The People's Palace

photo: grande interior salles

From the Salon des Sciences, towards the Salon
des Arcades.

Is the Hôtel de Ville

Paris:- Saturday, 21. September 2002:- From the dim past I seem to remember that today should be the first day of fall, but my calendar says it is 'Matthieu' instead of 'Automne,' like 21. June was Eté.' That the weather is like the 'Eté de la Saint-Martin' - or 'Indian Summer' - is a bonus, especially because tomorrow is going to be like winter.

Oops! Looking forward to Monday, I see that it is indeed 'Automne.' The sun will have slipped over the equinox and be heading towards South Africa, South America and Oz.

Today is also the beginning of the weekend called the 'Journées du Patrimonie' in France. This is its 19th edition and it is the first time that I can remember it not being colder than it is, nor raining non-stop.

In the past I've used climatic excuses not to cover all of France's patrimony weekend. Never mind that even the Min. of Cult. doesn't know how many 'open doors' there will be - some of them offshore in the Indian Ocean, which is somewhat beyond the Périfreak!

[If I may interrupt here, even the Périfreak! - official name, 'Périphérique' - hasphoto: line for entry, hotel de ville its tour too, in a bus on Sunday. This is 35 kilometres of insane speedway circling Paris, built between 1960 and 1973. For those unfamiliar with driving a car in France, it offers swift experiences and is a perfect introduction of the origin of the expression, 'sang-froid.']

Citizens lining up on Saturday, to see the inside of their 'palace.'

In order to give you full coverage of this annual event I have studied today's Le Parisien carefully - and it says I have to 'cover' over a thousand 'doors.' This years' theme is Patrimony and Transports, so I guess I should also be on a few streets and under them, plus on sidewalks, in alleys, on canals, rivers, runways, tunnels, rails, passerelles, bike lanes, bridges and stairs.

I would really like to see the old trains brought in from the Musée de Mulhouse, to be stationed at the Gare de Paris-Bercy, which is the name of the extension of the Gare de Lyon. But there are posters around saying that there are old trains displayed at the Gare de l'Est too.

As I have already hinted, it is not colder than November yet. The sun is also blessing Paris - today only! - so I decide that because the offer is embarrassingly large, my contribution to this cultural weekend will be a blitz-tour of Paris' Hôtel de Ville - the city's main city hall.

This is fairly easy to find because its métro stop is named Hôtel de Ville too. Therefore I exit at Châtelet so I can approach it via the Avenue Victoria, to see its vast forespace full not of beach-ball players and mini-golf courses, but a display of public transport - it is carless day tomorrow - featuring some quite large mural paintings.

Behind the display, a long line of eager citizens are waiting calmly to get in to see the splendors of the 'maison de tous les Parisiens,' as the cityphoto: czar's vase hall is called by the Socialist mayor, Bertrand Delanoë. When the light on Rivoli shows the green man, the lineup seems to be emerging from the Bazar de la Hôtel de Ville department store.

With sunlight in my face, I am patient in line too. After 15 minutes of direct vitamin D's, I get to climb up a long carpeted stairway, to see the first ornate elements of 'everybody's house.'

A gift from Czar Alexander III in 1893, for which he received a whole bridge.

It started out as a sandy riverside beach in the 11th century, when the right bank only had two modest neighborhoods - one by Châtelet and the other near the little hill of Saint-Gervais. For 70 livres, Louis VII sold it to the merchant's corporation that controlled all river transport, who used it as a center of commerce.

In 1190 Philippe-Auguste included the Place de Grève, the Grand-Châtelet and Saint-Gervais within his protective wall. Along the river there were a series of ports, for wheat and other grains, wine, wood, coal and salt, separated by windmills. Most food, and everything else, entered the city this way, and it wasn't until 1828 that a quai was built.

Saint-Louis created the first municipal institution in 1246, with the subsequent election four aldermen and the chief, the 'Prévôt des Marchands.' The powerdul river traders' lent the city their symbol, which still forms most of today's coat of arms.

Until 1357 the city administration had been located near Châtelet. On Thursday, 7. July, the Prévôt, Etienne Marcel, moved it to the Maison aux Piliers at the Place de Grève. This arcaded building was two stories high with towers at either end, with a 'grande salle' measuring six by ten metres, and was about where the Hôtel de Ville is today.

In a small park on the Hôtel de Ville's south side, there is a statue of Etienne Marcel, a figure some historians have problems with because he was a typical Parisian, who acted as if majesty might be less majestical than that of Paris' merchants.

The original area was about a fourth of the size of today's large place, and it was triangular, with the bottom side beside the river. Part of it was an assembly point for day workers - who 'went to the Grève,' thus giving more nuances to the meaning of the word for beach.

At the beginning of the 14th century there was a huge cross on the south side, the base of which was also used for measuring the Seine's frequent flood levels - made easier without a 'quai' to hold back the waters.

Public executions were held here from 1310. There was permanent gallows but this was replaced with a fountain in the time of Henri IV. A guillotine was installed for the first time on Wednesday, 25. April 1792, and stayed here until it was moved to Saint-Jacques in 1832. Other, more grisly, forms of punishment also took place here. Oh yes, there were worse fates than merely being beheaded or hung in the rain for weeks.

Every year the 'Feu de Saint-Jean' was celebrated in the place with considerable pomp. The aldermen would have a high pole decorated with flowers erected, and sometimes a sack full of cats and a fox would be attached, and the base would be surrounded with kindling.

