Which local council office rivals the opulence of the Palace of Versailles? If you are the mayor of Paris you’ll know, because you will work in the Hotel de Ville – the City Hall – of Paris. Most people won’t see inside the building – unless you are a bureaucrat or are lodging some paperwork. But once a year, Paris has a Heritage Weekend (Patrimonie) where anyone can go through the building. And we just happened to be in Paris on the right weekend. And what a building!
The Hotel de Ville stands out even in central Paris on the Rue de Rivoli for its renaissance style, perfect proportions and amazing decorative elements.
It occupies a plaza between the Rue de Rivoli and the Seine river. And herein lies a tale. In the early part of the 12th Century the merchants of Paris formed a corporation – possibly to fight off competition from Rouen. By 1121 King Louis VI agreed to transfer the income from wine taxes from wine imports into Paris. And they imported a LOT of wine! His successor – Louis VII – gave the merchants a monopoly on all river-based trade between Paris and Nantes, giving them the name ‘water merchants’. Perhaps they drank like fish?
As their power and wealth grew, they took on more of the administrative tasks of the city, establishing a city council, a court for disputes and, in 1357 the merchant’s provost bought a house next to the river – already a landmark, known as the house of pillars – which was to become the seat of municipal institutions. By 1529 the house – already much extended and falling into disrepair, was cleared along with some neighbouring buildings to make way for a new building. King François I saw an opportunity for ‘re-branding’ and re-affirming his authority, and offered his personal architect, the Italian Domenico da Cortona – known as El Boccador – who had built many chateaus in the Loire Valley. It was ambitious and took a while to build, finally completed in 1628. By now it was heavily influenced by high Italian Renaissance design.
In the 19th century it was extended further and given a makeover with interiors decorated by some of the leading artists of the day – Ingres, Delacroix, Cabanel and Lehman. But the Paris Commune of 1871 saw it destroyed by fire.
In 1872 an open competition was held for its restoration – with stringent design conditions, such as the original El Boccador Renaissance facade had to be replicated as closely as possible. Rebuilding took a decade between 1873 and 1883 with the result being an amazing renaissance-style building – yet fitted with the most advanced additions, such as electric lighting, a hydraulic lift, a steam-based central heating system, and the bureaucrat’s delight – the telephone!
If you ever wondered about the efficiency of French bureaucracy, consider the distractions….
And if you look up you’ll never go back to your engrossing spreadsheet again. Indeed you won’t even be checking Facebook!
Ever wondered why council meetings take so long to reach a decision? Consider the council chambers where the counsellors gather for their meetings – I think I would be spending most of my time just gazing around!
This is definitely one of Paris’ hidden gems – which sadly few get to see. Luckily every year in September, there is a Heritage weekend (la Partimonie) – and the Mairie de Paris throws open its doors for anyone to go through. If you get the chance, don’t miss it!