The Cercle de Lorraine began its activities in Uccle, in the spring of 1998. Formed as a non-profit making organisation, it was established by a group of private partners and brought to fruition through the friendly support of people who were amongst the most iconic personalities in the country’s French and Flemish speaking economic and financial communities.
The Cercle de Lorraine, a non-profit making organisation, takes its name from the location originally chosen: la drève de Lorraine [Lorraine Avenue] in Uccle.
At no. 41, on this prestigious Avenue, lies a property, comprising about four hectares, on which there is an elegant mansion, constructed in 1910 at the instigation of the Dutch industrialist Stokvis. The building is called "Viola Cornuta". The property had been out of use for twelve years when, in 1997, its owner, the AG Insurance Company, made it over to the Cercle’s founder.
The property was the subject of a fundamental renovation with a view to the Cercle moving in. The date set for this – and retained despite events – was 23 April 1998.
Unfortunately, during the night of 1 to 2 April 1998, the building was ravaged by fire. Given the scale of the disaster, the Management of the future Cercle de Lorraine was faced with a choice: either delay the start of the Cercle’s activities - for an indeterminate period, the time it would take to rebuild - or find another site at a moment’s notice. He chose the second option.
A few hundred meters from the drève de Lorraine, on the other side of the chaussée de Waterloo, stands the château "Fond’roy" [Fond’roy Castle], which was also purchased by the Cercle’s founders in 1997. This property had been acquired by Founding President Maréchal Joseph Désiré Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Nbengu Waza Banga when, on 17 May 1997, having governed the former Belgian colony with a rod of iron for 32 years - the territory of the Congo being equivalent to eighty times the surface area of our own country- he found himself obliged to seek exile in Rabat, having been forced from power by the now deceased guerrilla leader Laurent Désiré Kabila.
Construction of the château Fond’roy was completed in 1910, one year after the death of Leopold II, King of the Belgians, who had confided its construction to one of his inner circle.
The property then passed into the hands of the Poelaert family, a name borne by the architect famous for the construction of the Brussels Palais de Justice [Law Courts], before becoming part of the Vermeulen family assets.
In 1948, the latter transferred the property to the Royale Belge insurance company which made it into its sports centre (it must surely have been written in the stars that the Cercle de Lorraine should establish itself in the former Uccle sports centre of a Belgian insurance company) before transferring it to President Mobutu in 1973.
Between 1 and 23 April 1998, Fond’roy was emptied of all the property and personal effects that the now deceased Maréchal Mobutu had transferred with the property: on the occasion of his rapid departure from power, his Belgian management team did not receive instructions to empty the building of its contents with the result that all the belongings, personal effects, archives, cellar and vehicles belonging to the deposed dictator were still there.
During the three weeks between the unfortunate fire in the Drève de Lorraine and the inauguration of the Cercle, the craftsmen and other tradesmen who had just completed the "Viola Cornuta" returned to work with renewed energy and in a major display of solidarity, worked Saturdays, overnight and over the Easter weekend to refurbish the prestigious building, making it into a suitable venue to house the activities of the Cercle de Lorraine. They came up trumps!
The inauguration of the Cercle de Lorraine, which took place on 23 April 1998 in the presence of 800 of its then 1000 members, was a brilliant success. The atmosphere was extremely joyful, not least because, at the end of the evening, it was learned that a simple forest warden had proudly succeeded in capturing public enemy number 1, the sinister Marc Dutroux, who had escaped a few hours earlier, thereby giving our public institutions a distinctly unflattering image.
This striking point means that on 23 April, when the press reminds us of that extraordinary escape, every member can recall that his Cercle has grown one year older...
Subsequently, the members of the nascent Cercle de Lorraine, who considered themselves very well accommodated at Fond’roy, asked the management not, as initially intended, to move back into the "Viola Cornuta", which was due for renovation. It was to meet this demand that a decision was taken to stay at Fond’roy. The premises underwent full conversion and redecoration with careful attention paid to avoiding any disturbance to the activities of the Cercle.
As for the "Viola Cornuta" in the drève de Lorraine, a project taken forward in partnership with the British Group, Whitbread, led to the creation of a major and prestigious sports centre in 2004.
Twelve years later, on 30 August 2010, the Cercle was “born again” when it moved into its new headquarters in the city centre.
Located in the heart of the “City”, the former palace of the Princes of Merode (with a surface area of 2800 m² available to members as against the 800 at Fond’roy) was the subject of a luxurious renovation and significant refurbishment so as to adapt it to the special needs of our members.
It was in 1618 that Duke Alexandre de Bournonville and his wife Anne de Melun, who owned a number of buildings on the “Wollen Dries” (the present rue aux Laines), on land that had belonged to the Duchy of Brabant since the Middle Ages, had these buildings transformed into a vast Renaissance- style palace.
In the XVIIIth century, the heirs of the Duke of Bournonville sold the property to the Counts of Merode-Waterloo, who had become princes. They in turn transferred it to an estate agency in 1954. In 2008, the latter gave the keys of this exceptional property to the Cercle de Lorraine, aware that the Cercle was the body best able to return the Palace of Bournonville to its former glory.
The Palace of Bournonville has left its mark on the history of the figurative arts. At different periods, individuals whose names are engraved in history lived in the palace: Marie de Médicis and Olympe Mancini, mother of Prince Eugène de Savoie, at the beginning of the XVIIth century and, at the end of that same century, the Count of Coblenz and the Prince of Starhenberg, who, during the XVIIIth century, administered the country while it was under Austrian rule.