MOULINS, France — For most of the past century, the French town of Moulins has lived with a mystery: What lay behind the locked doors and shuttered windows of the Maison Mantin?
The imposing 19th-century mansion was sealed up shortly after its owner, the wealthy Louis Mantin, died in 1905. His collections of artwork, furniture and antiquities were left to attract dust, mold and woodworm.
There were, of course, stories about the large mansion standing empty, right in the heart of Moulins, a town of 23,000 people located in the dead center of France. One rumor claimed the house contained a macabre collection of skeletons assembled by Monsieur Mantin.
But the most popular story was that Mantin had ordered his house sealed after his death, with strict instructions to open it a century later as a museum and monument to his somewhat unorthodox lifestyle.
Like all good rumors, there is a grain of truth to that one. Mantin did want his house to be a museum a century after his death, bequeathing it to the town for this very purpose. But he didn't order it to be sealed.
"It was very strange, the house became a sort of urban myth," said assistant curator Maud Leyoudec. "People didn't know what was in this house and had fantasies."
In fact, Mantin's house was opened to the public shortly after he died, but since there was nothing particularly unusual about it at the time, it was eventually boarded up and abandoned.
Two world wars left Maison Mantin unscathed (although the Nazis did commandeer some old weapons from the museum next door), as did the 1950s, '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s. A new millennium dawned; the house stayed shut.
As the centenary of Mantin's death approached, the town was forced to act on Mantin's bequest or face losing the building for good. By rights, his surviving great-niece Isabelle de Chavagnac could claim it back. She didn't, so the town began its work.
Hired to help prepare Maison Mantin for visitors, Leyoudec first gained access to the building in 2004. She didn't find any skeletons, but she did find a "musty and awful" house, crumbling with neglect.
However, it is thanks to this very neglect that Moulins now has something unique, even in history-steeped France: a time capsule that freeze-framed French bourgeois life at the beginning of the last century; unspoiled by subsequent occupants.
It has taken $4.6 million and a team of up to 50 experts under the supervision of Moulins' Anne-de-Beaujeu museum to return the house to its original state, recreating the slightly odd world of Monsieur Mantin with meticulous attention to detail.
And it is in these charming details that the secret character of Mantin — of which little was known outside a brief resume covering his education and career in local government — comes to life.
There are the innovations: his fully-plumbed roll-top bath, replete with overhead shower, flushing toilet and electric light fittings were all cutting-edge for 19th-century Moulins.
There are the valuable artefacts: rich tapestries, extremely rare printed leather wall coverings, contemporary artworks, stuffed creatures and fine furnishings.
And then there are the other items that reveal a man leading a double life — a life beyond his respectable outward image of a retired bureaucrat and wealthy pursuer of knowledge.
"Louis Mantin was representative of the bourgeois gentleman of the time and his house is a real specimen," said Leyoudec. "But at the same time, he was a bit eccentric and there are some pieces of decoration that are very funny."
Leyoudec draws attention to the fireside motif of a winking face, which she says gives a clue to the character of man whose home concealed a secret and scandalous 20-year relationship with a married woman.
Unable to marry his paramour, Louise Aliere, he gave her a room in the house filled with Louis XV furniture and silk fabrics covered in cupids. On his death he provided her with a chateau, where she lived another three decades.
Perhaps the biggest mystery, however, is why Mantin was so determined to see his home become a museum — presciently rewriting his will to this effect just months before dying at the age of 54.
"I'm sure he wanted to bequeath his house because he wanted to survive beyond his death, he wanted to be eternal, to be associated with a museum, to be philanthropic," said Leyoudec.
Moulins isn’t short of historical attractions. It boasts the ruins of a 15th-century castle and a Gothic cathedral dating back to the same period — both linked to the aristocratic Bourbon family whose original seat of power was in the town.
In more contemporary times, Moulins was the town where pioneering French fashion designer Coco Chanel spent her formative years, working in a hosiery shop and singing in a bar.
Thanks to his unusual bequest, Mantin has assured has now assured his place alongside these Moulins legends, Leyoudec said.
"He wanted to survive. Now everyone in Moulins knows the name of Mantin. If he hadn't given this house, everyone would have forgotten."
For more information on visiting the Maison Mantin, visit the website of the Musee Anne-de-Beaujeu.