When the property magnate Charles Cohen bought the La Pagode cinema in Paris, complete with its celebrated Japanese garden, three years ago, he announced that as an American in Paris he wanted “everyone to be happy”.

The cinema-loving Francophile promised to “restore and preserve” the magnificent listed building and pledged he would “not disappoint” with his €8m facelift.

But locals in the 7th arrondissement near the celebrated cinema are far from happy, claiming the historic site has been partly destroyed. They describe the sawing down of a ginkgo biloba tree, a large horse chestnut and a weeping beech – unexpectedly razed on the day France’s strict lockdown ended – as a chainsaw “massacre”.

Locals in the 7th arrondissement near the celebrated cinema are far from happy.

“We had hoped to be rejoicing in a new life for La Pagode, in the belief that its purchaser had at heart the idea of refining this exceptional site and protecting its spirit,” the organisation France Nature Environment wrote in an open letter to Cohen.

The famous trees of La Pagode, before they were cut down.

The letter said the organisation was “stunned by this unimaginable massacre”, adding: “Reading the plans for this project reveals it shows the opposite of respect for the site, that we thought was a given.”

It said that the plans which included developing a neighbouring building to create a “cinema city” were “interesting … but will destroy the magical and miraculous character of the site”.

The organisation pointed out that the building, garden and surrounding walls were all protected by heritage listing: “This project undermines the system of protection of French monuments. The supposed restoration hides a real distortion.”

A Chain-Saw Massacre

Outside La Pagode on Thursday a message had been written on the planning notice which read: “Shame on you for chopping down the gingko and the weeping beech. This garden was magnificent; you have turned it into a wasteland.”

When it closed in 2015 after a bitter dispute between the owner and the tenants, then a small independent cinema chain, it appeared the curtain had come down on La Pagode for good. The building with its peaceful Japanese tea garden and Salle Japonaise needed extensive renovation.

The ornate replica of a pagoda was commissioned in 1895 by François-Émile Morin as a wedding gift to his wife at a time when Japanese style was à la mode in Europe. Morin, the owner of the nearby department store Le Bon Marché, had some of the building’s most lavish parts, including delicately sculpted wooden beams and panels, brought over from Japan.

Despite his grand gesture, the marriage did not last. Before La Pagode was finished, his wife had fallen in love with his best friend.

La Pagode was first used to host high-class Parisian soirées and receptions but was closed in 1927. Four years later it was turned into a cinema and immediately forged a reputation for screening avant garde films. The premiere of Jean Cocteau’s last film, Testament d’Orphée, was held at La Pagode in 1960 and during the decade it became a place of high cinematic art, promoting the classics of the New Wave generation including François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Éric Rohmer.

American real-estate developer and film producer Charles S. Cohen had promised to preserve La Pagode as a revered landmark.

Despite housing only two relatively small cinemas, it attracted more than 100,000 film-goers a year before its closure in 2015, and hosted movie masterclasses, festivals and evenings with visiting directors in the original Salle Japonaise, which featured red velvet seats and oriental snake light fittings.

Before La Pagode was finished, his wife had fallen in love with his best friend.

Cohen, president of the Cohen Media Group, an independent distribution and production company, was hailed as a saviour when he bought the cinema in 2017 and announced his grand plans. These included adding two extra screening halls underground as well as a bar and restaurant. Earlier this year, he acquired the lease on a large neighbouring building, previously the seat of the regional council, and obtained permission to develop the site into a centre for the “creation, training, research and innovation” in cinema. La Pagode was due to reopen this year.

Matthew Fraser, a professor at the American University of Paris, said locals were “outraged” by the felling of La Pagode’s trees. “It’s a mythical place whose history goes back to the Belle Epoch. I used to go there back in the 1980s and I remember it was a cool place where you often met actors. Now the trees are completely gone. Did Charles Cohen even know about this? Maybe it was the architects who oversee work on historic buildings who said they had to come down. We just don’t know,” he said.