On July 5 1946, a car engineer-turned-lingerie designer called Louis Réard went to Paris’s Molitor swimming pool to present his latest designs. One was so small it could fit inside a matchbox. Unable to find any models willing to wear it, he hired Michele Bernardini, a 19-year-old nude dancer from the Casino de Paris. In a shameless bit of ambush marketing, he called this design the Bikini, after the South Pacific island site of recent nuclear tests. If it didn’t have quite the visual impact of those famous mushroom clouds over the ocean, the 50,000 fan letters Bernardini subsequently received and the nine articles even the Herald Tribune devoted to it suggest that although tiny, it didn’t go unnoticed.
Réard’s choice of the Molitor for his triumphant promotional stunt was no accident. Since it opened in 1929, the art deco establishment in Paris’s smart 16th arrondissement had been the favoured locale of chic, pleasure-loving Parisians. Launched by Olympic swimming champions Aileen Riggin Soule and Johnny Weissmuller (later the star of a dozen Tarzan movies), it became a sun-seeker’s magnet with its 50m outdoor pool and beaches of imported sand.
An additional 33m indoor pool catered for “real” swimmers, and there was a gym, a restaurant, a bar, a tobacconist, a golf driving range and a hair salon. In winter it was turned into an ice-skating rink. It was where local children learnt to swim, where teenagers flirted and where amorous encounters were sometimes consummated in the poolside changing cubicles.
The high times finally ended in 1989 when the pools were closed and slowly allowed to go to ruin, becoming a magnet for graffiti artists, drug addicts and underground parties. But earlier this month, after 33 months of works, and €80m, the building finally reopened in the guise of a 124-room luxury hotel and exclusive private members’ club, financed by Colony Capital in partnership with the Accor group and Bouygues.
I arrive late one evening during the opening week, one of the first guests to stay. The Molitor sits on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne, behind the greenhouses of the Serres d’Auteuil botanical gardens and within tennis ball whacking distance (were you a Williams sister) of Roland Garros.
The building itself would be unassuming were it not for its unusual ochre colour and size – it occupies an entire triangle-shaped city block. Formerly painted white, it was known as le paquebot blanc – “the white ocean liner” – thanks to its walls punctuated by porthole windows. As I pass a ground-floor window I am given a tantalising glimpse of the indoor pool – emptied, I later learn, for a Nike-sponsored match between Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams.
Once inside, I traipse along a glass-walled corridor that follows the building’s periphery to reach my room. It becomes apparent that it’s not only in the pool that one gets one’s exercise; with the rooms laid out around it, there are no diagonal short-cuts.
But that’s a minor quibble when I finally reach room 221. While there are larger suites boasting terraces, this is surely the best in the building. With its soothing tones of slate, stone and white, high-tech lighting and well-appointed mirrors, it would be a pleasant but unremarkable space were it not for the large round window looking down on to the magnificent T-shaped outdoor pool, lit from beneath and glowing electric blue in the night. The view is so magnetic I feel unable to draw the curtains.
The next morning I am taken on a tour of the building. The PR, Roxane Planas, is anxious to cool down the controversy that has blown up regarding access. You can only swim here now if you stay at the hotel (rooms cost at least €300) or become a member of its club, which costs €1,200 to join topped by a €3,300 annual fee. Local schoolchildren can visit the indoor pool three mornings a week but for the majority of Parisians, the Molitor’s legendary waters remain as inaccessible as when the building was left to rot.
Another sore point is the structure itself; despite being listed in 1990, the developers razed and rebuilt everything but the façade.
“The press say we’re all rich round here but that’s not true,” a disgruntled woman outside a nearby bakery tells me. “We pay lots of tax yet can’t access our local pool.” Jean-Paul Berton, another local and a retired political journalist, is more philosophical; “It’s still a swimming pool – that’s already something. It could have become a Chinese supermarket.”
“But it was never a public pool,” Planas insists, pointing out that the Molitor charged a FFr28 entrance fee when municipal pools charged FFr1.52. As for the architectural heritage, it transpires this project was the only one of several mooted that got the approval of SOS Molitor; a group of conservationists whose efforts had ensured that the building became listed. Apparently the original concrete was impossible to restore, having originally been of poor quality and then damaged by chlorine exposure.
Four teams of architects, including historic experts, were tasked with preserving and recreating as many elements as possible. The restaurant’s deco plaster mouldings were precisely recreated, the handblown glass lamps expertly cleaned, the floor mosaics restored by the same company of artisans that had originally set them in place. Only one of Louis Barillet’s stained-glass windows depicting various sports had to be replaced. Outside, the cubicle doors have been painted in the same blue, the concrete railings refashioned and the glass roof of the indoor pool preserved.
