In 1902, a letter was delivered to Monsieur le Baron de Thénard, at Place Saint-Sulpice in Paris. It was from a mechanic, demanding payment for the work he had done on the baron's yacht.
In 2012, the letter was found in a wall.
The letter was found by a construction crew that works for Americans Alon and Betsy Kasha, whose real estate design company, A + B Kasha, has been renovating centuries-old Paris apartments for more than eight years.
They have found hidden treasures in walls and ceilings, and underneath paint, wallpaper, and carpet. The finds are a piece of history, allowing a glimpse into the past and to the people who once lived in these Paris homes.
Baron Arnould Thénard was a celebrated scientist, and the grandson of famous chemist, Louis Jacques Thénard, discoverer of hydrogen peroxide, namesake for Victor Hugo's Thenardier in Les Misérables and for a street in Paris, and whose name is inscribed on the Eiffel Tower.
Knowing this background, I can understand the content of the letter:
"I've already written several times to claim the balance due on the repairs I made on your request, in March 1901, to your yacht "STELLORA" for which I have attached a duplicate.
You are perfectly in a position to honor your commitments yet you refrain. I like to believe that you have forgotten and do not intend ill will. Therefore I am reminding you one last time of your debt and I hope you will be kind enough to spare me the trouble to inconvenience you.
As a matter of fact, if this matter isn't satisfactorily resolved within eight days, I shall be forced to sue you.
My honorable greetings,
P. Giordan Fils
Baron Thénard died at the age of 61, three years after the letter was written. There is no way of knowing if the bill was ever paid, but I have to wonder why it was hidden in the wall.
Place Saint-Sulpice, Paris
Each A + B Kasha apartment renovation begins with the demolition of existing plaster on walls and ceilings, in order to update wiring and plumbing, and often the removal of the walls themselves, to create a space that is more amenable to 21st century living. It is behind these walls and ceilings that surprises are found.
During the demolition of this attic apartment on Boulevard Saint-Germain, a newspaper was found in the ceiling.
Apartment before demolition
Apartment during demolition
The newspaper is dated May 8, 1945, also known as VE Day, or Victory in Europe Day.
The headline is "They Surrendered."
On this momentous day, World War II ended, with the surrender of the Nazi armed forces and the end of Hitler's Third Reich.
You might think that the tenant was saving the newspaper for posterity...but, in fact, it was one of many newspapers being used for insulation in the ceiling!
View from Boulevard Saint-Germain apartment
Tucked behind pipes, behind the wall of an apartment on rue Pré-Aux-Clercs, was an envelope marked, "Important Documents." What could it be?
It turned out that this was one find that wasn't as exciting as they might have hoped. The envelope only contained an old contract from the electric company.
Since then, the apartment has been exquisitely renovated, and the envelope was, well, thrown out.
Before and after, interior of apartment on rue Pré-Aux-Clercs
Sometimes the surprises are architectural, like the Kasha's unexpected recent find under many coats of hideous yellow paint in this apartment on rue de Beaune.
When their contractor went in to begin demolition of what was thought to be traditional plaster walls, he hesitated, and began to remove the centuries-old layers of paint. What he uncovered was the original, 19th century, perfectly preserved, oak paneling. The priceless find was instantly incorporated into the Kasha's design vision. I can't wait to see what it looks like when the paneling is restored to its original elegant state.
Another hidden treasure found in the same apartment are the original "parquet de Versailles" floors that had been hidden under dirty green carpet. For the Kashas, these kind of finds are thrilling, and worth their weight in gold.
These original timbered walls underneath a poorly-made plaster wall, found in an apartment on rue de Verneuil, were an architectural discovery that the Kashas ultimately included in the final design of the room.
The ancient walls have been seamlessly blended with their updated interior, both preserving history and providing a distinctive design feature.
It was in their own office, on the Left Bank of Paris, that Alon and Betsy Kasha made one of the most fascinating historical discoveries. The removal of the plaster walls revealed an unusual brick wall.
The exceptionally large size of the bricks indicates that they could very likely be from the original wall that surrounded the clergy's field of the famous Saint-Germain-des-Prés church, the oldest church in Paris.
It is to be expected that Paris apartments are rich with historical details: intricate ironwork, elaborately carved stone mantles, ornate cornices and rosettes and moldings, graceful arches and turrets but it is the unanticipated, initially unseen, treasures that tell the truly unique stories of the past.
For more stories of design treasures, and a sourcebook of places to eat, stay, shop, and see around the world, see my blog.