How about an early 20th century stay in Brussels?
By Emmanuelle Dubuisson
Ambiance Art Nouveau or Art Deco?
Symptomatic of Brussels cultural heritage, quite a few owners of properties dating from the 1900s or the inter-war years have decided to welcome tourists and business travellers who have a penchant for Art Nouveau or Art Deco: bourgeois mansions, a former artist’s studio or an erstwhile lovers’ hotel which is now a heritage building. The choice is yours ! A quick guided tour…
Around the Cinquantenaire
Just a stone’s throw from the park, where Brussels held its first universal exhibitions, is a familiar Brussels street lined with typical eclectic-style houses all designed as deep houses – with three inter-locking rooms.
The first floor of one of these, the B&B Cinquantenaire opens onto a vast bedroom attractively bathed in light. The walls are decorated with replica wallpaper, designed by William Morris for Liberty’s, and there are matching curtains. An 1896 poster created by Firmin Baes promotes an exhibition “Pour l’Art”: where the silhouette of the young girl suggests floral stems. However, your eye will soon be drawn to the dresser designed by Paul Hankar for the Hôtel Ciamberlani (1898, Rue Defacqz) with its combination of oak, mahogany and pitch-pine. This is quintessentially Hankar’s style: elegant, geometric Art Nouveau. Formerly located in the office of Ciamberlani’s house and incorporated in the wooden panelling, it has retained its original decor which is dominantly yellow, American stained glass.
Opposite is a honey-coloured dressing table with matching marble by Octave Van Rysselberghe, the brother of Theo, the painter. He designed this for his private house in Sainte-Clair on the Var coast. Just like Paul Hankar, Octave was both an architect and a furniture designer. Did they know each other? Quite probably, since their Brussels houses were almost next to each other. Paul lived in rue Defacqz and Octave in Rue de Livourne. Their furniture reflects a simple, but carefully thought-out line, but all the details that make the difference go well together. Beside the bed is a little side table, more classic in design, which is also obviously Octave’s handiwork. Octave is also responsible for the famous observatory in Uccle and the Hôtel Otlet in Rue de Livourne, which he designed jointly with Henry Van de Velde.
A few blocks away in the avenue de l’Opale, the “Maison Herrero – B&B Opale” (1924) (green key label) keeps its secret well – behind a sober frontage. However, in the heart of the house, the Andalusian patio which bears a family resemblance to the one in the Hôtel Wielemans (1927, Adrien Blomme), reveals a taste for the exotic typical of the 1920s, not to mention the Spanish origins of the owner, for whom the house was built.
The fountain, stained glass, wrought iron bannisters and benches are an invitation to dream of distant shores. The single guest room is on the first floor.
In the heart of Brussels
Let’s go into the heart of the city. Rue Marcq, in the area round the old beguinage district, designed in 1822 by the architect Henri Partoes, reflects the characteristics of neoclassicism: with its whiteness and plasterwork, sobriety, the declining height of its numerous regular openings and its parsimonious decoration, the “Maison Noble” lies in a quiet area, in the shadow of the Pachéco hospice. Built in 1826, it was enlarged in 1900 by the addition of a winter garden, whose stained glass window was a winning feature with its current owner, so much so that he turned it into a guest house in 2006. 5 rooms, all designed differently, but all delightful, are to be found on the many different floors. The house’s star feature is its very eclectic-style ground floor. The living room is in Louis XV style, the neo-Renaissance style dining room has an impressive painted ceiling (re-done), rafters, lion-head consoles and an imposing fireplace. The vast Art Nouveau stained glass window in the winter garden provides grandiose floods of light and colour in the adjoining rooms. A sunny countryside scene with water, flowers and birds enlivens the American glass with a flamboyant richness of colour. Given the similitude with other stained glass panels attributed to the master glassmaker Raphaël Evaldre, this must be his work. With such a view before you at breakfast, your day will certainly get off to a good start!
Nearby, the “Taverne-hôtel l’Espérance” (1930, listed) in Rue du Finistère has retained the soft, intimate atmosphere of the bar designed by Léon Govaerts. The commercial frontage of “L’Espérance”, in marble, with its geometric stained glass and graphic sign of the period, belongs to a Haussmann-style building of 1874. It leads into a perfect venue for private discussions. Here, the lighting fixtures, wrought iron plant containers, coat-racks, radiator covers, friezes, benches, bar and stained glass are original.
The upper floors are not listed. Out of the thirteen bedrooms, only one original room, now restored, remains. Here as on the ground floor, are many Art Deco details (bath, mirror, bench, light fixtures, etc.) The other rooms are comfortably modern with a modern flair for design.
On similar lines, the “Hôtel Le Berger”, near to the Porte de Namur, was saved from demolition in 2010 thanks to the unflagging zeal of a lady art historian and an enterprising hotelier. Built in 1933 by architect and entrepreneur Gabriel Duhoux, it was a venue for romantic trysts for the well-to-do. Master of all trades, Duhoux kept busy providing food from the grill on the ground floor! Today, it is a traditional hotel where the renovations have taken into account the slightly risqué, discreet, understated atmosphere, accessories and unusual circuit with its entrance and exit lifts. The period rooms – 54 – seem straight out of a 1930s film and exude a somewhat old fashioned charm, which fits in so well with this out-of-time location. Not for travellers with large suitcases: in its previous incarnation, this was not a tourist hotel!
