Looking Around for Nalpoléon III

the steps at the Opera
The Opéra's steps are a good meeting place if it isn't freezing.

Thirza Vallois Knows Where He Is and Is Not

Paris:- Wednesday, 29. October 1997:- In the usual way of setting up a location for a rendez-vous in Paris, I said, "Go towards the Opéra, on the left side from the Café de la Paix, and we'll meet in the first ordinary café you find there." In case of uncertainty, I added, "This café might be in the rue Auber."

To make sure, Thirza Vallois phoned this morning. I don't know the café's name, but I do know one is there. I look out my window and I see fog. I remember that the lobby of the Opéra is open and heated; if the fog clears to reveal impending rain, the lobby will be as good a place as any, so we agree on it.

At the scene, shortly afterwards, I find a small but discreet bar, before the café. The café I remember, because the bus stop on Auber is right in front. Thirza is not in the café. I cross Auber to the Opéra and go up the steps.

Thirza spots me first. She's changed her hat; I haven't - or I didn't wear mine last time. The sun is burning off the fog and there are a lot of people on the Opéra's steps and in the lobby. Every one with a rendez-vous?

The idea is, we are to pick up from where I left off on the 'Grands Boulevards,' at the boulevard des Italiens. This is the Opéra part, and a bit of boulevard des Capucines.

Last time we did this, in the Quartier Latin, I called it 'Taking a Tour' but I don't think what we do is like the way Thirza runs her Paramont Cinema tours. In them, she tells her tourists 'what happened here.' The last time, like today, the two of us mix what's happening now with what happened then.

This starts in the lobby of the Opéra with the story of the poor nobody named Garnier who had to buy a ticket for 120 francs to get into the inauguration of the place he designed. This was when France was flirting with Empresses. When she saw it she said, "It's not Greek and it's not Louis XIV or XV. What style is this?"

The ex-theatre du Vaudeville - a cinema since 1927, now run by Paramont.

She thought she had the poor beggar in a 'stylish cul-de-sac,' but he suavely replied, "Madame, it is the style of Napoléon III," which effectively shut her up as this was her husband's name. She got even with him when he was charged entry for the first show in 1875, five years after the Bonapartes had retired.

Not only that, the name stuck to this style - which could also be called 'Nouveau Royal Kitsch.' I think many of the great movie palaces built in the early '30's in this century were modelled on this style, but this is a guess more than a certainty.

Thirza maintains that there are a lot of parallels between now and then. Napoléon III wasn't feeling all that secure as Emperor after France had spent a certain time as a Republic, and he thought a bit of pomp could kind of reinforce the idea of royalty, and a few new grand monuments might help.

Baron Haussmann, at the command of the Emperor, was busily ripping Paris apart, in order to provide choice real estate for the 'nouveaux riches' and he seemed to think they'd prefer to live on 'grands boulevards' rather than in narrow mediaeval alleys.

The very term 'nouveaux riches' implies that shortly before they had been mere hoi polloi. There was no question of returning to the Louis' styles, so a new one had to be 'invented.'

This must have been an odd time for France because it is not customary to 'flaunt it' - but for a while it was, and these boulevards and the lower ninth arrondissement were of that time, say about 1860.

We swing off the place de l'Opéra to the left, east into Capucines, and this is downtown Paris. Here are the shops, and the terraces sticking out, and the kiosks on the sidewalk and the plane trees with their circular metal grills in the pavement. Here are a lot of people on foot; coming from, going to: offices, shops, banks and insurance companies - of which there are a lot.

Traffic comes towards us, towards Opéra, in bursts. If you are driving in any other direction, it is like a maze around here.

As we walk along Thirza is telling me about how this was a city wall - Louis XIII - and if you look at a map with the right scale, you'll see that it loops down to Bastille and sketchily crosses the Seine and ends up on the boulevard Montparnasse before it loops back across the river again at Concorde and ends up here.

In the east, at the beginning of Capucines is the ex-théâtre du Vaudeville - a cinéma since 1927 - as a theatre it was inaugurated on 23. April 1869; it was built on top of a town house built in 1775 for the Montmorency family.

The Café Napolitain was across the street, much frequented by writers, journalists, actresses and actors. Before the rue de la Paix was punched through in 1806, the garden of the Convent of the Capucines, ran from number seven to 33. In 1825, at number seven, there was the Géorama, which featured a globe of 14 metres in diametre, showing the earth in its entirety.

On the other side, the Marquis d'Osmond had to leave the Hôtel Radix de Sainte-Foy, which had a convoluted history involving fraud, larceny, speculators and inside-traders - in a hurry in 1851 when he found himself on the wrong side of a coup d'etat.

The hôtel was sold to Crédit Mobilier and they rented it to Musard, who was made famous by his father's wife who had many friends, with Napoléon III at the head of the list. Musard, fils, opened a dance hall on the site. Most of the original hôtel was knocked down to make room for the place de l'Opéra.

Offenbach lived, beginning in 1876, in a building on what remained of the hôtel's site. He died here, at number eight, in October of 1880, four months before the first public performance of the 'Tales of Hoffmann.'

Moving west, the place de l'Opéra was hacked out, beginning in 1858 and cut Capucines in two.

The north part of the place took its form and got its name in 1864; the southern part was formed in 1864 and was included in the name in 1871. The avenue leading up to the place was opened progressively from 1864 until 1876. Until 1873 it was called Napoléon.

The Opéra itself was ordered built in 1860, to replace the opéra in the rue Le Peletier. Architects were given a month's notice to furnish proposals and 171 were put up. Charles Garnier won the toss and 1,500 francs.

