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Apartment of Madame de Florian as it was left during World War II

The Remarkable 'Time Capsule" Apartment of Madame de Florian

Every once in an increasingly great while you chance upon a circumstance which puts a smile on your face and warms your very cockles.

My day was certainly brightened when this story broke in 2010 about a forgotten pre-war apartment discovered untouched in Paris.

Apartment detail
Detail, Madame de Florian's Apartment

Imagine an affluent lady, an actress and demimondaine, living in a Grand Boulevard apartment near the old Opera House in Paris during the early years of the last century. A child of La belle Epoch, her home is a treasure trove, busy with fine furniture, artwork and decorative furnishings. Her many admirers have been generous. She has an eye for quality and the wherewithal to indulge her taste. She lives with exquisite antiques spanning ages of French history, as well as select works informed by the latest artistic movements. Her apartment reflects the full and hectic life of an actress and a socialite during a golden age.

Portrait of Madame Marthe de Florian, by Giovanni Boldini, c. 1898
Portrait of Marthe de Florian by Giovani Boldini, c. 1898, previously unknown

Abruptly, her life was interrupted as France, Europe, the whole world was torn by the madness of World War II. As the Nazi occupation engulfed Paris, Madame de Florian fled to the relative safety of the South of France. She left her apartment as it was, en dishabille, with even a collection of love letters neatly bundled with a blue ribbon. She simply turned the key in her apartment door and escaped to the distant countryside. But unlike all of her peers, when the war ended and the menace was gone, she did not return. Perhaps her sensitive artistic soul could not bear to revisit the scene of earlier horrors. Perhaps she dreaded the ruin and change wrought in her beloved Paris. Whatever her reason, she remained in the South and never returned to her apartment. But she continued to pay the rent for the rest of her life, and so none else ever returned to her apartment either… for over 70 years!

When she passed away at the age of 91, her heirs discovered that she owned this lease in Paris.  Can you imagine setting foot in a home where no one has trod for a lifetime? Think of the thrill to experience what has been untouched and undisturbed for generations? The first person to enter after all those years described a ‘smell of old dust’… and then started to notice the treasures. They said they felt as if they had slipped into the private chambers of Sleeping Beauty. Madame de Florian’s home, with the exception of one painting, remains undusted and untouched to this day

Antique Lakefront Cottage in Maine
Antique Lakefront Cottage in Maine
Casco Cottage
Casco Cottage

An amazing situation, but not unique. Many people have enjoyed, or at least know of family summer homes that have changed little over the years. I was lucky as a child to spend time in the summers at an Adirondack period cottage on a lake in Maine, still pristine with hand-pumped water from the well, outdoor privy in the woodshed, and minimal electricity just encroaching on the oil lamps. The craftsman’s architectural style was beautiful and comforting, with clean wainscoting, built-in corner cabinets, semi-open staircase, and exposed beams. My grandfather’s room had a pine wash stand with pitcher of water and basin, and the chamber pot in the cubby below. I still love all those kitchen gadgets and ware: the wire baskets, racks and skewers for cooking on wood fires, stoneware, and lovingly dinged enameled tinware. The built-in cabinets held a mystery of toys and games from a much earlier time. We ate, worked and relaxed on the wide screened porch with wicker and rockers, plank tables and benches.

H.S. Wyer, Main Street, Nantucket
H. S. Wyer photograph, Main Street, Nantucket

I have been very lucky on Nantucket to have been welcomed over the years into many homes that were truly time capsules, barely touched by the passing of time. I am still moved by an historic home in the center of town, where the clock stopped at the turn of the century. The furniture remains in their exact spots, the art original, the knickknacks and personal mementos are those of the former owner, the very books on the bedside shelf are those chosen and placed there nearly a hundred years ago! The house is a home, yet also a shrine. In a different house, with different people and a different history, this could verge on the creepy. In this case however, it is more akin to a brilliant installation, a tableau vivant.
There is another house, a Main Street dowager, where the furnishings have remained intact through generations of the same family for over 200 years. One sits in the same chair, at the same table on the same hand knotted carpet as did the Captain when he returned from whaling voyages before America won its independence. One looks about at the paintings and porcelains chosen and cherished by the first generation. The closets and attic hold all the family correspondence, hand written copies of letters sent, bills and invoices, complete and intact dating back from the first settlers. A nod to modern change and progress: the cabled bells to summon a particular servant from their attic quarters.

The beauty and thrill of these ‘time capsules’ is not just the great collections of period antiques. It is not just a matter of being amazed at the rare circumstance. It is more the breathless wonder of stepping physically into the past. You are not a spectator viewing antiques in a museum. You are a privileged guest, alive and well in the distant past, able this once to see and feel how life was lived. This rare trick of fate brings you into the reality of the past, rather than just imagining history as one tries through books, films and museums. It is the beauty and magic of antiques.