One of the most extraordinary of industrial buildings, the mill at the former Menier chocolate factory in Noisiel is enchanting. It sits on the river Marne like a fantastical, storybook chocolate factory, extravagantly colourful and elaborately decorative. Who would believe that such a fairytale construction made industrial history?
The mill was one of the first industrial buildings to have an exposed metal frame, created by architect Jules Saunier in 1872. He used puddled iron, considerably less granular and brittle than cast iron and thus better able to take the stresses of supporting a mill full of heavy, vibrating machinery. (Later buildings, of course, would use steel.)
His clients were the Menier family, whose pharmaceutical business really blossomed when they transformed chocolate from a medical product to a popular treat. They had been based in the town of Noisiel, east of Paris, since 1825, making chocolate powder to coat medicines. In 1836 they began manufacturing bars of chocolate; business boomed, and the Noisiel works grew. This mill replaced one built in 1842.
With the iron framework supporting the structure, the brick and ceramic was as much decorative as functional. And what decoration! There are cocoa trees, initial Ms, polychromatic motifs of all kinds, and a clock tower that's pure Disneyland (apt, since the theme park only is a few stops along the railway line).
An ornate lamp flanks the pretty glass porch; colourful lettering above offers a history with a touch of fantasy. The 'Noisiel hydraulic factory' is dated 1157 - 1825 - 1872, a rather surprising pedigree explained by the cocoa pod-bestrewn hexagonal tablet above. While the Meniers only arrived in the early 19th century, a twelfth-century charter already mentioned a mill here. (Not, of course, a chocolate mill.)
The rear facade is relatively restrained - but only relatively.
No functional factory interior could entirely live up to that exterior, but the mill did make an effort. While the Menier chocolate factory was converted to house Nestle's French headquarters in 1996, many original features including machinery have been retained - and it is clear that floors, stairs and windows were impressively ornate.
The mill made history again over a century after it was built, as the first industrial building in France to be listed as a historical monument. However, a final look out of its windows reminds us that the mill is only one part of the Menier complex - the world's largest chocolate manufactory until 1940. We'll continue our tour later...
The public tours, by Cultival, mark Nestlé's 125th birthday this year. Although they soon finish, the complex usually opens for the annual Journées du Patrimoine (heritage weekend) each September.