A tour of Printemps starts on the roof. While the sun is going down and the lights slowly come on over Paris, our tour guide takes us through a small gate and onto a ramp where normal visitors are not allowed to go.

The view is amazing, but the guide is also making a point. She shows an old picture of the area. When founding father Jules Jaluzot and his wife Augustine started to build the first three floors of this iconic building in 1865, the surrounding area was almost empty and far from the center. But an opera building was to be built here, and the Jaluzots believed correctly that this was going to be the next chic neighborhood of Paris. From the roof we can see how well situated this shop is now – the Eiffel tower is sparkling on one side, the majestic opera building at a stone’s throw away on the other. And train station Saint Lazare, the first station to take passengers to Paris, right behind.

Apart from a good commercial instinct, Jaluzot also had a feeling for design. The buildings have a metal structure, much like the Eiffel tower, according to the fashion at the time. All the brickwork, we learn, is there to decorate.

There were many novelties also. Elevators from the 1873 Universal Exposition were installed, and the store became the first to use electric lighting. Customers could observe the workings of the power plant behind a glass wall in the basement. This was also one of the first department stores with direct subway access, the Metro being connected in 1904. Today, dozens of technicians and craftsmen work every day to maintain this four-building complex spread over 48 levels and total floor area of over 90 hectares.

In that time, stores had never been so big, nor did the offerings so varied, and the policies of Printemps revolutionize retail business. The store marked items with set prices, but then pioneered the idea of discount sales to clear outdated stock. And there was the use of window models to display the latest fashions.

Four Seasons

Our guide takes from the roof downstairs to the street, so we can admire the façade of the building. After a fire in 1881, the new owners of the store rebuild in style. Figures of women representing the four seasons on the façade were sculpted by famous French sculptor Henri Chapuand. We read the name Printemps everywhere among the flowery spring decorations in Eclectic style. On the first day of spring, customers received bouquets of violets.

In the old times, the department store was open in the middle, with a high ceiling with beautiful decorations. Eventually the company needed its floor space and different floors were built in between the side balconies. “But every time there is a renovation, we find that the original decorations can still be found,” our guide says. When once again new open space needed to be created, designers made a 25 meter glass wall that curves along the elevators. Its mosaic of falling flower petals change color throughout the day.

Floating Staircase

From the middle, our guide crosses the floors of the shop as if she were in her home, and opens a nondescript door in the wall that you would never have noticed as a normal customer. Behind it we find ourselves looking at a majestic staircase, a ‘floating one’, we learn, because it has no pillars to keep it up. There is still the red carpet and the wrought iron hand bar decorated with hundreds of elegant letters P.

We are the only customers who can take these stairs to Printemps’ most famous place: the blue dome. This remarkable elaborate cupola above the main restaurant was installed during a 1910 reconstruction. Thousands of pieces of glass were constructed for this using a special technique. Luckily for the dome, the glass can be removed. Originally there were two cupolas, and in 1944, to avoid the risk that it would be destroyed in bombing attacks, they were dismantled and stored. But it was the storage that burned down in the 1990’s, so only the glass of one survived. It was restored in 1972 by the grandson of its original designer, using plans that had been kept in the archives of the family business. In 1975, the shop’s façade was registered as historical monuments.

We go up another tiny staircase and through a narrow walkway to reach the back of the glass dome. There we see how the over 3000 pieces are numbered. And a secret window, which opens up by chance, gives us a magnificent view of the restaurant below – the first restaurant in Paris that was for women only.

We end our tour at another former place for the high society shoppers: the iron staircase which used to give entrance to a ballroom where customers attended fashion shows. Showing the new collection at that time was an elegant event, we see on the picture, with ladies in long skirts sitting beside a stage in a beautifully decorated room.

There is still an auditorium here. After all Printemps never stopped having events or receiving elegant clients, but to be able to go back in time makes this building just a little more special.

The article was reproduced with permission from hi-europe.net.