Pershing Hall an informal American embassy in Paris. Past, present, future.
When the rue Pierre Charron was created in 1864, Napoleon III by Imperial Decree ceded the land to Duc Galliera. In 1878, the land at number 49 was given to the Comte and Comtesse de Paris by the Duchesse Galliera. In 1878 the land was sold to the Vicomte de Paris, and between 1879-1882 the original building and stables were constructed by the Vicomte. The building remained a private residence through WWI when it served as General Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force’s headquarters during the war.
Today the rue Pierre Charron runs from Avenue George V to the Champs-Elysées. Created in 1864 (under Haussmann’s reorganization?) the street had two prior names and was longer. In 1879, it was divided into 2 separately named streets Pierre 1er de Serbie and Pierre Charron (16th century theologian and philosopher), hence the building numbers start at 44!
In 1927 after approval of The American Legion at their National Convention in Paris, and due to the fact that Paris Post 1 was going to lose its home, the Legionnaires raised funds through donations from the American Colony in Paris to buy the building at 49 rue Pierre Charron. It was in 1928 that the building and land was sold to the American Legion Building Paris Inc.
After having such a huge success in buying the building, the project grew and Col. Francis Drake, the then President of the American Legion Building Paris Inc. and representative of The American Legion Paris, went to the USA to gather more donations and stock subscriptions to build out the memorial part of the building and raise the building from 5 to 6 stories. It was baptized Pershing Hall.
Also in 1928 Legionnaire Sedley Peck traveled back to the battle zone at Chateau Thierry (the important WWI battleground in the Marne, just 90 minutes from Paris where the American forces turned the tide of the war. There is a memorial and museum there today.) where he and others from Paris Post 1 were given the keystone from the bridge after they found it in the rubble. The keystone was laid into the foundation of Pershing Hall and a time capsule was sealed behind it in a ceremony with the president of the French Republic President Doumer. General John J. Pershing and many other American Legion members from around the world were also present.
At Pershing Hall’s 1930 dedication, General Pershing said: “If The American Legion is a powerhouse of friendship and kindness, then this building is its greatest substation, from which will flow a steady current of understanding. And I hope that our French friends will ever feel that this building is their home as it is our home.”
But then the stock market crashed, and many subscribers could not follow through with paying for their stock certificates and the project had financial strains. Ultimately, the U.S. Government, using money that soldiers had paid for the Stars and Stripes newspaper, took title and custody of the building as trustee. The building remained Pershing Hall and an American base in Paris for soldiers, tourists and residents for many years. It was nicknamed “The Second American Embassy” in Paris and served as a social hub for American expatriates. In the 1960s the Pershing Hall school was founded in the building (later becoming the International School of Paris). In the late 1980s many American service groups and clubs had their offices and meeting spaces there. There was a beautiful wood panelled bar in the basement where travellers, students, residents and others would hang out. In the 1990s however, the funding was cut off and the Legionnaires and service groups were forced to leave very quickly. For a few years in the 2000s the beautiful hall was leased to become a luxury hotel and retained the name Pershing Hall and with the decorative arms left on the façade.
Now another American entity, Kith, is renovating the building for their Paris flagship store. The newest incarnation which opened in March 2021 will also include a New York Brunch restaurant Sadelle’s and office space. It was during this latest renovation that the 96 year old time capsule was recovered. Its discovery was no coincidence. Thanks to a Legionnaire of Paris Post 1 who was working on the history, archives, and preservation of Pershing Hall. He found archival photos that pointed to the whereabouts of the keystone and documentation showing a time capsule. He alerted the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC Paris) so during the renovations, Legionnaires from Paris Post 1 could be present at the removal of the keystone and the opening of the time capsule (Both are to be put on display at the Chateau Thierry Memorial Visitors Center.) Commander Bryan Schell of Paris Post 1 said, “here at Paris Post 1, we are working hard to preserve the memories and history of our veterans of World War I. We just celebrated our Centennial, and to discover these artifacts left for us to find only motivates us to work harder at our mission. Being able to read these documents in person, and to handle the artifacts, it connects us with our past on many levels. It was very emotional for us to see these Paris Post artifacts after being within a leaded box for 96 years.”
The time capsule contained medallions, documents, news articles and memorabilia all of which display the immense bond that the American Legion in Paris have had with their friends in France for over 100 years. There are currently about 30 members of Paris Post 1 in Paris and 270 worldwide. They field queries about veterans’ overseas service and burials and present a color guard at Memorial Day, Independence Day and Veterans Day ceremonies. Post members, along with the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Scouts of America, regularly attend ceremonies at ABMC cemeteries and monuments around France. The Post also maintains the American Legion Mausoleum in the New Cemetery at Neuilly-sur-Seine, where nearly 300 U.S. veterans and family members are interred.
The new Kith retail flagship occupies three floors and the central courtyard of the historic Pershing Hall building. Kith Paris will be the brand’s largest store to date at 16,000 square feet and will provide a lifestyle experience for customers which includes Kith Retail, Kith Treats (conceived from founder Ronnie Fieg’s childhood love for cereal. Kith now has cereal bars in eight locations including Pershing Hall.), and a Sadelle’s restaurant. The menu at Sadelle’s will feature its New York classics and caviar offerings, and The Babka Swirl, an ice cream confection which incorporates the restaurant’s homemade chocolate babka.
Hopefully Kith will carry on the legacy of American goodwill and ambassadorship in the venerable Pershing Hall and just maybe the American Legion will be able to once again be based there. So far we are pleased to see that the renovation kept the stonework eagle over the door, the elegant and historic ironwork and glass door with the name Pershing Hall, the stone American Legion star and the soldier’s mascarons over the windows.