The new outdoor pool is dazzlingly glamorous, like something out of Hollywood, or a Slim Aarons photo. I am itching to get in. There are many pools in Paris, but also many Parisians – unobstructed lanes are a rarity. At the Molitor, however, I don’t see more than two heads in the water all morning. This luxury alone makes the €3,300 price tag more attractive.
And then there are all the other facilities the hotel offers: the roof-top terrace with its views of the Eiffel Tower, its aromatic garden, cocktail bar and grill; the Clarins spa with its water-inspired treatments, private suites, steam rooms, saunas and hair salon; the spacious gym overlooking the pool with its attractive fitness instructors on hand to motivate; the restaurant concept devised by Yannick Alléno, featuring a changing programme of award-winning suppliers.
So far, so impressive, but at this point I discover some niggling disappointments. To get changed, you no longer use the poolside cubicles but have to make your way to the spa in the basement. It’s all very luxe and as far removed as you could get from draughty public changing rooms – but to get to the water you either have to take the lift and parade through the bar full of fashionable folk sipping cocktails, or walk up the staircase with its fire-exit vibe. Then there’s the outdoor pool itself: originally full Olympic-length with five lanes, it has now shrunk to 46m with four lanes. Not only that, but a barrier that acts as a seating arrangement has further reduced its swimmable length to about 35m. I deposit my robe on the lounger and suddenly feel intensely aware of the windows around me. I’ve spent the whole morning gazing out of them; now it’s someone else’s turn to stare.
I flounder back and forth, losing track of my lengths and accumulated distance and becoming increasingly self-conscious. Perhaps I don’t want to be the only swimmer in the pool after all. Where are those topless Aphrodites when you need them?
Later I tour the empty balconies surrounding the pool where sunbathers will be able to avail themselves of a snack bar, yet to be completed. I try a cubicle door; it opens to reveal only a 30cm gap, then a blank concrete wall.
It’s clear that even if Weissmuller, with his six Olympic medals, once spent a summer here as a lifeguard and swimming instructor, the old Molitor was less about sport than a social scene, an unofficial club where exercise was the excuse for letting your hair down, getting a tan and flirting. But if, as the press release declares, the hotel remains as much a place for “encounters” now, then it needs to fill its rooms and its membership list, and pronto, in time for summer.
Glorious watery ghosts are all well and good but this beautiful stage needs flesh and blood before one can judge the restoration’s success.
Isabel Best was a guest of the Molitor, part of Accor’s MGallery chain of hotels (mgallery.com); doubles cost from €300
Parisian pools: more places to swim in the sun this summer
The Molitor was part of a Parisian pool construction boom in the 1920s and 1930s, and two other pools built by its original architect, Lucien Pollet, remain among the best in Paris: the Piscine Pontoise off the Boulevard Saint Germain and the Piscine Pailleron next to the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. Both are indoors, though, so for summer swimming in the open air, these are the pools to head for:
Piscine de la Butte-aux-Cailles
Built in red brick and completed in 1924, the Piscine de la Butte-aux-Cailles is a 13th-arrondissement magnet on hot summer days, with its two outdoor pools of 12m and 25m and its 33m covered pool. It is fed by a hot spring which naturally heats the water to 28C. The showers and changing rooms have seen better days, and the pools can rapidly fill up, so treat this more as a spot of architectural tourism with a bit of sunbathing thrown in. Closed for repairs until July 1.
The 50m Piscine Vallerey was built for the 1924 Paris Olympics and is located on the edge of the 20th arrondissement near the Porte des Lilas. While it suffered an ugly refurbishment 25 years ago, its retractable summer roof and terraces for spectators, where you can sunbathe, make it a popular heatwave destination.
Roger Le Gall
Situated near the Bois de Vincennes on the outskirts of the 12th arrondissement, Roger Le Gall dates from 1967 and features a 50m indoor pool whose tent-like roof opens up in the summer, and a lawn for sunbathers. To avoid any surprises, it’s worth noting in advance that there are naturist evenings on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Closed for repairs until July 11.
Opened in 2006, the Piscine Joséphine Baker floats on the Seine in the 13th arrondissement, next to the Bibliothèque Nationale. It’s only 25m long, but makes up for that with its views of passing boats, its retractable glass roof, sunbathing deck and toddler pool. Try to come early in the morning to avoid the rush. The pool is closed for maintenance until June 8.
For the contact details and opening hours of all public pools in Paris, visit paris.fr/piscines