Show Notes for Episode 437: Baron Haussmann and the Transformation of Paris

Categories: French History, Paris

BARON HAUSSMANN: The Man Who Transformed Paris

Georges-Eugene Haussmann: 1809-1891, commonly known as the Baron Haussmann, was a member of the government under Louis Napoleon III. Prefet of Paris, he was the conceptor and person in charge of the huge changes to the city of Paris that took place between 1850 and 1870. Those changes, dramatic, massive and very very costly, made the elegant Paris that we all know today.

The story of Haussmann, his ideas, his work, his rise and then his fall, makes for an incredible story.

Haussmann was born into a military family, his father had been an officer under Napoleon I and the family were loyal Bonapartistes. He studied law, and then as a member of the upper middle class with good connections, he quickly rose up through the administration, first as an Assistant Prefet in several jurisdictions of the southwest of France like the Lot and Garonne, Ariège, Blaye, and the Gironde. He became a Prefet which means he was the head administrator for both the police and the civil administration, at a young age in the Gironde area and immediately became known for his plans to reform and modernize the Bordeaux area. He had new streets cut through the old neighborhoods, added gas lighting, made a new system of water distribution and even created a social welfare system for unwed mothers. He had a made a reputation for himself.

In 1853 he was presented to Napoleon III, the ‘people’s emperor’, who was looking for a new Prefet for Paris because he (Napoleon III) had great ambition: to modernize and open up the old medieval city. He had spent two years in exile in England and had been very impressed by the urban renewal done to western London where parks and wide avenues were common and where sanitation had been modernized.

He saw in Haussmann the man necessary for the undertaking of a similar project for Paris. And, in the 17 years that Haussmann was the Prefet, until 1870, the city was completely transformed.

The Goals: To Clean up, to Beautify; to Enlarge, and to Modernize

In 1853 most of Paris was still filled with tiny narrow streets as it had been for centuries. There was little if no sanitation, clean water was hard to find, there was no adequate street lighting, and there were outbreaks of cholera due to the lack of clean water and the high density of population particularly in the center of the city. Circulation was very difficult, certain areas were dangerous to live or work in, and the air was unbreathable.

Two prefets who had been appointed earlier had had some good ideas but had not done very much to implement them. One of Napoleon’s ideas had been to create a small park or square in each neighborhood. In 1853 there were very few green spaces intramural.

Haussmann clearly had some definite ideas of what to do, and he also had a very firm idea of what the ideal building should look like. Given almost free reign, he began by creating two new parks, the Park Montsouris in the south (14th) and the Park des Buttes Chaumont in the north (20th).

Given carte blanche, but with the clear message to fulfill the ideals set forth by Napoleon III,  Haussmann started by destroying the ancient houses and streets of the Ile de la Cité and the area of what is now the Chatelet. The first large, straight boulevard to be built was the Rue de Rivoli, finished  in 1855. From then on, continuing for the next 15 years, Haussmann demolished over 60 % of old Paris. The Rue de Rivoli became the model for all the other streets and avenues to come,  without the arcades.

At the same time, with the approval of Napoleon III, he annexed 12 villages in the circumference of the old city center expanding the size of Paris from 12 to 20 arrondissement. One of the reasons for this was to have a larger tax base for the work that was being done inside the center, but also, by annexing these villages, such as Passy, Montmartre, Belleville, Bercy, and La Villette, major polluting industry could not get too close to the city center.

“The Rational Esthetic”

In the next years, Haussmann developed a specific style of architecture; one that we all know today. The buildings were designed to house several apartments, with a uniform facade  and they were made of stone. It was imperative that the facades all be the same, with the same height, the same style of roof, the same style of window, the same larger too. These new buildings were then built on the new wide, straight avenues that sprung up everywhere, spoking out from several key places, the Place de la Republique, the Place de la Concorde, the Place de l’Etoile (the Arche de Triomphe) among them. All of the avenues were designed with the idea of a long perspective, to give a sensation of distance and openness. And the homogeneity of the design of the buildings was to create a sense of elegance and harmony,  what he called a rational esthetic.

Among other major projects,

He put in a new  sewer system

Built the Gare de Lyon and the Gare de l’Est

Built the Theatre de la Ville and the Theatre de Chatelet

Opened up the huge esplanade in front of City Hall and in front of Notre Dame

Built more bridges across the Seine and rebuilt the ancient  Pont St Michel

Built all the magnificent large open boulevards of Paris

Had the Trocadero opened up and the Champs Elysees redone

Created the idea of an elegant Paris, and was the inspiration for the Opera House

Massive Changes/ Much Criticism!

