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From frogs to “Grands Magasins”: the creation of the Haussmann District

  • Hôtel de la Victoire, owned by Napoléon Bonaparte from 1798 to 1806 (demolished in 1857), 58 rue de la Victoire (former rue Chantereine), Paris 9th arrondissement

  • "Chaussée d'Antin n°15 and boulevard Haussmann, n°40 et n°42". Second Empire (1852-1870).

  • Paris 9th arrondissement. The Opera's construction being completed. 1872.

Still relatively rural in the first half of the XIXth century, the Haussmann district was born at the instigation of the man who would give it his name.

A spry sixty-something wearing thin, elegant glasses, Michel Güet entertains his guests in a quiet café of the Rue des Martyrs, in Paris’s ninth arrondissement. Born and raised in the neighborhood, baptized in the church of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, a few blocks away, Güet gave his life to Paris, working all his life at the educational and social affairs of the City. Now retired, he offers free strolls around his neighborhood to visitors who’d like to learn a few things on the way, and he even wrote a guide (in French) called Flâneries dans le 9e arrondissement which is available upon request at the 9th arrondissement City Hall. A man who refers to the 1880 when he says “the eighties” is probably the perfect copilot to travel back in time and learn more about the creation of the Haussmann District. 


Haussmann before Haussmann? Folies and frogs


The first major public works program intended to modernize France’s capital were conducted by Claude-Philibert Barthelot de Rambuteau (commonly know as Rambuteau), prefect of the Seine from 1833 to 1848. Rambuteau promised king Louis-Philippe to “give Parisians water, fresh air and shade”. When the Second Empire was established in 1852, Emperor Napoléon III wished to pick up these public works to prevent the spreading of fires, diseases or uprisings. According to Michel Güet, the strongman also wanted to keep extending the city: “before these large public works, there weren’t many buildings in the area that would become the Haussmann District. It was still semi-rural. There were a few Folies”​​​​​​​, bucolic secondary residences that the aristocrats cherished, but that was really it. There wasn’t a lot of construction because the area was a swamp; that’s why they had to build the church of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette or the Garnier Opéra on stilts”. To make his point, he brings up the former name of the Rue de la Victoire, called Rue Chantereine in reference to the croaking of “Rainette" frogs in the neighborhood. 

The political agenda behind a necessary transformation


The (massive) public works were entrusted by Napoléon III to the new prefect of the Seine, Baron Georges Eugène Haussmann. A senior civil servant with a brilliant resume, Haussmann surrounded himself with the best: engineers Eugène Belgrand and Adolphe Alphand, architects Gabriel Davioud and Jean Camille Formigé. They were charged with laying down new streets as well as providing Paris with the sewage system that it desperately needed, or building parks and gardens… “Public sanitation had to be improved, admits the official “Heritage guide” of Paris’s 9th arrondissement, but there was a political afterthought as well: after the 1830 and 1848 uprisings, the people in power understood that new streets could keep insurgents from putting barricades together”​​​​​​​. 


Haussmann, a sentimental civil servant?


When Haussmann and his experts were changing Paris’s very look, the Baron played humble around the Emperor to make sure his name isn’t associated to the Boulevard, on the other side of the Seine, known today as Saint-Michel. Where did that vanity come from? “Haussmann had to tear down the house where he was born, points out Michel Güet, and that house stood very close to the Boulevard that would end up bearing his name. Of course he’s related to the neighborhood: his funeral was held at the Lutherian church on rue Rue Chauchat in January 1891”. By the time of his death, the department store Au Printemps had already settled on the boulevard and the Galeries Lafayette would open a few years later, associating the name of Haussmann to Parisian chic forever. 


“The public works led by Haussmann helped set an urban scenography that calls on people’s attention and eyes in a calculated way, concludes Güet: nothing is left to chance. The “Grands Magasins”​​​​​​​ (editor’s note: French for department stores”​​​​​​​) that settled Boulevard Haussmann benefited from this staging: from the streets that go through Paris from West to East to the sheer proximity of prestigious buildings like the Garnier Opéra”. Sometimes, Michel Güet curses against his - supposedly - failing memory but the neighborhood’s rich heritage really seems to be in good hands.

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