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Art Nouveau splendour: Lessons from Maison Hannon

On the corner of Avenue Brugmann and Avenue de la Jonction at the swisher end of St Gilles, the Maison Hannon is finally returning to its original Art Nouveau splendour.

A decade ago, it appeared to be quietly fading. The small photographic exhibitions that it used to hold came to an end in 2014 when their host, the non-profit organisation Contretype, up sticks to Cité Fontainas. Its doors shut to outsiders, Hannon risked becoming a crumbling beauty.

This would have been the second threat to its survival: it suffered years of neglect following the death of the original owner’s daughter in 1965 before undergoing its first major renovation in the 1980s ahead of the arrival of Contretype.

That redemption was thanks to the daughter of the architect, Jules Brunfaut, who saved the house from the threat of demolition by ensuring that her father’s work was classified as a historic monument in 1976, three years before it was acquired by the commune. Now benefiting from the guidance of the Horta Museum, which is itself but a 10-minute walk away, the future of Brunfaut’s only Art Nouveau building appears as secure as its renovated granite, limestone and white brickwork.

So this is not the first time Maison Hannon has been imperilled. But then, a couple of years ago, after it secured a private-public restoration fund, it enjoyed a second rebirth under the chrysalis of scaffolding and wraps. Its restoration was prioritised for Brussels’ Year of Art Nouveau 2023, and it finally reopened on June 1.

With the covers off, visitors can dive into the enchanting, old world glamour of the refurbished building, which is more than just architecturally linked to Art Nouveau pioneer Victor Horta.

Édouard Hannon, who commissioned his friend Brunfaut to design the house, acquired his wealth working for the Solvay company – the enterprise of the industrialist Ernest Solvay for whom Horta built a house on Avenue Louise, a year after the construction of Hôtel Tassel, widely recognised as the first Art Nouveau building in Brussels (and, therefore, the world). Hannon earned his footnote in history by being one of the organisers of the first Solvay conference on chemistry in 1922.

An equally enduring legacy, the Maison Hannon was built between 1903 and 1904 in the style that Hannon had come to love from his time as the manager of Solvay’s soda plant in Dombasle, a suburb of Nancy, France (he rose to the rank of CEO, the only non-family member to hold the position).

The son of a doctor in natural science and medicine, and an engineer by training, Hannon was nevertheless a maven of the arts and an amateur photographer. He was a founding member of the Association Belge de Photographie and two of his works are in the collection of Musée d’Orsay in Paris. It was therefore fitting that his home would eight decades later host photo exhibitions and now display in one of the ground floor rooms his portraits of his wife Marie Debard, the daughter of the mayor of Dombasle, and his two girls, along with a selection of arresting images of socially disadvantaged folk he’d encountered on his travels across the world.

Fusion architecture

Édouard and Marie, of course, filled their home with the finer things, including works by Belgian painters James Ensor and Emile Claus, while the sculptor Victor Rousseau designed a bas-relief for the corner of the façade. Entitled La Fileuse (the spinner), it features a young woman who appears to be concentrating on her work, while a somewhat underfed dog seated at her feet looks directly up. The building’s website helpfully explains that it is an “allegory of time suspended at sunset”.

The furniture, some of which has now been returned to the house, was designed by Émile Gallé, a French artist the couple met at the 1900 Paris Exhibition. The friendship was to have a big influence on the house, inspiring its Franco-Belgian aesthetic. The huge fresco that spans the house’s spiralling central staircase was also created by a French artist, Paul Baudouin. Now restored to its original hues, the artist’s choice of a soft pastel palette creates a warmth that seems to radiate through the grand reception rooms.


The first floor at the top of the staircase

The most eye-catching room on the ground floor, however, hosted a ‘greenhouse’ or winter garden, reflecting Marie’s apparent love of botany. The oval room is flooded with light from a large bow window, which is edged with stained glass in keeping with the colour scheme, as well overhead light from a dome-like glass ceiling. The frescos here were particularly damaged and restoration is a meticulous process that will run until the end of the decade. Modern restoring techniques involve not just the study of old photographs, but also a search through invoices to reveal the composition of materials used and even the strength of the lightbulbs.


The staircase and mural from the ground floor

Most of the funding is being stumped up by the Brussels Capital Region, but the restoration work has also benefited from national lottery funds as well as private sources, including a crowdfunding initiative that raised €25,000 for work on the façade. Two euros from the €12 (on the door) or €14 (online to avoid queueing) adult entrance fee will also go towards the renovation.

A home is not a hotel

The non-profit association set up to oversee the property decided to definitively call the building the Maison Hannon, and not Hôtel Hannon, the name it was known as at the time of its classification. The new managers say that Maison Hannon better reflects its homeliness, pointing out that the house does not have a service staircase or a carriage entrance, or other features typical of a stately residence.

The upstairs bedrooms, which also benefit from an abundance of natural light, have been devoted to exhibitions on the furniture of three key figures of the Belgian Art Nouveau movement: Paul Hankar, Gustave Serrurier-Bovy, Henry van de Velde. Items ranging from coat racks to bed frames and cabinets have been loaned by Ghent Design Museum, among other partners, and will be on display till June of next year. Further temporary exhibitions to follow are planned.

At the launch of this new era for Maison Hannon, Brussels State Secretary for Urbanism and Heritage Pascal Smet reaffirmed the objective of the Art Nouveau Brussels 2023 to position the city as a cultural centre for the movement, saying the endeavour would be maintained in the years to come. He also intriguingly mentioned plans to illuminate at night some choice examples of the architectural style in the same way Barcelona lights up works by Antoni Gaudi after dusk. Time suspended at sunset indeed.

Maison Hannon is included in the Art Nouveau Pass, while a combined ticket with the Horta Museum is also available. Open Monday and Friday, 11am to 6pm; Saturday and Sunday, 10am to 6pm.

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