of real estate, that once the owner decided he would rather make more profits serving fewer – but richer – clients, that the humble local would be pushed aside. It’s one action among many that shows how France is getting a lot more comfortable with the homogeny of globalization, even if it means putting profits before people. I imagine La Samaritaine’s founders are turning in their graves. The New Yorker’s Paris Journal correspondent Adam Gopnik touched on these ideas in his excellent article about the fate of La Samaritaine back in 2014 (along with the scourge of the day, the “Love Locks”): The View from a Bridge: Shopping, tourism, and the changing face of luxury.
Like the Champs Elysées, the center of Paris might eventually be completely avoided by the average Parisian if there’s nothing there for anyone but affluent locals and rich tourists. It’s not like we don’t have other options. There are still some cool places to hang out, shop, and dine in the outer arrondissements (at least the ones not completely taken over by the bourgeois bohemian bobo’s).
So, in the grand scheme of things, La Samaritaine’s demise probably won’t be up there with any of the great tragedies of the 21st century. Certainly not after the last 18 months we’ve all lived through.
But dammit, I pay taxes and I want to enjoy the beautiful views over the center of Paris, too. I have to remind myself that the locals won big when the quays of the Seine were returned to pedestrians and cars were finally forced to share the roads with cyclists. We might have to brave the elements as we picnic on the Seine, and the rage of drivers as we move freely through traffic jams, but I would be one of the many Parisians willing to lay down in front of the bulldozers if the City ever tries to reverse these hard-won gains that benefit locals of all income levels.
So Why Write this Article at All?
Because what happened to La Samaritaine is just one more example of how the tourism industrial complex makes its money by selling visitors a thinly varnished lie.
No one wants to think they’re going to a tourist trap, so they have to convince you all that Samaritaine Paris Pont-Neuf is “the most authentically Parisian” department store, beloved by locals who will surely come to hang out to enjoy the views of the escalators while nibbling on their caviar baguette sandwiches. And the travel bloggers and “lifestyle influencers” just lap it up.
The same soi-disant “cultured” French publicists and journalists who sneer at a fictional beret-wearing American television character — for being an unrealistic cliché of what life in Paris is really like — are the ones capitalizing on that very same fantasy by dutifully publishing their glowing reviews of the “latest Parisian hotspots”. And it’s costing visitors much more than the price of a Netflix subscription.
So let them trot out their carefully-edited history, their flamboyant peacock fresco, and their white-washed staircases to maintain the elaborate charade (and their #authentic hashtag). But don’t let them fool you.
You can no longer find everything at La Samaritaine. Least of all, a soul.