The 'Eldorado' of Passages

passage des panoramas
This well-lit passage is also an intimate delight.

190 Year-Old Mall Ready to Thrive Again

Paris:- Wednesday, 27. May 1998:- It gives me no satisfaction whatsoever that my weather forecast for the duration of the tennis tournament at Roland Garros, is proving correct.

On the other hand, if I had been wrong, I probably wouldn't be prowling along the lively boulevard Montmartre, wondering if the Passage des Panoramas hadn't packed up and moved to the boulevard des Italiens. Or just plain packed up and 'disappeared' under some real estate dreamer's idea of a 'better life through total redevelopment.'

The new-looking Théâtre des Variétés, which opened on 24. June 1807, is still here and 'Le Mari, la Femme et l'Amant' by Sacha Guitry is currently playing. The 900 seat theatre requires reservations to be made two weeks in advance.

The Café des Variétés was next door and when it was enlarged in 1831, the actors and playwrights occupied the street level and the journalists, critics and literary types tookentry bd montmartre over the second floor. After 1870 the second-floor trade went to the Café de Madrid - opposite the Théâtre des Variétés, but provincial players continued to seek their fortunes downstairs here.

When I see the entrance to the Passage Jouffrey on the opposite side of the boulevard I know that if I turn my head to the left I will see the Panoramas if it is still here. And so it is.

You can't miss it if you look for the Passage Joffrey, opposite.

For a mall that is either 190 or 198 years old, it does not look shabby at all. With the light pouring in from the skylight ceiling, it is still an 'Eldorado for window shoppers and strollers.'

I dislike using any phrase with any combination of 'city' or 'light' in it because with Paris it has been done so often it has hardly any meaning - except that it is the banal truth.

The boulevard Montmartre has not been 'spiffed-up' yet and it has its bits of modern sleaze, but it is in no way shabby or without light. As are a lot of Paris streets, it shows the obvious handwork of ordinary people; which is another way of saying it has its chaos and anarchy.

But when you turn your eyes from the street and look straight into the Passage des Panoramas, it is like looking into the opening of a tunnel of light. You practically have to go in.

The nondescript sidewalk turns into tiles, dotted with pots of green plants behind which are the kept-up facades of shops and restaurants; and over it all, not high up, is a long, glass skylight. There is something to natural light, even filtered through pebble-glass, that beatsstern sign any sort of man-made light. Real light rays give you vibrations.

With many of the restaurants having tables in the passage - on the virtual sidewalk - strolling by is like going through a restaurant, or somebody's dining room. With the natural light, it is all inside and outside at the same time and there is a freedom from disagreeable weather, freedom from wearing a raincoat or carrying an umbrella.

The sign of the 'Stern' shop; printers and engravers, here since 1834.

There is an effect no modern mall I've ever been in, has. No doubt the architects of the modern ones are aware of these 200 year-old prototypes, of which about 18 are still active in Paris. Admittedly, some of these have the old names and are completely new - such as the latest version of the Passage du Harve near Saint-Lazare.

In the Passage des Panoramas, if you look up above the shops, you will see a construction that does not seem to have been intended to be especially permanent. The floor tiles seem to be solid, but they are not all that permanent either. Yet some of the shops - 'Stern' for example - have been here since forever.

After a period of decline - long - parts of the passage that were built in 1834 have been renovated. This in turn has attracted new merchants; although not of the quality found in the passages of Véro-Dodat, Vivienne or Verdeau. The Galerie Feydeau at the rear is nearly deserted and somber, as are the parts of the passage that open to the rue Saint-Marc.

It is all too good to pass up and it is easy to imagine that the planned renovation of the 'Grands Boulevards' themselves will reach back here. In the meantime, the part of the passage closest to the boulevard Montmartre, prospers.

How the Passages Began

The Palais Royal, originally built by Richelieu in 1636, became the property of Philippe d'Orléans. He was short of the cash needed for his lifestyle, so between 1781 and 1784 he had the present arcade- gallery aspect of the Palais Royal built within the garden of the old. It had and hasresto: l'arbre a canelle 60 'pavilions,' each with three arches and each with four floors. Each of these the duke sold, for outrageous prices.

The restaurant, L'Arbre à Canelle, in its original oriental style of Vienna or Venice.

His cousin, Louis XIV, said, "Now that you are a shopkeeper, I suppose we'll only see you on Sundays." The 'pavilions' sold like hot bread buns. The duke also had the sensible idea to forbid entry to his cousin's police, so this area became a liberal island in a sea of censorship.

To make things even more lucrative, a big hall of wood was erected in the centre of the garden and it was called the Galeries de Bois. The ensemble became the centre of Paris life; and a huge commercial success - as well as the model for all other galleries and passages to come.

Then the Révolution helped considerably, by selling off various properties it had seized, thus changing the vocation of a great deal of Paris landscape.

But at the beginning of the nineteenth century there were no masses of real estate speculators and property developers. Until very shortly before, there had been only a few classes of people: the royalty and its friends - the army, the church - a few merchants, some artisans, some laborers and a lot of peasants out in the country.

Thus, before there was a Passage des Panoramas, there had to be panoramas. It happened like this:

The American engineer, Robert Fulton, acquired a French 'brévet' for an 1787 English invention of 'panoramas' and imported the idea to France in 1799. Lacking funds, he sold the idea to another American, James Thayer.

Thayer teamed up with Pierre Prévost, a painter of panoramas. Thayer acquired the garden on the north side of the Hôtel de Montmorency-Luxembourg, which fronted on the boulevard.

The partners had two 'panoramas' built in the gardens, just back from the street. These structures were towers, 17 metres in diametre and 20 metres high. The one on the left touched the Théâtre des Variétés and there was a narrow space between it and the one on the right. This narrow lane became the passage.

The first 'panoramas' showed an aerial view of Paris and a view of Toulon, after the evacuation by the British in 1793. The 'Panoramas' were a big success until 1821 and a third was built. Elsewhere, Paris went 'rama'-crazy and they were built all over the place.

The towers at the Passage des Panoramas were demolished in 1831, but the passage lived on and even grew in 1834. Panoramas continued elsewhere in Paris for a few years after, with one built near the Champ-Elysées in 1838.

The passage itself has had its ups and downs and today looks like it is poised for another climb. Most of the boutiques are not large, so there is a limit to what sort of retail business they can house.

There are areas in the Passage des Panoramas which are deserted today. I think, keeping in mind that Paris is a living body, that in a couple of years this may not be the case. If you come to thegalerie st marc Panoramas every day you might not notice the gradual change - but a re-visit every year or so will probably be rewarding.

But don't let me put you off. There is plenty of reasons to visit the Passage now. Like any other mall there is no entry charge; unlike other ordinary malls, this is one of the oldest.

A view of the restored Galerie Saint-Marc.

From Emile Zola's 'Nana' in 1880: "Alors, pour échapper à ces curiosités, le compte se planta devant une papeterie, où il contempla avec une attention profonde un étalage de presse-papiers, des boules de verre dans lesquelles flottaient des paysages et des fleurs."

I wonder if this is the same window I examine for more than several minutes today. It could be; there are about three that fit the description.

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