“The transformation of the Chaumont hill into a grandiose park, with viewpoints as varied as they are picturesque, is one of the most surprising changes brought about by the Paris administration since it undertook the renewal of the old neighborhoods of Paris,” wrote the Almanach du Magasin Pittoresque in its review of the major events of 1867.
The Parc des Buttes-Chaumont is certainly the most spectacular of Paris’s Second Empire parks. Due to its location, however, it is not very much visited by tourists. If one is interested in what Second Empire urbanism really meant for Paris – and is at the same time curious about the dynamic neighboring area of Belleville and what it has to offer – one should absolutely leave the beaten path and head to the north-east of the city.
After the luxurious Parc Monceau, opened in 1861, it became politically important to Napoleon III – and therefore to Haussmann – to build a park for the working population of the rapidly growing nineteenth and twentieth arrondissements. Prefect Haussmann selected this unpromising site in the recently annexed “suburban zone,” a steep terrain known for its clay soil, its cesspool, and its convenience as a hide-away for criminals, for Paris’s newest park.
The declaration of public use was obtained in 1863 and construction began the following year, under the direction of Adolphe Alphand, the head of the Department of Parks and Promenades. Building the park took three years, compared to only nine months for the Parc Monceau, because of the challenges of the site. Very considerable works were required to dig the lake, to solidify and seal the preexisting plaster rock quarries, to build retaining walls to protect the public from unstable formation, to create roads and paths to manageable grades, and to bring in a large amount of soil suitable for the growth of lawns and other vegetation. A pump was built to bring the water from the canal de l’Ourcq to the highest point of the site for use in the park’s irrigation network and for the waterfall.
The parc des Buttes-Chaumont was opened on April 1, 1867, the same day as the the Paris World Exposition was opened across town on the Champ-de-Mars. Visitors were amazed and enchanted by what they saw.
A large lake had been dug with, at its center, an astonishingly high promontory. Charming bridges connected the promontory to the adjoining hills over a precipitous drop. At the top, architect Gabriel Davioud had built a lovely small rotunda, inspired by the Temple of Vesta in Tivoli, from which one has a beautiful view of Paris.
The park features picturesque vegetation, paths, and rambling lawns. The style is again – like at the Bois de Boulogne, Bois de Vincennes and Parc Monceau – very romantic and picturesque, inspired by the parks of London, like Saint James Park, across the street from which Napoléon III had lived and which he had visited daily. There is also a grotto and a hundred-foot waterfall, spectacular features sure to please the thrill-seeking Second Empire public. In addition to the rotonda, Davioud built three belvederes, three-chalet-restaurants, eight guard pavilions, and a residence for the head of the park security administration.
The Parc des Buttes-Chaumont was funded using an approach Haussmann had already used for the Parc Monceau. Of the land acquired by the municipality, only the center was actually used for the park. The rest was sold off to developers at higher prices warranted by the new park. Still, the revenue was far from enough to offset the six million francs that the new park had cost.
As an interesting historic footnote, the streets around the park were given the names of the main sites of the French army’s Mexican campaign that had started in 1861: rue de Puebla, rue de Vera-Cruz, rue de Mexico. There was a cruel coincidence in that news of the execution of Emperor Maximilan I, bringing the French hopes of a client state in Mexico crashing down, reached Paris during the World Exposition. Today, the street names have been changed, but one of the paths through the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont is still called Avenue de Puebla.
Today the park urgently needs significant restoration work. Already, the quarries have been consolidated through concrete injections. A complete overhaul of the water network, is to begin next year. Work is anticipated to last until 2016 and will cost €17.5 million.