One of the great landmarks of central Paris, derelict for the past three years, is to be converted into a spectacular, river-front hotel.
The rambling Samaritaine department store, which was abruptly closed as a "fire-hazard" in 2005, will never re-open in its old form. According to plans presented to staff unions, the store's Art Nouveau building on the right bank of the Seine, opposite the Ile de la Cité, will be re-built as a top-class hotel and luxury offices. Samaritaine's adjoining second building, on the Rue de Rivoli, will be converted to a "shopping centre" for luxury goods and council flats.
The plans – although still to be approved by the town hall – confirm the worst fears of the store's staff and those nostalgic for a fast-disappearing, quirky, non-tourist Paris. "Samaritaine, as a big store, as an icon of Parisian commerce, has no future in this plan," the CFE-CGC union protested.
Samaritaine, listed as a "historic monument", was once a chaotic Gallic version of the Grace Brothers store in the Are You Being Served television series: a place where you could buy budgerigars, concrete-mixers, gold watches and ride-on lawn-mowers. It was one of the city's biggest bookshops and an institution to Parisians for more than a century. Its slogans were: "All of Paris comes to Samaritaine" and "You can find anything at Samaritaine".
Entering the main building was like playing snakes and ladders. Each floor had six or seven levels, negotiated by short slopes or steps. Gradually, suburban malls and specialist shops stole much of its clientele. After years of increasing losses, Samaritaine was bought in 2001 by the luxury-goods giant Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH).
The closure, for "safety reasons", in 2005, was seen by staff unions as a prelude to its conversion into a supermarket for luxury branded goods and a top-class hotel. These claims were angrily denied by LVMH at the time.
When it opens in 2013, this will be the only large riverside hotel in central Paris. The "new" Samaritaine would employ 2,000 people, the meeting was told, compared to 1,350 before the closure.
LVMH said: "This was a secret meeting. The ideas must now be presented to the town hall."
Union officials pointed out, however, that no alternative scheme was presented. Samaritaine's days as a department store were clearly over.