The headquarters for Nestlé France has a fascinating and sweet history.
The Menier Chocolate Mill at Noisiel, Marne-la-Valleé outside Paris, was once the heart of the world’s largest chocolate producer, and has been described as one of the iconic buildings of the Industrial Revolution. Today, the building is registered as a Monument Historique by the French government and is the headquarters for Nestlé France, which took ownership of the facility in 1988.
Built between 1872 and 1874, the mill was commissioned by Emile Menier, son of Menier Chocolate founder, Jean-Antoine-Brutus Menier, who started the company in 1816. The architect for the project was Jules Saulnier (1817-1881) who chose stone as the principal building material with an exposed structural frame of puddled wrought iron, diagonally braced to achieve a distinctive effect on the façade of the six-story building. Thus, the Menier Mill is known as the first true skeleton structure.
According to authors Kenneth Frampton and Yukio Futagawa (“Modern Architecture 1851-1945”), “The structure was comprised of two exterior lattice girders running for the full height of the building and two rows of cast-iron columns running down the interior of the volume on either side of a central corridor. Both lattice girders and columns were supported on riveted, sheet-iron, tubular box beams spanning between the masonry piers, which in effect was a form of early megastructure. The three intermediate floors were formed by brick vaulted construction spanning onto riveted wrought-iron joists, which in their turn were carried by the external lattice girders and the internal columns. The lattice framework on the exterior was finally filled with a thin layer of hollow brickwork whose variegated color was coursed in such a way as to resemble alternately the letter ‘M’ standing for Menier and a conventionalized silhouette of a cacao tree.”
As the company grew in the late 19th century, the Menier family developed a village on the mill property in which its 2,000 employees could live and work (312 residences on more than 70 acres of land). Menier constructed family housing and dormitories, as well as cafeterias and other facilities as it grew into the world’s leading confectioner, producing a reported 125,000 tons of chocolate annually. That is, until World War I decimated the Menier Company and the rest of Western Europe. Fortunately, the Menier Chocolate Mill and its surrounding campus survived the war and continued to churn out sweets – although on a much smaller scale – until 1993.
By 1996, Nestlé’s French division had settled comfortably into its new headquarters in Noisiel, having purchased the property as part of its takeover of British confectionery company Rowntree-Mackintosh in the late 1980s. (Rowntree took over the Menier Company in the late 1970s.) Nestlé hired the French architecture firm of Reichen et Robert & Associés to rehabilitate the mill and various other structures on the property, which still were quite structurally sound because of the superb quality and durability of the materials, the firm says. According to the firm, “The Noisiel factory is one of the most outstanding examples of the French industrial architecture inheritance of the 19th century. … The exceptional quality of the architecture, designed by some of the finest architects of that time, was the central argument in favor of the decision to transform the factory into the headquarters of Nestlé France.”
Additionally, the firm notes on its website that aside from the architectural and cultural significance of the property, it simply was cheaper for Nestlé to adaptively re-use the chocolate mill than to tear it down. The result: “This project explores all the possibilities that occur when new design meets the notion of historic preservation,” Reichen et Robert & Associés says.