The first stone was laid in 1862. Then the underground lake was found. This had to be fixed up; meanwhile the Opéra was available for use as a warehouse during the war of 1870. After the smoke cleared, it was inaugurated on 5. January 1875.

The west side of the place de l'Opéra was taken up by the Grand-Hôtel de la Paix; along the boulevard des Capucines, the rue Scribe and the rue Auber. It was built in 1860 and was the grandest of all, with facades of 120, 130, and 118 metres respectively. Charles Garnier decorated the Café de la Paix.

Opposite, across the boulevard, was the back of the Panorama Prévost from 1806 until 1829, and a bit further along at shop: Old England number 33 is where Nadar lived. In April 1874, a group of young painters with the names Renoir, Manet and Pissarro, held their first exhibition here. A painting by Monet called 'Impression' gave a name to all the exhibitors.

Thirza says this shop has been here a long time; in the building of the Grand-Hôtel.

Opposite the Grand-Hôtel, across the rue Scribe was the Hôtel Scribe with its Grand-Café. In the cellar there was a room called the 'Salon Indien' and it was here that motion pictures were first seen by the public.

The first show on 28. December 1895 presented 10 films made by the Lumière brothers and it lasted about 20 minutes in all. The 33 spectators paid a franc each and the press, although invited, failed to show up.

Word-of-mouth got around fast and the owner of the Grand-Café was unhappy about the agreed rent of 30 francs a day; sorry he had refused a 20 percent offer of the box-office receipts. On a slow day in January 1896, Dr. Roentgen showed off his X-ray device to the public in the Salon Indien.

There is a huge building site up at what is supposed to the entrance to the rue Edouard VII. Concrete-mixer trucks are backing into this from the boulevard and there must be a bottomless pit in there swallowing them up, for none come out.

The theatre Sacha Guitry is in there someplace, and the Olympia next door on the boulevard is getting similar treatment. It opened in 1889 as the 'Montagnes Russes' and became Olympia on 12. April 1893, under the Sacha Guitry 1936 direction of Joseph Oller, who also ran the Moulin-Rouge.

Inside this block there is also a place Edouard VII, the Athenée theatre and another square, of the Opéra Jouvet - and a sign outside the theatre says its interior is also slated for 'restoration to its original state.'

Behind the temporary fence, they are rebuilding - but they wouldn't say what.

The flowering of the 'Grands Boulevards' owed much to the financial policies of the time. A free-trade treaty with Britain was signed in 1860, which startled protected French industry out of the doze it had been in.

At this time banks opened quickly in order to mobilize 'sleeping' cash, and there was a worldwide flood of new gold onto the market. Paper money came into use and much of it was actually underpinned by reserves.

Six new railways opened up France as a national market; but France lagged behind its neighbors in switching from agriculture to industry, and in industry lagged in switching from textiles to metalworks. Overall, France did well, but did not match the levels of industry of its neighbors.

Public works in Paris opened up the city and made it more attractive while at the same time making a lot of money for everyone directly concerned. The centre of town was on these 'Grands Boulevards' and all the nouveaux riches wanted to live nearby. This, in itself, created yet more prosperity as a good part of Paris' working population were drawn into the construction projects.

With the music of Offenbach, the 'Belle Epoque' was under way. The church expanded, fueled with tax funds, and had a great reactionary influence on civil and political life in the city. In 1860 Paris' boundaries expanded to include 10 adjacent communities - bourgeois in the west and working-class in the east.

Napoléon III was liberal for a Bonaparte and for his times; and he instituted many worthwhile reforms. But the general situation was so bad, that when he sent the engraver Tolain and other artisans to London's 1862 Exhibition, they returned with the determination to become founding French members of the First International. This resulted in violent strikes in Paris in 1869 and 1870.

The 'Second Empire' died shortly thereafter, of war and incompetence. On 19. July 1870, as a result of an enormous blunder - a misinterpreted telegram - France declared war on Prussia. Six weeks later the 'Second Empire' was no more. A Republican government was declared in Paris on 4. September.

Thirza and I cannot penetrate the construction site to see the Edward VII square, and finish on the rue Auber to return to the place de l'Opéra.

We pause in the café, across from the Opéra; the one I first proposed as a rendez-vous and have a café to get warm. On the street level, it seems like a small café. But upstairs, a large salon is revealed - with a perfect lookout over the steps in front of the Opéra; a perfect place to 'visit' the Opéra in winter and in comfort.

Related Articles in Metropole:

The section of the Grands Boulevards a bit further east, around the Montmartre intersection, was featured in Metropole as 'Putting the 'Grands' Back Into Boulevards' in the 24. February issue.

Last June Thirza and I got together to do 'Metropole Paris Takes a Thirza Vallois' Tour' which turned out less like her book and more like her; and probably would have turned into a book itself except that we got over-tired by having tea.

The Book: 'Around and About Paris' :

Thirza Vallois' latest book, 'New Horizons: Haussmann's Annexation' - Iliad Books - is about Thirza Vallois the creation of Paris' arrondissements 13 to 20, and includes the full story of the 'Grands Boulevards' area.

Thirza Vallois, in Paris, today.

It is the third volume of the series, 'Around and About Paris,' which tells Paris' story - past and present - while following the successive stages of its geographical growth.

The author, Thirza Vallois, lived in Paris for over thirty years and she knows Paris stone by stone and has worn out more shoe leather than I have by walking up and down every street in the city.

Which is a lot more than I have done, so I suggest you buy the book. Especially if you want to find out more than you get in the reports based on my aimless ramblings.


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