27 September 2013


Like a dowager reclining on the banks of the river while her grandchildren frolic in the water, a once-stunning princess whose best days are long since behind her, the massive Hôtel-Dieu sprawls along the west side of the presque-île; the wedge of land in the centre of Lyon at the tip of which the city's two rivers, the Rhone and Saône, merge. For although it is one of the largest buildings in Lyon, it goes largely unnoticed by the people, cars and even the waters that rush by this locked and shuttered behemoth.

 As its name suggests, the Hôtel-Dieu was originally a religious hostel, one of many throughout France, a place near the cathedral where pilgrims, clergy and travellers could rest or meet. Indeed Lyon's Hôtel-Dieu is one of the oldest of these institutions, founded in about 545AD by King Childebert I and his wife, Queen Ultrogothe.
Corridor along an inner courtyard

In the 12th century, the Hôtel-Dieu lost its initial function with the construction of the Pont de la Guillotière, and gradually became a hospital - dubbed the "Hôpital du Pont du Rhône" on account of its location next to the new bridge. However in those pre-penicillin days the hospital was often a cesspool of disease and contagion. The first genuine doctor, Maître Martin Conras, was hired in 1454. Notable successors include Rabelais, who wrote 'Gargantua' and 'Pantagruel' during his tenure in 1532-35, as well as Nostradamus, though historians can't agree whether the apothecary and alleged seer was in the city in 1547 or 1564.

As it grew in importance and the city's population swelled, the Hôtel-Dieu was enlarged repeatedly to offer more beds for the sick. In the late 15th century it was taken over by the city and expanded to accommodate 200 patients, male and female alike. However subsequent extensive renovation in the 17th and 18th centuries wiped out all traces of the original buildings.

Soufflot's design for the reconstruction of the Hôtel-Dieu in the mid-18th century
In 1622, the architect Ducellet redesigned the hospital completely in the form of a cross around a central dome, and in 1741-61 Soufflot - the architect behind to Panthéon in Paris - expanded it further to house up to a thousand patients, adding amongst other things an ornate, 375 metre-long white stone facade and an immense dome designed by Toussaint Loyer. Sadly, this dome was destroyed by fire in 1944, although it was rebuilt in concrete by Jean-Gabriel Mortamet after the War.

Despite its significance as a cancer-treatment facility in particular, the Hôtel-Dieu's central location on the peninsula was to prove its ultimate downfall, and as more space was required, different departments and schools began to move to larger premises elsewhere in the city.

The hospital closed its doors for good in 2007. Since then, it has been locked and left to rot, its grandiose, richly-decorated buildings and airy courtyards abandoned and gathering dust, access to the crumbling giant and its spectacularly sumptuous interiors restricted to a lucky few.

In late 2010, the Hôtel-Dieu's owners, the Hospices Civils de Lyon, announced that Eiffage Construction had been given the go-ahead to convert the 62,000m² site into a 140-bed luxury five-star Intercontinental hotel, as well as shops and a convention centre according to plans drawn up by architects Albert Constantin and Didier Repellin. Work on the €150 million project was due to start in 2012, and is expected to be completed in stages by 2016.

I was extremely fortunate to be able to visit at least some parts of the Hôtel-Dieu during this year's European Heritage Days. But if you would like to marvel at the inside of this Neoclassical masterpiece, you may have to wait a few more years, when the dowager will be a fabulous princess again.

Locate the Hôtel-Dieu on Google Maps

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