I stood looking up at the gates, hands on my hips, wondering what forgotten chateau I’d stumbled upon this time. We’d taken a detour to avoid the traffic back into Paris and suddenly pulled over into the ditch by the side of the road at my absolute insistence. What I didn’t know then, peeping through the iron bars, was that I was standing at the back entrance of the largest and most luxurious 19th-century château in France. These overgrown gates gave access to the hunting grounds of the Chateau de Ferrières, the Rothschild country castle not more than 30km east of Paris. Upon visiting the chateau in the late 1800s, the Emperor of Germany once said, “No Kings could afford this! It could only belong to a Rothschild.” But in the end, not only the Rothschilds could afford to keep it– which is why, after snooping around its un-manicured back entrance, I was able to return a few days later for lunch…
You have to imagine the Chateau de Ferrières as a veritable party palace devoted to festivities. It was built by Baron James Rothschild, one of the richest men in France in the nineteenth century, and was passed down the family tree. Years ago, I came across the photographs of a legendary Surrealist Ball hosted by the Rothschilds in 1972, and it was here that the infamous party took place, three years before the family gave up the chateau.
Dali was there of course, and Audrey Hepburn showed up with her head trapped inside a Magritte birdcage. The main staircase inside was lined by footmen dressed as cats that appeared to have fallen asleep in a variety of staged poses.
For the evening the chateau was floodlit with moving orange lights to give the impression that it was on fire.
Never had there been a dinner party quite like the “Diner de Têtes Surrealiste”, hosted by Guy de Rothschild and his ‘hostess with the mostess’, Marie-Helene de Rothschild. Only the crème de la crème of Parisian high society got an invite, instructed to arrive in black tie & long dresses with surrealist heads.
Today in the soft morning light, the chateau was considerably less lively as I wandered its empty halls, trying to hush the sound of my footsteps on the parquet. The days when you could keep a neo-Renaissance suburban leisure palace à la Marie Antoinette; the days of extravagant wealth, are over in France– even for the Rothschilds.
In 1975, the chateau’s numerous ballrooms, dining rooms and eighty guests suites went dark. Baron Guy and Marie Hélène de Rothschild donated the keys of their palace to the Universities of Paris with the hope that it would become a place for artistic and scientific meetings. But the plans for Chateau Ferrières gradually dissolved into oblivion and a state of permanent non-maintenance, until finally the keys were handed over to the town of Ferrières-en-Brie.
Over a century and a half since the chateau was first inaugurated with a gala attended by Napoleon III and the highest echelons of society, the estate’s present role is far more inclusive. Today it has found its calling as none other than a cooking school, which opened in late 2015 after three decades of sitting in silence and gathering dust. “École Ferrières” (Ferrières School) teaches gastronomy and luxury hospitality, housing students and classrooms on the upper floors. Working side by side with the school, two restaurants have also taken up residence on the site, where aspiring young chefs can gain experience alongside award-winning artisans of cuisine.
There aren’t many historic French chateaux of this size where you can book yourself in for a meal– but that’s exactly what I intended to do– inside the Rothschild’s former dining room, to be exact. As I tucked into my €34 Thon Croustillant at “Le Baron”, under the same painted beams where Baron James de Rothschild would have sat at the head of a long banquet table, I thought about the irony of a cooking school making a name for itself in this particular chateau…
In my research I’d learned that “to avoid the smell of cooking”, the building did not originally include a kitchen at the request of the Rothschilds. Instead, an underground tunnel was built, equipped with rails to pass the dishes on small trolleys, connecting the basement of the castle to a neighbouring house at the northeast corner, where meals and banquets alike were prepared. The tunnel was closed up during the Second World War and re-opened only recently, when the original exterior kitchen became the site of the second restaurant in 2015 called, Le Chai (the cellar).
After lunch, I was free to poke my nose around the chateaux unattended, not because I had any sort of special access, but because you just can. Before the cooking school moved in, the house underwent extensive and much-needed renovation; and some clues to the Rothschild way of life have been left behind…
“Le Goût Rothschild” (the Rothschild taste), is a design genre of its own; a distinct ostentatious and “flashy” style, favouring a hybrid between Renaissance and Louis XIV design, which had its origin when the powerful family was at its height. The busy decor typically characterised by extra large paintings and tapestries; multiple colonnades and balconies; went on to influence other rich and powerful families, including the Vanderbilts, Astors, and Rockefellers, and became hallmarks of the American Gilded Age.
In the large empty spaces left behind today however, the mind has to work hard to imagine how the rooms of Chateau Ferrières would have been filled. Not too hard mind you, as I’ve gone and tracked down some archive images of the interiors as it was photographed in 1863…
Ferrières was designed by the British architect Joseph Paxton, who had built Mentmore Towers in Buckinghamshire, England for Baron James’s cousin, Mayer Amschel de Rothschild. On seeing Mentmore, Baron James is reputed to have summoned Paxton and ordered him to “Build me a Mentmore, but twice the size”.
It was in one of these salons, possibly the one above (which now serves as one of the restaurant’s dining rooms), that Otto von Bismarck negotiated an armistice with the French foreign minister, Jules Favre during the Franco-Prussian War and pushed France to concede Alsace and Lorraine.
This was the first war in which the house would be seized from the Rothschilds by German forces. The second time was during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II. It was this war that would see the home’s vast art collections all but entirely looted.
In this detailed watercolour, the artist shows several of the masterpieces in the Rothschild collection that once hung in the central hall under the skylight, including a Velázquez, above the balcony and a portrait of a woman by Van Dyck. As a notable Jewish family, the Rothschilds fled France during World War II, but upon their return, many of their properties had been stripped of their most valuable possessions.
Following the war, the Rothschilds loaned a part of the chateau to take in children and orphans returning from the Buchenwald concentration camp. It wasn’t until 1959, that newlyweds Guy de Rothschild and his wife Marie-Hélène returned to his childhood home and took charge of refurbishing the mansion. Under their watch, the chateau became a place where European nobility mingled with musicians, artists, fashion designers and Hollywood movie stars at grand soirées.
Marie-Hèlène loved parties and people and was forever in quest of new talent and new figures to entertain from the world of the arts, literature, dance and haute couture. She hosted regular parties at the château, inviting aristocracy, but also her friends from a wider society such as Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn (with whom she was a close friend). Her parties took on such importance that one social figure allegedly threatened to commit suicide unless she was invited.
A year before the famous “Diner de Têtes Surrealiste” in 1971, Mrs. Rothschild organized a costume ball at the château to celebrate the centenary of Marcel Proust’s birth. Yves Saint Laurent created costumes inspired by the Belle Époque for Audrey Hepburn, Jane Birkin, Nan Kempner, Hélène Rochas, and Marie-Hélène de Rothschild herself.
Your chances of a movie star sighting at the Chateau Ferrières today are slightly slimmer (although Beyoncé did film a music video there in 2014). The chateau’s name seems to have fallen from society’s consciousness, found only by those curious enough to look into the fate of this legendary home, which is once again open to the public– with two restaurants to choose from no less.
Make a reservation for a Sunday lunch and take a twirl under the ballroom’s skylight, imagining the history these walls have seen. Stroll around the English gardens where Napoleon III planted a cedar tree as a housewarming gift for his friend. Forget Versailles, discover the old Chateau Rothschild.