At the turn of the 20th century, architects, like painters, pondered over the meaning of the contemporary world, reflecting on their role as builders. The situation of architecture at the time, flourishing both in the fields of town planning and construction, was nevertheless sharply criticised for its concepts. Joséphin Péladan wrote in the catalogue of the second Rose+Croix salon in 1893: “Architecture! Since this art was killed in 1789, only restorations or projects for fairy-tale palaces are acceptable.” It is against this background of the profession’s existential doubt that, in 1896, the Le Barc de Bouteville gallery organised an exhibition entitled “Impressions d’architectes” in which F. Garas, G. Guillemonat, E. Herscher, C. Imbert, H. Provensal and H. Sauvage took part. These idealistic architects abandoned the third dimension in favour of a landscaped pictorial representation. Alongside religious references, they took literature and music as their sources of inspiration for praising Thought and Harmony.
The late 19th century and early 20th century were conducive to the development of both occult sciences and religious questioning in a world that was changing. Architects, like all artists in society, frequented the same circles as writers, musicians and poets. Scientific questioning was also very important, especially the initiatives of the scientist Camille Flammarion who popularised the subject of the cosmos. Gaston Redon, an architect by training and brother of the painter Odilon Redon, liked to represent landscapes not unlike fantasy worlds, which questioned ideas about life and death. Richard Burgsthal, painter, musician and son of an architect, took inspiration from the music of Wagner to create fanciful worlds where the structured landscape was somewhere between a theatre set and a design for stained glass. Eugène Grasset, a teacher of drawing, used the landscape as a subject for studying stylised forms. Finally, the architect and restorer Louis Boitte reminded us, a little earlier, of the charm of the landscape, an integral part of the human environment, before buildings are introduced.
The growth of the railways in the second half of the 19th century was a major societal event that had numerous consequences for work, leisure, daily life and its economy. Although not immediately obvious, one new possibility for the aristocracy and middle classes seeking a change of scenery was to stay in a hotel.
Indeed, railway entrepreneurs like the Pereire brothers in Paris, who developed the Compagnie des Chemins de fer de l’Ouest, and Georges Nagelmackers, founder of the Compagnie internationale des wagons-lits, very early on promoted the creation of railway hotels so that tourists could rest between journeys while enjoying the town in which they were staying.
This system, which produced the great luxury hotels, was a catalyst for a new multi-facetted and highly lucrative economy based on construction, furnishings, gastronomy, and commerce in general. The universal exhibitions then prompted the re-organisation of the stations in Paris (Saint-Lazare for the 1889 exhibition, Orsay for the 1900 exhibition) promoting the “Terminus” hotels.
Gradually, at the end of the 19th century, railway hotels were also developed in tourist destinations outside the main cities, places sought out for the beauty of their heritage and culinary specialities, like Graz in Austria. The hotels reflect the architectural tastes of the moment, whether historicist, vernacular or Art Nouveau.