Head to Boulevard Haussmann to discover one of the most beautiful architectural masterpieces in Paris. A place of dazzling beauty and no less surprising, since it is a bank, many of whose elements are now listed in the inventory of Historic Monuments.
Bank and palace at the same time
At the beginning of the 20th century, Société Générale decided that it needed a new headquarters. Too cramped in its premises on rue de Provence, the bank is very interested in a space located behind the Opera, in the middle of boulevard Haussmann. Despite competition from Galeries Lafayette, she managed to formalize the acquisition in 1906. All that remained was to find an architect to rework the premises. A teacher at the Beaux-Arts, Jacques Hermant was chosen to turn these buildings into a sumptuous banking establishment. The work lasted six years and in 1912, the new headquarters were finally inaugurated in the presence of Baron Hély d’Oissel, president of Société Générale.
The result exceeds all expectations. Inside and outside the building, the decorations are not lacking. On the third floor, you can stop in front of six Corinthian-style statues, installed in 1919, which illustrate the different activities of commerce and industry. You must then raise your eyes to the sky to admire the imposing vaults decorated with sculpted mascarons.
A remnant of the Belle Époque
Open on four levels, the large central hall offers a luxurious setting and a fairly innovative layout for the time. In its center, one of the main attractions is the large circular counter, nicknamed the “cheese”. An imposing element coupled with a system developed for the time since the offices were equipped with a compressed air tube, by which the tellers sent the money freshly deposited by the customers.
The other centerpiece of the hall is the splendid cupola which overlooks it. Raised to 23 meters high, it is suspended by a metal structure. The glass and the metal are united in a harmonious way and one can thus enjoy a closed space provided with a beautiful natural light. The interior decoration undeniably contributes to the charm of the place. We stop in front of the various coats of arms recalling the presence of Société Générale in Paris, Lyon, Marseille and Bordeaux. Bronze medallions crown their base and symbolize the activity of the bank throughout France. Impossible not to also stop in front of the mosaic pavement, which we owe to the ceramists Alphonse Gentil and François-Eugène Bourdet.
The real treasure of the vaults
Next, let’s move on to any bank’s favorite place, the Vault Room…or rather Vault Rooms. These are in fact arranged on four levels, the lowest of which is 11 meters underground. To access it, you have to go through an impressive circular door made of steel, gold and silver. Designed by the Fichet house, the door has had quite a journey to get there… Built in the forges of Le Creusot and transported by rail to the Villette station, the door had to be dragged as far as Boulevard Haussmann on a team of nine horses. No wonder when you know that it weighs 18 tons on its own and that its shielding is 40 centimeters thick… Passing this imposing door, you can access the rooms and their 399 cabinets and 22 vaults. As for the elevator and the staircase of the strong room, they are the work of Roux Combaluzier, a pioneer in the work of steel. We owe him in particular two lifts of the Eiffel Tower.
A whole lot of work to keep the craziest sums safe… It is said, for example, that the wealthiest in the country can pay up to 20,000 euros a year to afford a vault in the basements of the Agency. In the past, Parisiennes went there day and night to collect their jewelry before going to the Opéra Garnier.
Whether you are a customer or not, it is always possible to access the reception of the Central Agency, but to find out more, only the Heritage Days allow you to visit the places and learn a little more.
Video in French