The history of the building
The premises occupied by the CMBV today were built between 1741 and 1748, on a plot purchased by Louis XV to house the administrative offices of the Menus-Plaisirs du Roi.
The numerous large rooms served to store the props and stage sets for the theatre and opera productions staged at the court in Versailles. A storeroom was added in 1786. The steward of the Menus-Plaisirs, who managed Palace performances, also lived and worked there. One, a certain Denis Papillon de la Ferté, left us his journal, which described the establishment on the eve of the French Revolution.
Administration of the Menus-Plaisirs
The administration of the Menus-Plaisirs was set up in 1627 during the reign of Louis XIII, but only came into its own later on. It was designed to ensure more effective management of the royal household, rapidly taking over court entertainments (theatre and opera of course, but also royal festivities and ceremonies), which greatly increased when the young Louis XIV came to power in the 1660’s.
This and other administrations (Argenterie, des Menus-Plaisirs et Affaires de la Chambre du Roi), continued until the end of the Ancien Régime and played a decisive role in the artistic influence of France throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Initially based in Paris, the establishment moved to Versailles with the court in 1682.
The remit of the Menus-Plaisirs was wide. It was in charge of the royal staff (musicians, doctors, gentlemen of the court, etc.), the maintenance of carriages and storerooms, religious festivals, entertainments, royal births, marriages and funerals, the Lits de Justice, etc. In the 18th century the Comédie-Française, the Comédie-Italienne and the Paris Opéra were added.
The premises under the French Revolution
On 1789, L’Hôtel des Menus-Plaisirs became the venue for the Parliamentary Assembly. It required a spacious building with large reception rooms to house the 1,200 members of the three Estates (Nobility, Clergy and Commoners), as well as the royal family, princes and princesses of royal blood, parliamentarians, members of the Government and the public (in 1787, a makeshift room was used to house the Assembly of Notables, prior to the Parliamentary Assembly).
By 1789 the premises proved insufficient and it was hastily decided to extend the 1786 storeroom (in today’s upper courtyard) by architect Pierre-Adrien Pâris.
On the first floor of the old storeroom, the assembly hall measured 50 x 25 x 10 metres, large enough for all the Estates to gather round the royal podium. The Nobility and Clergy could meet separately in adjacent rooms.
Other buildings were also modified, the storerooms being converted into offices and meeting rooms. and the grand staircase built in the east wing (which today leads into the CMBV library, formerly the assembly room for the clergy).
On 5th May 1789, the Parliamentary Assembly was inaugurated by the Master of Ceremonies, the Marquis de Dreux-Brézé, who was heckled by Mirabeau on 23rd June when he asked Members to leave the room. “If you have been instructed to make us leave this place, you should seek permission to use force, for only the power of bayonets will dislodge us” said Mirabeau.
The French Revolution started, and on 17th June the Parliamentary Assembly became the National Assembly. Members provisionally met in the Jeu de Paume hall (of the eponymous oath), hastily named a ‘Constitutional Assembly’. The old assembly hall was given an oval shape as a tribute to Antiquity and Greek democratic fervour. The Assembly abolished privileges on 4th August 1789 and voted the Declaration of Human and Civil Rights on 26th August 1789.
After the court left for Paris on 6th October 1789, the Deputies moved from the archbishop’s hall in Versailles to the Salle du Manège in the Tuileries.
Neglect and resurrection of the site
The Hôtel des Menus-Plaisirs was abandoned by the Deputies in October 1789. It no longer housed a theatre and entered a long period of decline and neglect.
The building was assigned to the Flanders regiment in 1791 which saved it from destruction (at least in part, the assembly hall being destroyed by a speculator in 1802, and only a trace remaining today in the upper court opposite the choir school). The entire premises fell to the Crown Estate in 1812, but Versailles never regained the prestige it had enjoyed under the Ancien Régime.
In 1832 the building was handed over to the War Department and became a cavalry barracks. It remained with the War Ministry until 1948, served as a Labour Enlistment Centre in 1944 under the Occupation, then fell to Ministry of Education and Culture. It was used by Versailles municipal services until 1975.
Abandoned in 1975, the premises rapidly deteriorated until renovation work started in the upper court in 1989, continuing through the 90’s in the lower court and main building before the CMBV took over in 1996.
After more than two centuries the Hôtel des Menus-Plaisirs, henceforth the property of the Palace of Versailles, was restored to one of its original roles, namely that of creating, organising and managing stage productions and concerts in the Palace of Versailles and beyond.