What Lies in the Future for the Hotel-Dieu in Lyon ?

The Hotel-Dieu in Lyon, built by Soufflot in the 18th century, though founded in the 12th (ill. 1 and 2), is one of the most beautiful and most important monuments in this city but also one of the least well known. The reason for this is that it was originally established as a hospital, operational until recently, and people rarely visit this type of institution willingly.
A veritable city within a city, it has never been acknowledged as deserved, that is one of Lyon’s major cultural and tourist attractions.

1. Aerial view of the Hotel-Dieu in Lyon
along the Rhone river
Photo : Google Maps

2. View of the Hotel-Dieu in Lyon by Jacques-Germain Soufflot
Facade facing the Rhone river
Photo : Frachet/Licence Creative Commons

3. Jacques-Germain Soufflot (1713-1780)
Cloister of the Hotel-Dieu in Lyon
In back : the chapel bell-towers
Photo : Didier Rykner

Because of this, the hospital’s recent closing, in 2000 was a source of much concern among associations for heritage protection or Lyon residents aware of its importance. Dire rumors were started, some based on actual projects which, fortunately, will never see the day. The future of the Hotel-Dieu is now largely mapped out and its rehabilitation should be done according to the highest standards.
A very beautiful cloister (ill. 3), several courtyards (ill. 4), a small dome which will be de-partitioned in order to recover its original spaces, a large dome of exceptional volume (ill. 5), rebuilt identically after being destroyed by a bomb during WWII, several remarkable staircases including one, with such a complex stereotomy that architects remain perplexed as to its structure...This is an essential building in the history of 18th century architecture. We were fortunate enough to visit it with Didier Repellin, an architect for historical monuments, from top to botton observing his remarkable attention to the site and the quality of the project submitted to the construction manager, now validated. The restoration, as explained to us, will indeed respect its history and architecture.
We hope therefore that there is nothing to fear on that end. An architect who is available on a day off to guide anyone who cares to visit through the monument, as is the case every Saturday morning for Didier Repellin, is so rare that we feel it should be known.

4. Jacques-Germain Soufflot (1714-1780)
The Grand Dome seen from
the nuns’ refectory courtyard
Photo : Didier Rykner

5. Interior view of the Grand Dome by Jacques-Germain Soufflot
Photo : D. R.

Nonetheless, rehabilitating and restoring this monument was not enough. The building had to be protected from total privatization as happened in the case of the Hopital Laennec in Paris. Here again, the project which was selected is extremely reassuring : all of the important historical sections of the Hotel Dieu will be opened to the public. Although the operation provides for the installation of a luxury hotel, it will be located in a zone where the creation of rooms will not prevent visiting the most beautiful spots. A former hospital, the Hotel-Dieu was in a way naturally meant to welcome guests. Creating a hotel allows the site to be used without contradicting its history, on condition that it gives visitors satisfactory access.
In the same way, the previous refectory (ill. 6 and 7) will be transformed into a restaurant, also a logical move. However, Daniel Sarrabat’s works (see the article) commissioned for this location, and which were still there until recently, should be returned there. [Update (1/8/12) : Benoit-Henry Papounaud, head of the Monastere royal de Brou, has explained to us that, contrary to what we had thought, the three paintings by Daniel Sarrabat on deposit at Bourg-en-Bresse come from the hospital office and not the refectory ; whatever the case, all of the works formerly held at the Hotel-Dieu must be returned there when the rehabilitation has been completed.]

6. Old view of the nuns’ refectory
at the Hotel-Dieu in Lyon
Photo : D. R.

7. Hotel-Dieu in Lyon
The nuns’ refectory
A view today
Photo : D. R.

8. Hotel-Dieu in Lyon
On the left, the entrance to the former museum
In back, the chapel, today a parish church
Photo : Didier Rykner

The fate of the Musee de l’Hotel-Dieu, also known as the Musee des Hospices Civils, previously housed here (ill. 8) with a space of 1000 m2, is another story and remains uncertain as it is currently closed due to the rehabilitation. The collections, which hold many art works, presented both the history of the building and medicine, a discipline for which Lyon is famous.
The shutdown of the hospital should provide a unique chance to create a great medical museum in the city. This is a double opportunity : first, the developer Eiffage entrusted with the rehabilitation and management of the Hotel-Dieu has agreed to turn over 4000m2 for the museum, by restoring the structure of the building on condition that the museum installation and layout be in the hands of the museum ; second, there are four collections in Lyon which should eventually join those at the Musee des Hospices Civils (three university health museums and one exceptional collection x-ray devices).
Lyon could thus exhibit these treasures in a great medical museum which, by adding to the interest of a visit to the Hotel-Dieu, would enhance Lyon’s heritage while offering a first-rate tourist attraction.

The big question is of course who will finance the museum. According to Gerard Collomb, the mayor of Lyon, the total budget amounts to about 19 million euros.
Initially, he stated far and wide, notably the project’s developers, that he would not spend a single euro on it and that they would have to manage without him.
But this position, in our opinion, was of course totally unrealistic. The mayor of France’s second-largest city, which owns an exceptional heritage in the Hotel-Dieu could not allow it to be privatized without lifting a finger. We requested an appointment which he warmly granted. In fact, his position is a bit more subtle. He said that he could not take on all of the financing, something no one had ever expected. Then he added that he was willing to provide 20%, which is a good start, especially since there are a certain number of patrons, notably the pharmaceutical industry in the region, who are also ready to contribute. It appears that all in all this would mean already at least 50% of the needed funding.

Alas, this is not enough. We also addressed our questions to the region and the department. Both confirmed that they would not spend a single euro in a museum at the Hotel-Dieu. We find this to be a scandalous reaction, just as it would have been also if the city had done as much. Is there any other monument more important to the Rhone or the Rhone-Alps region ?
Another significant source of financing might of course come from the French Ministry of Culture. Due to the change in government, we have not yet talked to anyone there. But it would be interesting to know the Minister’s opinion and we will soon ask her the question. In the same way, the Hospices Civils, managed by the French Ministry of Health have their share of responsibility in this affair. We understand that their financial condition might not allow them to contribute funding. However, we would find it totally unacceptable for them to wash their hands of the project and not show any interest. Time is of the essence and Eiffage’s offer, which is not binding by contract (a regrettable oversight) will not last forever. Is Lyon going to miss this unique opportunity ? The city, which appears to show more understanding than before, is for the moment still playing a passive role. It should step up and take over the project, seeking out the firms and assigning the tasks needed to achieve it.

9. An attempt to clean the chapel interior
at the Hotel-Dieu in Lyon
Photo : Didier Rykner

10. Baroque pulpit in the chapel
of the Hotel-Dieu in Lyon
Photo : Didier Rykner

Finally, we would like to point out that the future of another part of the Hotel-Dieu is still up in the air : its chapel, today a parish church, which urgently needs to be restored because it is so dirty (ill. 9) and deteriorated, despite the wealth of art housed there (ill. 10). Here again, city hall does not seem willing to spend the money needed for its rehabilitation. Didier Repellin’s project exists but lacks funding and we are talking about a substantial budget : about 7.6 million euros. An association, Les Amis de l’Hotel-Dieu de Lyon was created in order to find patrons, through the Fondation du Patrimoine, which receives donations from private individuals (see their internet website).

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Didier Rykner, mercredi 1er août 2012

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