Along the Ponds
Let us leave the boulevards for the leafy charm of the Ixelles ponds, surrounded by beautiful eclectic and Art Nouveau style houses and Art Deco apartments. At the beginning of the 20th century, Ernest Blerot built several houses here, all symptomatic of his style. In Avenue General de Gaulle, in a group of buildings which originally comprised four houses, the “La Cascade” Art Deco building took the place of two of them in 1939. The “Maison Flagey” (1904, listed) has just become a guest house. The wrought iron floral designs on the balustrades and the pavement of mosaics on the terrace staircase, the asymmetrical division of the composition brought to life by the balconies, bow-window and the gable roof dormer are an invitation to explore even before you step across the threshold. They express Blerot’s architectural subtlety which flows harmoniously and dynamically between N° 38 and N° 39.
Inside a superb, more geometric stairwell is flooded with a well of light. This magnificent hall, illuminated by a floral mosaic floor, is the living heart of the house, lovingly decorated by Vincent Liesnard, who from his most tender years, was plunged into the world of antiques. Five bedrooms with old fashioned private bathrooms accommodate passing guests: with a different feel to each room – cosy or vast, with a terrace or view over the ponds, deep pile carpet or wooden floor, free-standing bath with feet or starlet’s shower cubicle (let’s admit it, rather bling bling), each room exudes an atmosphere created by the choice of objects, furniture and the colour scheme of the wallpaper. Linen sheets, beautiful bath towels and organic soap as well as breakfast served in a pleasant room with a fireplace, which is worth a second look. Refinement at all levels. And to break out of this 1900’s mould a little bit in this large 700m2 house, the owner has not hesitated to add, here and there, some Scandinavian furniture, some Eames, some fifties’ armchairs, some poetic light fixtures by Mathieu Challières and many second-hand items. And, a lucky happen-stance, water damage revealed a preparatory drawing for the base of the column in the living room on the garden-facing wall.
On the other side of the ponds, avenue de l’Hippodrome, reveals a wonderful achievement reflecting the full eclectic range. The “Villa Léopoldine” (Jean Segers, 1892) covered with light enamelled bricks, enlivened by its bow-windows and sgraffito work, shows its well elevated bel étage to advantage, which, despite its successive rooms, provides an enormous amount of light. In the front there is an outstanding view of the ponds and a oasis of greenery meets the eye at the back. It is still a family home, something of a miracle, given its 350m2 surface area, where luxury and character go hand in hand. Moreover, five very different rooms extend an invitation to chill out. The garden, in stark contrast to the one at the “Maison Flagey” which is very small, is almost a park. Pond, rockery, huge trees and seasonal flowers imbue it with very special charm. Art Nouveau enthusiasts will certainly spend some time in the winter garden, where light plays on the mosaic, mirrors and Japanese style décor – the peacock – and its Moorish portico and ceramics.
As for the name of the house, this comes from a marble bust which has pride of place in the living room; Léopoldine is a pretty young woman who would certainly have enjoyed living here.
Schaerbeek and Anderlecht
Let us follow the old valley of the river Maelbeek to go to Schaerbeek. The Monplaisir district, laid out by the engineer Houssa at the dawn of the 20th century, enjoys wide, tree-lined avenues, where a number of prolific architects gave full reign to their talent. Interrupted during the first World War, construction work continued well into the 1920s.
Just down from Schaerbeek station, now home to the brand new Train World, is the majestic vista of the Huart Hamoir main road which reflects the savoir-faire of architects, craftsmen and rock garden specialists. Half way down the slope, opposite a ginkgo biloba, is a 1915 apartment building (Frantz Veldeman) with a carriage entrance and pedestrian access, inspired by the (Viennese) Secessionist architectural style.
Divided into apartments today, with a rear courtyard, a former biscuit manufacturer’s premises, this house has made an unusual use of the spaces and circulation areas. The decorative addition of mosaics and parquets but above all stained glass – beautiful bouquets of flowers or bowls of fruit – cement tiles and ceramics all add to the house’s well-being.
The studio (“B&B Les Années folles“), reserved for guests and located in the former kitchens, is pure décor: under foot or on the wall, a giant frieze featuring a boat whose sails billow in the wind as it ploughs through the waves, runs round the room; elsewhere sprays of flowers or blue motifs decorate what are now the kitchen, WC and bathroom. And there are more beautiful flowers on the cement tiles. Here, the charm of yesteryear is dominant, putting today’s comfort and luxury in the shade.
And finally, in avenue Moreau, Anderlecht an Art Nouveau enthusiast has converted his eclectic-style house, garden and the rear of the adjoining house into a real Ali Baba’s cave for fans of the fin-de-siècle era: “B&B Art nouveau“. A period copy – the wrought iron entrance gate of the Saint-Cyr house: reconstruction: the windows of the hôtel Ciamberlani; re-employing original items – invading the owner’s domain, facades overlooking the garden. A full catalogue of Belgian Art Nouveau: Hamesse, Hankar, Horta, Serrurier-Bovy … either real or in pastiche form. Columns, skylights, furniture, light fixtures. And the cherries on top of the cake – some contemporary sgraffito work and a mural featuring the comic book character Marsupulami! The guest room – in a small apartment on the first floor – has opted for the style of Louis XVI. The enthusiasm and savoir-faire of the owner are a joy to discover!
Now all you have to do is to choose where to spend the night …
This article appeared in issue 149 (October 2015) of the “Les Nouvelles du Patrimoine” magazine under the original title of “Dans les bras de Morphée” (In the arms of Morpheus), in the frame of the 2015 Art Nouveau and Art Deco Biennial in Brussels. It has been reproduced here by kind permission of its author and editor.