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Baron Haussmann and the Transformation of Paris

Bonjour! Baron Haussmann, the man responsible for the transformation of the capital city into the magnificent “City of Light” that we all know and love to visit.

Napoleon and Paris

Napoleon the First had grand ideas for Paris, a city he hoped would become not only the capital of France but of the Empire. He had developed plans to bring the city out of its antiquated squalor, pestilence and somberness. During his reign a few transformations had begun. But the wars Napoleon had engaged the country in, kept him from finishing his project. His nephew, Napoleon III who took power in 1848, shared the same ambitions for the city. During his long years in exile, he developed many plans for the city. The loyalty, tenacity and audacity of the new city manager — George Eugene Haussmann — allowed Napoleon III to undertake what would be for many decades the largest transformation of a city in the world.

Paris is Suffocating

During the middle of the nineteenth century Paris was an unsanitary, dangerous and congested city. The population had literally doubled between 1800 and 1850, with more than one million inhabitants — 2/3 of whom lived well under the poverty level. As such, nothing had really changed since the reign of Louis XIV, and the Parisians were suffocating. The acreage of the city was unmovable due to the city “toll” which dated from the Middle Ages. At that time, one could only enter the city through certain gates, after paying a tax on the merchandise being brought in. In 1841, a second wall was constructed to protect the city. This only added to the feeling of confinement Parisians felt. The location of these walls corresponds today to the outer boulevards which encircle the city.

The Epidemics

Despite the sovereigns’ goodwill and ambitions throughout the middle of the nineteenth century, Paris was at an impasse. Epidemic after epidemic ravaged the area. In 1820, cholera took 45,000 lives, and in March, 1832, during the procession into the city of his Majesty Carnaval, the disease reappeared to claim 3,500 lives in one week. Paris was in a horrible state. Cholera easily spread through the garbage on the streets and through the polluted water. In an attempt to clean up the city, the city manager ordered that the street cleaners remove all of the garbage. Intimidated by the massive scale of the task, the city workers went on strike. The roads of Paris became somber paths where one funeral procession followed another. More than 18,500 people died in the course of this epidemic, and in 1849 another 9,000 fell victim to yet another attack. The city needed help, and Haussmann was the man they needed!
Paris France

Paris Becomes Imperial

The urbanization and modernization of Paris was a priority of Napoleon III. He considered himself invested with an imperial mission, and like his illustrious uncle before him, Napoleon I, he wanted to respect the traditions of the sovereign builders. He carefully rendered detailed plans for the development and modernization of Paris, taking care to integrate not only aesthetic principles, but also political, strategic and social ones. During only twenty-five years, Paris had suffered nine uprisings. Napoleon III had witnessed how easily the narrow streets had been barricaded against him. Hoping to ease the movement of the cavalry if another conflict arose, as well as considering the dimensions of the steering locks for the horse drawn artillery, Napoleon III carefully calculated the width of the avenues based on these factors, as well as aesthetic ones. He also wished to ease the destitution of the Parisians. After all, wasn’t a happy population, a submissive one? The implementation and coordination of theses changes were left to Haussmann, who also confronted the many critics of such a massive undertaking.
Paris France

A Modern Sewer System

Paris France One of Haussmann’s first priorities was the purification and decontamination of the city’s water. At the time, Parisians still used water carriers, and were allowed only 2 1/2 liters of water per day. There existed a sewer system, but it was ancient, and only extended for 160 kilometers. An engineer, Eugene Belgrand, was named by Haussmann to be Director of Water and Sewers of Paris. He attacked the problems of potable water, and the evacuation of waste water, by creating a sort of city under the city. Water was harnessed by underwater springs — some of which were located 100 kilometers from Paris — then broughtfresh, clean water into the city by aqueducts. The water was held in reservoirs built at the entrance of the city. Twenty years later the production of drinkable water tripled, and the sewer system extended to 600 kilometers. Today, almost 3,400 kilometers of canalization with strict health guidelines wind their way under the city and surroundings.

A Titanic Task

Haussmann’s massive undertakings extended well beyond the creation of large avenues, grandiose monuments and the installation of magnificent parks. Haussman also organized and made Parisians’ lives easier. First, he set in place the numeration of the districts of the city, starting with number one at the Imperial Palace in the Tuileries, (in honor of the Emperor), and continuing through number twenty, moving around clockwise, from district to district, in the form of a snail. He also instituted the numeration of houses. For streets running perpendicular to the River Seine, those houses closest to the river would start with the number 1, and increase as they extended toward the suburbs. The streets parallel to the river would have ascending numbers in the direction of the current. He regulated traffic so that henceforth, Parisians would drive on the right side of the road. He also established an inexpensive public transportation system that would allow all to navigate the city. Haussmann made certain that the second level of the omnibuses that traveled the city were banned to women. He observed that their ascent to the second level on the stairways would reveal their ankles to those below. We couldn’t have that now could we? He also regulated the billposting of the Parisian theatre which until then had been totally disorganized. The creation of the famous green Morris columns proved to be a success, and is still part of the Parisian landscape.

The Department Stores of the Boulevard Haussmann

Paris FranceThe middle of the nineteenth century marked the beginning of the French modern commercial era, and the creation of large department stores went hand in hand with the “Haussmannisation” of the capital. Jules Jaluzot, a previous employee of the Bon Marché, which had been the first department store in the world, decided that he too would open a store. Originally intended to be small and modest, he opened “Le Printemps” in 1865. Its construction, however, created a general outcry. Sitting amidst a row of Napoleon III style buildings, Parisians were shocked to see a building being erected with a Renaissance style dome, large bay windows, revolving doors, an imposing staircase and counters made from polished wood. Today it is casually called the “admiral’s vessel”, and comprises two buildings, joined by a footbridge, for a total surface area of about 474,000 square meters. It was, however, outdone by the “Galeries Lafayette Haussmann”, whose surface area reaches about 478,000 square meters, since its renovations of 1975. Both are, however, indistinguishable as a source of happiness for the Parisians and the tourists on the Haussmann Boulevard where they are located. In particular during the holidays, when the display windows are full of automated figures and illuminations, which are a spectacle in themselves.
With 1,500 architects and 60,000 workers, the autumn of 1853 made Paris the largest construction site in the world, and it would remain that way for two decades. We speak of a “Haussmannian Revolution” because, for the first time in history ,under an emperor’s impetus, a single man had the vision, willpower and stamina to systematically modernize and embellish a city on such a massive scope. As with most change, this transformation brought about criticism and pain. People mourned the loss of old monuments. And the destruction of entire neighborhoods forced huge numbers of workers to flee the city to the suburbs. But, what valiant efforts and progress that allow the entire world — Parisians and tourists alike — to enjoy the ever magnificent CITY OF LIGHT!

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