Aaron Messiah: the small man who became the great Anglo-Niçois architect

Aaron MessiahAaron Messiah (1858-1940) was the son of a British father and niçoise mother in a textile merchant family. He grew up speaking English, niçois and French, but his education was cut short when the family suffered financial misfortune, which forced him to start working at the age of 14, pushing him along the rocky road of apprenticeship towards his dream of being an architect.

The Messiah family was well known within Nice’s British community and although Aaron was Jewish, he was chosen in his early twenties as resident “church architect” for Holy Trinity’s maintenance. This unusual Protestant connection continued through his entire life: he built the Beaulieu English church following Temple Moore’s plans and he designed the Monaco English church as well as the Neo-Gothic Presbytery in Nice. All three are still standing and part of the Anglican heritage of Nice.

Aaron would often develop friendships with his clients, including the owner of the International Herald Tribune (which stopped publication October 2013 after 125 years) James Gordon Bennett Jr, the Muslim Prince Halimi, and the controversial Belgian King Leopold II, for whom he built a series of villas in Villefranche, Beaulieu and St-Jean- Cap-Ferrat.

The long-time priest of Holy Trinity, Canon Langford, after his retirement moved into the Aaron family building in Cimiez. An extraordinary time, when the Russian priest of Nice, the retired Anglican priest and Aaron (who was later elected President of the Israelite Consistory), all lived under the same roof and in good friendship. The Bella Vista building is still on the Boulevard Cimiez, but today this social configuration of inhabitants would be highly improbable.

Aaron had already built the Colonel Evans’ villa and this led to more commissions from seasonal foreign residents to construct grand villas. Gaston, his eldest son, also an architect with a professional Beaux Arts education, later joined him.

A small man suffering from asthma, Aaron’s own health had tremendous influence on his working life: he would always look for ways to ensure the maximum comfort in the living space of his clients. He received a gold medal from the niçois municipality in 1902 for building the superb Esslingen villa (today the Musée Masséna), and in the same year he had the distinction of designing the first building in Nice that had electrical lights in every room and on every floor. He incorporated plumbing, electricity and heating in his plans and convinced the Church Wardens of Holy Trinity to add electric lights so they could hold evening services in winter, the result of which, those dainty, Victorian rose-shaped lights, is still there.

Curiously, this comfort-loving man loved sports and practiced them from a young age. Founding member of the Club Alpin, Vice-President of the Yacht Club of Nice and long-time head of the Ski-Club, he travelled frequently with his family; being the owner of one of the early motorcars, he rapidly incorporated garages in his designs.

Yet he was not spared from tragedy as his favourite son, Albert, a brilliant juriste, was killed during the First World War. Aaron’s life turned completely upside down. He became Commissaire de réfugiés, donating large sums and devoting his energy and time to help the displaced masses arriving in Nice. He received the Légion d’honneur after the war for his contribution.

By the time of his death in 1940, the ugly war years had started and his architectural practice had to close down. Almost all documents disappeared. Jean Médecin, Mayor of Nice, wrote a four-page certificate trying to protect the family. Aaron died unaware that the following four years would wipe out the Riviera’s lifestyle for years to come, before its eventual recovery.

Two years ago the newspapers reported that the world’s most expensive villa was to be sold to a Russian. The deal fell through, but “Villa La Leopolda”, built for the Belgian King it’s named after, became famous and though remodelled, one can still recognise the original version from old postcards. The most expensive villa was built by a man who went from rags to riches and from fame to oblivion: Aaron Messiah, my favourite architect.


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