Donkeys in Bathrooms: Part 1

Around Easter 1976, disillusioned with my job at a flourishing language school in Geneva, I discovered that the HQ of the International Baccalaureate Office was located in the Palais Wilson, just a few blocks away. One day in early May I walked down the rue Rothschild and into this imposing building with its majestic marble staircase. I climbed up to the top floor, and announced that I was looking for a job. I had no idea what kind of job – I just thought that being trilingual and with a background in international education, I might be useful in some capacity or other.

The Executive Secretary Ruth Bonner, a small white-haired bundle of energy, talked to me.

“Are you a student?” she asked. I was just coming up to my 35th birthday, so I was rather amused at the question.

“No, I’m a language teacher,” I replied. “And I’m looking for a change.”

She went off and came back with Gérard Renaud, the Director. We had a chat and I explained who I was, what my educational interests were and what experience I’d had. He seemed interested.

“Can you type?”

I said I could use a typewriter, picking and pecking, but wasn’t an accomplished typist, mentally cursing the fact that I had never persevered and taught myself to type properly. I pointed out that I definitely wasn’t looking for a secretarial position and they explained that typing skills would be useful, as everyone there – including Gérard – did all their own typing.

“You might be the answer to a prayer,” Ruth told me. “Can you let us have a CV in writing?”

I learnt that 2 people were leaving, and I had picked just the right moment to swan in. I sent in my CV and after they had talked to the Director General, Alec Peterson, I received a letter offering me a job at a reasonable monthly salary, starting on 1 September 1976. I gave in my notice and completed my last assignment there which was devising and running a stage for training teachers of English

When I reported for work at the Palais Wilson in September 1976, I discovered that my job title was Registrar. My office was a light and airy suite on the top floor of the East wing of the building, overlooking the rue Rothschild and the rue des Paquis, consisting of a vast room with a smaller one adjoining and a storage room. Outside my window were the crowns of beautiful plane trees. The dilapidated old building had not yet been restored to the magnificent palace it is today, but it nevertheless retained some traces of its former glory as a grand hotel from the turn of the twentieth century. To reach our offices we ignored the stately central staircase and took a rickety service lift up to our dingy corridor in the attic. 

All the rooms we used as offices had formerly been bedrooms or suites, each with its own bathroom. The sanitary fittings had been removed, except in the bathroom adjoining the room used as Reception, which still had a lavatory and washbasin. The rest were handy storage rooms, each about 10 square metres in size. As befits a luxury hotel of that period, each former bedroom had an inner and an outer door made of solid oak, with a small space between as sound insulation and for privacy. The floors were high quality parquet, scuffed and no longer shiny, but still hardwearing. Many of the rooms had communicating doors between them, lockable from either side.

After WWI, the Palais Wilson had become the home of the League of Nations. Since then it had gone steeply downhill. We shared a corridor in the attic with some people from Unicef, and down below on the ground floor, in a section designed by Le Corbusier as a temporary annex and made mainly of fortified cardboard in a metal frame, was the IBE (International Bureau of Education), belonging to UNESCO. The beautiful Palais Wilson itself was not a protected building, but this ugly, draughty and uncomfortable annex was, simply because it was by Le Corbusier! It was later destroyed by fire, so when it came to restoring the main building in the 1990’s, the annex had fortunately gone.

A couple of years later IBO was able to move down to the first floor where each of the generously proportioned offices – also former bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms – was adorned with an ornate marble fireplace surmounted by a huge gilt-framed mirror labelled “Ligue des Nations”. Here my French windows opened onto a terrace on the portico overlooking the gardens and the lake, with a view towards Mont Blanc.

To be continued …

12 thoughts on “Donkeys in Bathrooms: Part 1

  1. Pingback: Donkeys in Bathrooms: Part 2 | catterel

  2. What a view. How could any work get done with Mont Blanc in the background? I find this a fascinating story and going back to the seventies happens to be an extra bonus. I must be of similar age and looking back so much happened during the decades that followed. Modern housing has now gone bathroom mad. I live by myself in a small 2bedr unit and have three bathrooms?

    • I had to sit with my back to the window, unfortunately, otherwise as you say, I would never have got any work done. But when I was on the phone – which happened a lot – I could turn round and admire the view. I often wondered what it was like in the 1920’s and 30’s when the League of Nations was there, and who had my office. The bathrooms were a legacy of the era when the Palais Wilson was built as a luxury hotel, every bedroom with it’s own en-suite bathroom. Very art nouveau to begin with, then some art déco additions. I’d love to see what it looks like now, but it’s guarded by heavily armed UN troops.

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