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A Place With Headroom

photo, obelisk, concorde, from tuileries grille

The Place de la Concorde, as seen from
the Tuileries Gardens.

In the Place de la Concorde

Paris, September 1998:– Last week, between the 'Champs d'Aviation' on the Champs–Elysées and the '42nd Gordon Bennett Cup' balloon race, meant to start from the western end of the Tuileries, I spent a fair amount of time criss–crossing the Place de la Concorde.

Time is required for this because it is a big space. Like the Etoile with its Arc de Triomphe, Concorde has its monument in the form of the Obelisk, and it also has a lot of traffic as its main feature.

So much so in fact, that Parisian drivers can take rudimentary lessons of Egyptian hieroglyphics from the Obelisk while waiting for their turn to head for the Madeleine, the Champs–Elysées or the National Assembly on the left bank, across the Seine.

But if you are not a driver or a passenger, then you can get a view of a lot of sky under which there is a lot of space. The place is 360 metres long by 210 wide, for a total of 75,600 or 84,000 square metres – say, about 20 acres.

According to my antique, green Michelin Guide, the Place de la Concorde is a three–star attraction – the guide's top rating. I must say, with today's sky being so attractive with itsphoto, concorde, south fountain puffy clouds, that this rating might be true for the sky itself. The great place itself is largely stone, and it is full of shiny metal and glass vehicles. No 'stars' for these.

One of the fountain sets in the place's centre.

The 'red–man' and 'green–man' crossing signs have notices saying you should try to cross in two stages – to get to the island in the middle of the place. To get the rest of the way requires another set of two–goes.

While doing this you should watch the flow of the traffic carefully, because it has a complicated pattern – and you don't want to get bowled over by a racing Twingo.

This sort of danger must be the reason that the only three–star sight in the place is the Obelisk, which is big enough – at 23 metres in height – to be hard to overlook. Michelin only gives it one star though. Sometime earlier this year, I think, it was tipped with gold; so its star–rating should be at least 1.5 now.

The Place de la Concorde had an odd beginning. Rich merchants of Paris were so happy that the king – Louis XV – had recovered from a headache called the treaty of Aix–la–Chapelle, contracted at Metz, that they ordered an equestrian statue of him in 1748 from Bouchardon; to be named 'Bien–Aimé.'

This in turn launched a contest for an idea for its location. Boffrand proposed the Buci intersection in the Latin Quarter. Servandoni suggested the Place Dauphine. Gresset, the poet, thought putting it on topphoto, crossing concorde of Catherine de Médicis' astrological tower would be fitting. Anyway, there were 18 proposals and Gabriel won the toss.

Here are the strollers, but where are all the cars?

From what I can gather, the site of the Place de la Concorde was outside Paris at the time, in sort of a no–man's land between the Tuileries and the beginning of the Champs–Elysées, which was just a track running out to some gardener's shacks at Chaillot.

The Rue Royal was a mere path and the Rue de Rivoli didn't exist. There was only the Seine quai and the Cours–la–Reine, which was the beginning of the route to Versailles.

So the king gave the city the land, part of which was a royal marble depot, in 1757. By the time the statue was unveiled on 20. June 1763, Louis XV was under the cloud of the Treaty of Paris, signed in February. In 1768, compensation for the loss of Québec, ratified by the treaty, was the purchase of Corsica. Some prankster hung a sign from the horse's neck, which said:

"Oh! la belle statue! Oh! le beau piédestal!
Les Vertus sont à pied, le Vice est à cheval."

The Place Louis–XV was finished in 1772. Two years later the king was dead of smallpox. Louis XVI became king in May of 1774 at the age of 20. The Place Louis–XV kept its name until 1792, when it became the Place de la Révolution. For the first time, from 1797 to 1814, it was Place de la Concorde.

From 1814 to 1826 it was named Place Louis–XVI. After 1828 it went back to being Place Louis–XV, but in 1830 it became Place de la Concorde for good.

Within these dates France had a revolution, the Pont de la Concorde was built, the Rue de Rivoli was begun and the 'Chevaux de Marly' were placed on either side of the entry to the Champs–Elysées.

On 30. May 1770 a fireworks show was held in the Place Louis–XV. Most of the crowd arrived by way of the trail that is the present Rue Royal.

Free wine poured from the fountains. A rocket, poorly aimed, fell on a stock of fireworks, which in turn set a wooden temple, built for the occasion, alight. There was a panic. Grandstands fell into the moats. There were 133 killed.