Trumpets would announce the king's arrival and he would be handed a torch to set the thing on fire, fireworksphoto: grande salle and firecrackers would go off - all followed by a splendid ball in the 'grande salle' and a public one in the place. When he was ten years old, Louis XIV was the last monarch to set the torch for this popular fête.

Backing up a bit, the city hall was rebuilt in two stages from 1553 to 1628, according to plans by Dominique, originally of Tuscany. Called the 'Hôtel de Boccador' because this is what Dominique was called, it had the Renaissance style that is partly a faithful reproduction today.

This is the Salle des Fêtes.

The equestrian statue of Louis XIV, now in the courtyard of the Musée Carnavalet and the only one not destroyed during the Révolution, used to be in the entry of honor - to commemorate a dinner Louis attended on Thursday, 30. January 1687, when he was personally served by the Prévôt Henri de Fourcy. The dauphine, dauphin, 'Monsieur,' 'Madame' and 'Mademoiselle' were served by the aldermen.

The last Prévôt, Jacques de Flesselles, was bumped off on Tuesday, 14. July 1789. His head was put on the tip of a pike, like that of the Bastille's governor, and the two were paraded around the quarter before being placed on public view at the Morgue at Châtelet, then tossed into the Seine.

The Hôtel de Ville was enlarged in 1803 and again from 1834 to 1841, swallowing up the Hospice du Saint-Esprit and part of the Saint- Jean-en-Grève church, as well as surrounding private houses. In 1848 the provisional government installed itself and their soldiers camped inside.

Baron Haussmann had his way with it too, finishing it off in 1865 with decor by Ingres and Delacroix - which made the republican Hôtel de Ville Paris' fanciest palace. But not for long.

When the Emperor Louis-Napoléon III capitulated at Sedan on Sunday, 4. September 1870, Parisians took over the Hôtel de Ville and proclaimed - again - France a republic. A five month siege beginning in March of 1871 kicked off a Parisian revolt against the Franco-Prussian peace treaty and the Commune was formed.

What was left of the defeated 'government' in Versailles, sent French troops to smash the rebellion while the Prussian army acted as a spectator - perfectly content not to have any 'Communes' in Germany.

On Wednesday, 24. May 1871, Commune members doused the Hôtel de Ville with kerosene and burned it down - along with the Légion d'Honneur palace, the Château de Tuileries and the Cour des Comptes. Then the Paris Commune was wiped out, killed, jailed, deported or exiled.

Provisionally installed in the Luxembourg palace, a new municipal council, elected by universal suffrage, decided to rebuild the Hôtel de Ville. The reconstruction job was awarded to Théodore Ballu and Edouard Deperthes, who took ten years, until 1883, to restore the building close to its original Renaissance style. One of Boccador's original arches was rebuilt stone by stone in the Parc Monceau.

Of the 108 sculptures of personalities decorating the exterior, the only one not born in Paris is that of Boccador, restored by Ballu. Most of the new interior decor was completed early in the 20th century, with a little help from Parisian artists of the time.

The various 'salles' have their themes, with the Salle des Fêtes being particularly extravagant. Other chambers honor activities such as agriculture, without which it is impossible to have 'fêtes.' The wholephoto: stained glass window interior is a bit like an illustrated history of Paris, with parquet floors in all styles, tons of gilding, stained-glass windows galore, and a variety of glittering chandeliers.

Frankly it is all somewhat overwhelming, like being inside a mogul's wedding cake. How would you like your city hall to be like one of the biggest 19th and 20th century antique warehouses in the world? And all of this surrounding a true renaissance courtyard.

One one many stained-glass windows, telling Paris' story.

But there are certainly a lot of Parisians who are taking it all in today and they don't look as if they mind it much. Possibly because, as I do, sooner or later they get to the actual council chamber - and this turns out to be somewhat dim, small and cramped - with the municipal council members having to squint to see the mayor, because his low throne is placed in front of west-facing windows.

It is only since 1977 that Paris - plus Lyon and Marseille - have been governed by their own mayors, and this was cemented by a decree for the three cities in 1982. Before this, the governor was the Préfet de la Seine. Paris also became a department in 1966 - and still has three préfets - one for the Ile-de-France, another for the police, and one simply called, the Préfet de Paris. You can't say 'there is no governor.'

The actual greater city council has 163 members, who are elected for six-year terms. These in turn elect the mayor. The city also has 20 other mayors, one for each arrondissement, and these also have their council members and their city halls.

Marriages are not legal in France unless they are performed in a republican city hall. This is the reason France has a lot of them, with Paris, Lyon and Marseille having the most.

At the beginning, I wrote that my tour today has been a rapid one, and I even cut it short when the opportunityphoto: honoring cows, ceiling presented itself. Following the 'quick way out' only took me through three more hallways and a couple more 'grandes salles.' Many other visitors were seen carrying water supplies for the trek, and I wasn't the only one to bail out early. I can't say how long it might take to give the whole thing a careful look.

Did this ceiling painting inspire Paris' 'beautiful cow show?'

But, definitely, if you fancy very fancy city halls, Paris' Hôtel de Ville should not be missed. Giving it a careful inspection could save you from a tedious trip to Versailles, which is not linked to Paris by métro line one, or close to lines 4, 7, 11, 14 and RER lines 'A,' 'B' and 'D.'

Other than the annual weekend of the 'Journées du Patrimonie,' the Hôtel de Ville can be visited by groups from Monday to Friday. Individuals can also tour the building - but both groups and individuals must make reservations. The number to call is 08 20 00 75 75. You can check the Ville de Paris Web site as well.

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contents to: Ric Erickson, Editor.
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