Sunday, May 24, 2009

Paris Monuments - Hôtel de Ville

You won’t believe what happened last week. I got an unexpected private tour of the Paris Hôtel de Ville (city hall). It happened like this:

Mother-of-the-Uber-Mensch (MUM) and her darling little sis (DLS) were in Paris. They’d flown in to see the Lucky-one-and-only (Loo) in the school play. Loo was in rehearsal. The Uber-Mensch (U-M) was working. So I headed out with MUM and DLS to see the exhibit commemorating the 120th Anniversary of the Eiffel Tower: Gustav Eiffel, le magicien du fer (the Magician of Iron) on display now through 29 August 2009.

We approached the only gate that appeared open in the imposing city hall complex. “Excuse me,” I said to a security guard. “Where can we find the exposition Gustav Eiffel?”

Je suis desolé (I’m sorry),” he responded. “Mais aujourd’hui c’est fermée (But it’s closed today).”

“Closed? But my belle-mère came all the way from New York to see it!” I said (which really wasn’t true, of course. She was here to see Loo.)

“Oo-la-la!” he exclaimed, leaving me momentarily flummoxed and slightly ill-at-ease. “Mais, j’adore New York!” And he went on to tell us, with much enthusiasm, that he’d been there for the running of the Marathon last November; that he’d found the New York spectators très sympa (exceptionally nice); that no matter where he went in the city, there was always a friendly stranger to help him; that he’d never enjoyed himself more than during the Greenwich Village Halloween Day Parade; and that he’d been in Times Square on the night of November 4th, when President Obama won the election, and he was so proud to have shared such joy with so many happy and peaceful people.

Attendez deux secondes (wait two seconds)”, he said. He peeled away to chat à voix basse (in whispered tones) with another gentlemen, who responded with a simple nod. The two then looked in my direction and waved us through the gate.

I thought he’d gotten permission to open the exhibit for us. But no! As it happened, he was waiting for his colleague to relieve him for his 45-minute break just when we arrived. Rather than put up his feet, he decided to take us on a private tour of Mayor Delanoë's office building as a thank you for all the hospitality he’d received while in New York.

Ever since 1357, when then mayor (actually, provost) Etienne Marcel bought the parcel on which the Hôtel de Ville sits, the administration of the city of Paris has been located on this spot. Once a gentle slope leading to the river Seine, the site had been a port for unloading cargo of wood and grain in medieval times. It then became the infamous Place de Grève where Parisians gathered for public executions (the very place where Quadimodo was beaten and Esmeralda hanged in Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame).

In 1533, Francois I, the Renaissance King, decided to bestow upon Paris a city hall building worthy of the French capital. It would be the largest in all of Europe and Christendom, filled with space and height and light. Construction was completed nearly 100 years later, in 1628, under the reign of Louis XIII. In 1835 two wings were added, in keeping with the original Renaissance style, to accommodate the needs of an enlarged city government. Otherwise, the building remained unchanged until 1870-71, during the Franco-Prussian War.

In September 1870, Napleon III surrendered to Prussia. Embittered Parisians declared the end of the Empire. A republican government moved into the Hôtel de Ville and assumed the Prussians would go away. But they did not. A bitter four-month siege of the city ensued. After a harsh winter living off cats and dogs and rats when all other meat became scarce, the republicans, too, capitulated to Bismarck, giving up Alsace and Lorraine and agreeing to heavy war reparations.

Angry revolutionaries in Paris broke into the Hôtel de Ville, setting up a rival communard government, called the Paris Commune. The republicans moved out to Versailles, taking their army with them. In May 1871, as anti-communard troops advanced on Paris, extremists set the city ablaze. At the Hôtel de Ville, a fire intended to eradicate all existing revolutionary records did much more than that. It gutted the entire building, leaving it a scorched stone shell.

Reconstruction took place from 1873-1892. While the new Hôtel de Ville edifice retains the exact look of its 16th century predecessor, the restored interior reflects a more lavish 18th century design. Our guide confided to us that he finds the Hôtel de Ville to be even lovelier than the Elysée Palace, home of the French President.

The central corridor of the Hôtel de Ville boasts ceiling-height stained glass windows, bearing family crests of the pre-revolutionary Noblesse de Robe (aristocracy). Murals painted by some of the leading artists of the day, including Puvis de Chavannes and Henri Gervex, adorn the walls of the extravagant banquet halls, salles des fêtes. And sculpture abounds, with such figures as Auguste Rodin having joined 229 other sculptors to provide likenesses of 338 famous Parisians as well as lions and other features.

So you see: what goes around does come around. Thanks to the kindness of New York strangers, the MUM being one, we were given a special bird's-eye view of a special Paris icon.

And that night Loo gave us a show-stopping performance as well!

Photo of Hotel de Ville de Paris by Tristan Nitot, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Photo of the New York Marathon from the Verrazano Narrows Bridge by Martineric from Lille, France, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Photo of sculpture of Etienne Marcel by by Thierry, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Image of the Hotel de Ville de Paris at the time of the Paris Commune (1871), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Photo of Hotel de Ville courtyard by TwoWings, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Sarah,
    Enjoying your blog as usual. All looks terrific!

  2. Thanks, Patsy.

    So good to hear from you again!