Category Archives: History of Paris

Posts about the history of Paris

A Napoleon III-Eye View of London

How did Regency and early Victorian London influence the design of Napoleon III’s Paris?

We know that Napoleon III lived in London during his exile before returning to France in 1848 and that he was very aware of the urban and social issues of his day. But other than rare instances (the Bois de Boulogne, the Parisian “squares”), there are no direct references to London in the urbanism Second Empire Paris.

At the same time, there is no doubt that the future Emperor’s stays in what was at the time the leading city of the western world played a role in forming his image of the modern city.

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Place de la République

Construction begins this week on the new Place de la République, a project 150 years in the making.

At 300 yards by 130 yards, the Place de la République is one of the largest squares in Europe. But its lay-out has been a problem that has bedeviled urban designers since Gabriel Davioud was first entrusted with its design in the 1860s.

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The New Bercy Neighborhood

The Bercy neighborhood is frequently used an example of successful contemporary urban planning. One of its successes it to have created a real neighborhood out of nothing on an initially unpromising site. But the other, perhaps more distinctive characteristic of this operation is to have created an urban form which is highly ordered yet diverse, modern yet still recognizably in the tradition of Parisian urban design. It was worth telling the story of this exemplary urban project.

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The Hôtel Particulier: A Parisian Ambition

The hôtel particulier is an urban private mansion, standing most often away from the street, between a courtyard and a garden. There are fewer than 500 of these houses in Paris today, but there were as many as 2,000 in the seventeenth century. An exhibition that opened this week at the Cité de l’Architecture retraces the history of this fascinating building type, so important to Paris’s history and character. This exhibition and the splendid book that accompanies it are a real delight for anyone with interest in the subject. Continue reading

Heritage Days

In the early 1980s, the newly-arrived Socialist government, under the impetus of its Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, launched two events for mass access to culture. The first, in 1982, was the Fête de la Musique – since then, every year on June 21st, all sorts of people of various musical ability hit the streets and do their thing. The second, in 1984, was the Open House Days in France’s historical monuments. This has gone on to be an extraordinarily successful event, now expanded to all of Europe and called the European Heritage Days, or Journées Européennes du Patrimoine.

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Château de Compiègne

With all the great things to do in and around Paris, it is understandable that the Château de Compiègne remains relatively marginal in the visitor statistics. Nevertheless – especially for anyone interested in Napoleon III and the Second Empire – it is a very worthwhile outing.

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The Landscape of the Bois de Boulogne

Today I took part in a lovely walk through Paris organized by the association Les Promenades Urbaines.

The theme of the walk was “The Urban Nature of Alphand”, a reference to Adolphe Alphand, the head of the Parks and Promenades Division of the Prefect of the Seine, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, during the Second Empire.

We went down the Avenue Foch (known as the Avenue de l’Impératrice during the Second Empire) and through the Bois de Boulogne. It was a wonderful chance to explore the genesis of a new form of urban nature in the mid-nineteenth century and what remains of it today.

The walk started with Michel Audouy, a landscape architect and professor, discussing how the design of the urban spaces of Second Empire Paris incorporated nature, for example through the systematic inclusion of alignments of trees. We walked down the Avenue Foch and explored this splendid space designed by architect Jacques-Ignace Hittorff and the city park department of Alphand.

Michel Pena, a landscape architect currently in charge of the requalification of a portion of the Bois de Boulogne, took us through the Bois. He passionately spoke about the park and its history, showing the great quality of the Second Empire achievements. He discussed Napoleon III’s personal passion for the design of parks and the tremendous achievements of Aphand’s parks department. He also showed us ways in which the original design has been severely compromised over the years and shared his travails in trying to restore the spatial qualities of the park as initially envisioned.

Les Promenades Urbaines offers urban walks in Paris throughout the year, led by experts and practitioners. They are a great way to learn about the city and its projects in greater depth. Perhaps if there is enough demand, they will do some in English some day. In any case you can visit their web site at and “like” them on Facebook.

Paris’s First Public Garden

Until 1844, there were no public gardens in Paris. There were of course wonderful gardens in the city, like the Tuileries Gardens, the gardens of the Palais-Royal, and the Luxembourg Gardens, but these were the private property of the Crown or of other citizens, to which the general public was granted access based on “tolerances”.

The very first garden in Paris to be owned by the city for the enjoyment of Parisians is the garden now known as the Square Jean XXIII, on the east and south sides of Notre-Dame. Its story, like so many things in Paris, is a fascinating memory of painful and turbulent events.

1830 was the year of the July Revolution that removed the Bourbon dynasty and introduced King Louis-Philippe of the House of Orléans, who was much more amenable to the the new measures of political liberalization. The religious and conservative parts of the population, however, refused to acknowledge the new king and sought to reinstate the last member of the House of Bourbon, the Count of Chambord, whom his partisans considered to be Henry V, the legitimate King of France.

On Sunday, February 13th, 1831, word circulated around Paris that the portrait of the Count of Chambord had been hung at Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois Church. A group of partisans of the Revolution of 1830 responded by descending on the church and sacking it. From there, they went to the Archbishopric, considered to be a center of Legitimist sentiment.

The Palace of the Archbishopric of Paris was a fine structure built by the Cardinal de Noailles in 1697 located adjacent to Notre-Dame Cathedral. The crowd arrived there and threw all the books and furniture into the Seine. The next morning, they came back to finish the work and burn the building down. The authorities were in a strange position, fundamentally aligned with the objectives of the anti-Legitimist actions, but still not pleased to see uncontrollable masses pillaging the national heritage. They issued calls condemning the Legitimist conspiracy while asking the people to spare the monuments.

Then, something strange happened. Tuesday, February 15th was Mardi Gras. The Palace of the Archbishopric still in ruins, Paris was overtaken by the spirit of festivity. The angry mobs simply dissolved into the crowds of revelers.

The remains of the building were eventually taken down and the space was left as a public promenade. Then, in 1844, the Prefect of the Seine, Count Claude-Philippe Barthelot de Rambuteau, a lover of nature who had grown up on a magnificent estate in Burgundy, opened the space as the first public garden entirely dedicated to Parisians, to be known as the Square de l’Archeveché. In 1850, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste Lassus, who were responsible for the comprehensive restoration of Notre-Dame Cathedral, added the Sacristy and the Rectory that we see today along the south side of the Cathedral. Years later, the park was later renamed in honor of Pope John XXIII.