piscine-molitor-abandoned-swimming-pool-paris (Image: Getfunky Paris)

In a city overflowing with centuries of history and culture, not to mention some of the world’s finest architecture, a few hidden gems are bound to slip through the cracks. After all, you can’t save ’em all. But thankfully that wasn’t the case for Piscine Molitor, an Art Deco masterpiece situated in the French capital’s 16th arrondissment.

piscine-molitor-abandoned-swimming-pool-paris-4 (Image: Ros K)

The iconic swimming pool opened in 1929 and quickly became the place to be seen for generations of fashionable Parisians. But when it closed in 1989, Piscine Molitor looked certain to be demolished. Thankfully, in 1990, a concerted effort by local campaigners saw its name added to the list of French historic monuments, saving the abandoned swimming pool complex from destruction. But salvation was a long time coming and for two decades the historic structure was left to decay.

That was until May 2014, when it reopened as a part of a luxury hotel and spa that saw much of the structure completely rebuilt to its original plan – albeit with a series of modern alterations that caused some to criticise the scope of the ‘restoration’.

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Though the lines between renovation and complete rebuild may have been somewhat blurred, the fact that Piscine Molitor ultimately escaped both demolition and total decay was a positive outcome. It was, after all, “no ordinary swimming pool”, according to the Guardian.

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For Piscine Molitor, it seemed, was more than just a pretty Art Deco face. The facility’s impact on modern culture is palpable, and reaches far beyond the elegant arrondissments of old Paris. As the British newspaper pointed out: “It was here the first bikini was unveiled and the topless sunbathing revolution took off, and it is after this swimming pool that the main character in the 2001 novel Life of Pi was named.”

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The complex boasted two swimming pools – a 33-metre indoor pool and an Olympic-sized 50-metre outdoor lido for the summer months. Fashion shows were commonplace at Piscine Molitor, and the venue was inaugurated by Olympic swimmers Aileen Riggin Soule and Johnny Weissmuller, the athlete who went on to become a Hollywood star, best known for playing Edgar Rice Burroughs’s feral hero ‘Tarzan’.

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For many older Parisians, Piscine Molitor was an elegant venue where husbands and wives met for the first time and families enjoyed countless hours of fun in the years before and after World War Two.

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That made the nature of the abandoned swimming pool complex’s restoration especially important. The rebuild would need to be sympathetic in a bid to preserve not just the building, but its soul as well. And to add to the challenge, after more than 20 years of dereliction – during which time the complex helped launch the careers of several acclaimed street artists – Piscine Molitor was in a state of total decay.

piscine-molitor-abandoned-swimming-pool-paris-3 (Image: Passion Leica)

For years the abandoned pool had been allowed to rot. Plagued by vandalism and a popular canvas for street art, urban explorers continued to faithfully document the building’s condition in photographs. Over the years it hosted raves, and at one point a tennis court was marked out on the indoor pool’s grimy tiled floor.

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But in 2007, Paris’ mayor Bertrand Delanoë solicted applications for Piscine Molitor’s complete revival and Colony Capital-Accor-Bouygues was chosen to redevelop the facility. Jean-Philippe Nuel, who was tasked with overseeing the renovation of the pool complex’s interiors, said Molitor was “a legendary place for Parisians.”

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The designer told the Guardian: “I’ve met people who know Molitor for different reasons: some for its days as a swimming pool, others for its years as a hub for graffiti, and it’s this complexity that I love because it resembles us – we each have multiple facets. Molitor is a fascinating character.”

Piscine-Molitor-reconstruction (Image: via Google Earth)

Following the €64.8 million overhaul, which saw the complex leased to Colony Capital for 54 years for use as a 124-bedroom MGallery hotel, Piscine Molitor reopened on May 19, 2014 – but only to hotel guests and paying members.

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The smaller indoor pool remains the focal point of the complex. Around its edges, several floors of Art Deco-era changing rooms and walkways have been faithfully restored for modern bathers.

Piscine-Molitor-reconstruction-2 (Image: via Google Street View)

On the outside, bedrooms look out onto the impressive lido, which retains its original T-shape configuration while offering hotel guests a view of the waters from the comfort of their suites. But the scale of the changes, especially to architect Lucien Pollet’s original 1929 facade, have led some to criticise the project. According to the Guardian, “the bright yellow section on the Stade Jean-Bouin side of the complex is its only surviving part.”

eric-cantona-rolls-royce-piscine-molitor (Image: Voyages etc…)

Nuel said: “We tried to conserve the dialogue between past and present. For example, in the lobby under the original two-metre high ceiling (now mirrored) is a Rolls Royce bought by Eric Cantona, tagged by the American graffiti artist JonOne.”

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Whether those with the fondest memories of Piscine Molitor in its heyday will connect with a retired French footballer’s graffitied car is questionable. But in spite of this, the soul of a Parisian Art Deco landmark that may otherwise have been demolished arguably does live on within the bounds of this 21st century hotel. You can even view a small gallery area – offering a nod to the pools’ street art past – on Google Street View.

Related – Porte Molitor: The Parisian Ghost Station that Never Saw a Single Passenger