Nearly the same thing happened to the Foire Saint–Ovide, which was held in the place from 1771 onwards. It went up in smoke in 1777.

On 11. August 1792, the statue of Louis XV was pushed over and taken to a foundry to be melted down. A couple of months later, a new, but cheapo, big statue – 'Liberté' – was installed on the pedestal of the old.

The guillotine made its first appearance in the place in October and November of 1792, after earlier operations in the Cour de Carrousel. The first victims were thieves, who had boldly stolenphoto, traffic, assembly national some crown jewels from where they were under watch in the Ministry of the Navy building, on the right on the north side of the place.

Here's the missing traffic; headed for those strollers in the photo above. Most of the drivers don't actually aim.

The guillotine made its second appearance here on 21. January 1793. The revolutionary, Louis de Beaufranchet d'Ayat – one–time royal page and bastard of Louis XV – thus half–uncle to Louis XVI – ordered the drums played to drown out the voice of his half–nephew.

The guillotine returned to the place on 11. May 1793 and stayed this time until 9. June 1794. Afterwards it was used at Bastille, the Place de la Nation; then returned again to Concorde for Maximilien Robespierre, and finally for a last time in May 1795. It is estimated that out of the 2,498 beheaded during the Révolution, 1,119 lost their heads at Concorde.

In the evening of 6. February 1934 there was a political demonstration in the Place de la Concorde. After a charge of the mounted Républican Guards to clear the access to the bridge, there were seven dead and 40 wounded.

Gabriel, who won the contest to design the Place de la Concorde, was also charged with building the two sister palaces on its north side. They were built from 1760 to 1775; each with a 96–metre front and each 25 metres high.

The one on the right, mentioned above, was originally used as a royal furniture store–house. Thierry de Ville–d'Avrey, was a senior valet to the king and lived in great splendor here; also having arranged a neat pied–à–terre in the building for Marie–Antoinette.

When the royal court returned to Paris in October 1789, Thierry de Ville–d'Avrey offered the hospitality of the building to the Count de La Luzerne de Beuzeville, who was minister of the Navy. Count de Beuzeville installed himself on 26. December 1789 on the rue Royal side. The Navy has never left.

The sister building, across the rue Royal and facing the place, houses the Hotel Crillon, the Automobile Club and a bank.

In the Michelin Guide, these two building outclass the Obelisk, which is Paris' oldest monument. The Obelisk of Luxor was a gift from the Viceroy of Egypt, Mohammed Ali, given in 1829. How it was dismantled and how it arrived in Paris, is explained at the Musée de la Marine at Trocadéro.

How it was erected on 25. October 1836, all 220 tons of it, is explained in engravings on the four sides of its base. Now to tidy up – the moats around thephoto, typical sat. at concorde place were filled up to street level in 1852, during the reign of Napoléon III. The idea was to prevent them from being used for fun in the evenings.

Concorde on a normal day, with its normal traffic.

For the Year 2000, planning seems to be advanced at Paris' City Hall, to increase to sidewalks by 20 or 50 or even 100 percent. The whole Place de la Concorde is a classified site, so it seems as if these plans may have national blessing.

A passage for cars would be kept open on the north side; from the Rue de Rivoli and the Rue Royal, to pass in front of the Navy Ministry and the Hotel Crillon.

With the 10,600 cars per hour kept out of the centre of the place, pedestrians could walk non–stop from the rue de l'Amiral–de–Coligny at the east end of the Louvre, to the bottom end of the Champs–Elysées.

Well, almost. There still is a 'red–man–green–man' signal to keep strollers from getting run over by city buses and taxis at the Place du Carrousel, between the Louvre's Cour Naploléon and the Tuileries' Jardin du Carrousel.

The plan to close – most of – the Place de la Concorde to traffic adds a grand total of perhaps 320 metres to the whole distance. Suppose you are a driver and you look forward to your daily Egyptian lessons? Would the effort required to add such a short distance be worth it?

If you think driving through the Etoile is one of the world's more interesting experiences behind a steering wheel, driving through Concorde is no less so. Perhaps it is better to leave it as it is.

Try to imagine for example, the sight of National Deputies, bicycling from the National Assembly across the Pont de la Concorde, across the Place de la Concorde – to go to lunch at Maxim's in the Rue Royal.

Parisians could poke sticks between their spokes.

This feature first appeared in Metropole in September of 1998.

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