In order to finance all of these works, Napoleon III had to seek financing from private banks. And in order to recuperate some of the costs, the buildings and apartments were sold to wealthy people who then turned what originally were supposed to be homes for modest income families, into luxury apartments. The top floors of the apartment buildings, now some of which are still used by students, were destined to be small but “modern” apartments for the working class, but instead, for the most part were used to house the servants.

In all, by modern money estimates, the transformation of Paris cost about 25 billion euros!!!! And although it was Napoleon III who approved all that cost, it was Haussmann who was severely criticized for the excessive costs and the gargantuan projects. It is true that he had great ambition to be known as the person who changed forever the face of Paris.

In all over 80,000 workers were involved, and over 40,000 buildings were constructed, which is enormous. There was a huge amount of money speculation which scandalized some of the politicians and intellectuals like Jules Ferry and Emile Zola, who also criticized the idea of eliminating “old” Paris.

Jules Ferry said, ‘we weep with our eyes full of tears for the old Paris…..”

The poet Baudelaire wrote a poem, The Swan, as a lament for the ‘”old, medieval city he loved”.

Almost all of medieval Paris was destroyed, with the exceptions of a part of the Latin Quarter and the area around the Sorbonne, thanks to the university and its prestige. The Marais was largely preserved as well . A part of the area of St Germain des Près was also preserved because of the monasteries there. Much of the Ile de la Cité was destroyed, the “new” courthouse was built; but the Conciergerie and the Sainte Chapelle were left intact. Haussmann was responsible for the creation of the enormous esplanade in front of Notre Dame Cathedral but had most of the tiny streets and ancient houses torn down.

So Paris doubled in size thanks to these projects. Haussmann did not however, “just” destroy Paris.

He added the esplanade in front of Notre Dame to give it space and add to its allure, he had the church spire of Notre Dame, which had been pulled down during the Revolution rebuilt and he specifically “saved” the Sainte Chapelle, the Conciergerie, the Château de Sully and the church of St Paul in the Marais.

He also had the square of St Michel at the beginning of the boulevard St Michel rebuilt and restored, adding the fountain,  the bridge of St Michel rebuilt, and the Pont Neuf was reinforced.

But he was criticized for cutting off part of the Jardin de Luxembourg to make the blvd Raspail, and for the endless costs that just seemed to pile up.

He was also criticized by a part of the political establishment on the left that said he made these wide open boulevards to make it easier for the army to advance in case of insurrection. He said that it was not in his original ideas at all, but that  if it helped against insurrection, for him that was not a problem. And he was severely criticized for creating a system that helped the rich and the landlords get even richer. Although a part of the housing he created was used for the more modest families, it is true that the real estate speculation on the new buildings was enormous.

By 1869 Napoleon III, who was getting old and ill, was weakened politically by a stronger republican majority in Parliament. There were growing criticisms of Haussmann because of the excessive costs,t and the hostility to the ‘new, modern, overly ambitious Paris”and so in January of 1870 Napoleon  II asked Haussmann to resign. Haussmann refused and so was fired. He had been the Prefet for 17 years, a record.

In his memoirs he said, ‘I committed two wrongs: I was Prefet too long, and I disturbed people’s habits by turning Paris upside down”…

In his later life he was a senator, a deputy from Corsica and then spent the last few years writing his memoirs. He died in 1891 and is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery.

(and by the way, he was never a baron – he gave himself the title…. and it stuck!)

Haussmann’s Legacy

His concepts of urban renewal and architectural design were so influential in the 19th century that many cities in France and in other countries were inspired by them. Among the cities in France that have Haussmannian design in all or part of their centers, are Bordeaux, Toulouse, Marseille.

Among the world capitals that have architecture inspired by Haussmannian design and ideas are Buenos Aires, Brussels, Vienna, Madrid, Stockholm, and even Cairo and Istanbul!

Central Park in New York was inspired by his ideas for the Bois de Boulogne.

So when you walk up the Rue de Rivoli, along the Blvd St Germain, or along the boulevard Raspail or the Rue  de l’Opera, or go to the Gare de Nord or the gorgeous Gare de l’Est, or just stand on one of the bridges and look at the uniform slate roofs and the harmonious buildings, you are experiencing Haussmann’s Paris

And for many who visit Paris, Paris IS  Haussmannian design. The avenue de l’Opera going up to the Opera Garnier is the ultimate and perhaps most elegant Haussmannian part of Paris don’t you think?

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Categories: French History, Paris