The Menier chocolate mill at Noisiel, Marne-la-Valleé, was at the heart of a factory complex of industrial structures associated with Menier’s chocolate-manufacturing business. The multistory mill, built between 1872 and 1874, demonstrated an innovative design approach that frankly exposed its structure and materials, using the latter for decorative effect. It is widely regarded as the first building in continental Europe to have been constructed with an iron frame and non-load-bearing masonry walls and has been described as “one of the iconic buildings of the Industrial Revolution.”
In 1816 the pharmacist Jean-Antoine-Brutus Menier opened premises in Paris to sell his medicinal powders to chemists and hardware shops. Later he expanded his business to include chocolate-coated medicines and chocolate confectionery. Having outgrown his Paris base, in 1825 he transferred to Noisiel on the River Marne, where he purchased a mill to grind powders. Following his death in 1853, his son Emile-Justin took over the business, transferred its pharmaceutical arm to St. Denis and diversified into rubber production in a factory on the outskirts of Paris. The Noisiel plant was given over entirely to chocolate production.
Between 1860 and 1867 Emile Menier commissioned the architect Jules Saulnier (1817–1881) to redevelop the plant, constructing new buildings and improving the existing premises to better support the chocolate-making process. The factory would earn the nickname “the cathedral” because of its architecture. In 1869 Saulnier, working with the engineers Logre and Girard, prepared designs for replacing the timber-framed water mill that spanned the river, in order to house three new turbine wheels; he first chose stone as the principal material. Interrupted by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, construction did not commence until 1872. By then Saulnier had revised the design and the outcome has been described as his masterpiece. The structural frame of the six-story chocolate mill was of puddled iron, diagonally braced to achieve a distinctive effect across the upper three levels of the facade Saulnier likened the resulting pattern to the girders of a lattice bridge. The non-load-bearing, 7-inch (18-centimeter) yellow brick infill walls were decorated with diaper work and ceramic tile inlays with flower and cocoa-bean motifs, mainly in reds, dark yellow, and black. The frame was supported by a skeleton iron structure resting on the substantial stone piers that had carried the earlier timber-framed building, and floors were constructed of shallow brick arches between I beams, which were in turn carried by the main frame. The water-driven turbines were located between the piers. The interior was disposed to house the cocoa-bean milling process, and to free the third level of columns, its floor was suspended from the roof trusses. The spacing of columns and windows varied slightly, and deliberately, contributing to the artful composition of the facade.
Under Emile Menier’s entrepreneurial leadership the business continued to expand. In the 1880s it established a factory in London and acquired cocoa plantations in Nicaragua, as well as a sugar refinery and a merchant fleet. It even established a railroad company to move materials and products. More buildings were constructed at Noisiel, utilizing the most advanced constructional methods and materials. A self-contained village was founded in which most of the factory’s 2,000 employees lived in detached two-family houses or, if single, in hostels. The
complex was set in extensive landscaped grounds. At the turn of the century the Menier chocolate business was the world’s largest, and it reached its hey-day before World War I. Decline was probably inevitable.
Between 1971 and 1978 the British confectionery company Rowntree-Mackintosh progressively purchased the Menier company, including its Noisiel factory, where chocolate continued to be made until 1993. The multinational Nestlé, which has owned Rowntree-Mackintosh and its subsidiaries since 1988, has taken over the Menier factory as Nestlé-France’s headquarters, conserving the original buildings at a reported cost of Fr 800 million (U.S.$107 million). The chocolate mill has been made the focal building in the redevelopment by architects Robert and Reichen, and is used for a boardroom, reception rooms, and directors’ offices. The French government has registered it as a Monument Historique