An Unbuilt Bridge and the Allure of Paris

The bridges crossing the Seine are a major part of Paris’s beauty. Could a bridge that was never built also be an asset? Consider the magazine headline below. What does it tell us about Paris and tourism when in July 1910 the American magazine Popular Mechanics featured this story?

Pop. Mech, 1910, Paris008

The upbeat article begins with the declaration that “Paris, which is today considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world, is still striving to become more beautiful” (p. 47). In pursuit of that aim, “the city has been authorized to borrow the immense sum of nearly $200,000,000.” Part of this amount was to go to “the creation of new boulevards and highways” including the projected letter-“X”  bridge shown in the rendering below.

Pop. Mech, 1910, Paris013

Much of the image is familiar. The Louvre is visible to the left, on the right bank. In the upper right, one sees the Ile de la Cité crossed by the oldest bridge in Paris, le Pont Neuf. In the very top right corner, Notre Dame Cathedral sits at the upstream end of the island. In the lower right we can see the dome of the Institut de France. And dominating the image is the “X” Bridge with “one branch connecting the rue de Rennes with the rue de Louvre, and the other forming a junction between the wharf of the Louvre and the wharf Conti.”

Something seems to be missing. Where is the pedestrian bridge Pont des Arts with its graceful arches springing across the river? The “X” bridge seems to have been designed to replace this historic river crossing, shown below in a photograph dating from 1900.


The Pont des Arts, which opened in 1804, came to represent the dreams of an ideal artistic path. One studied art on the left bank at l’École des Beaux Arts and as one’s career blossomed, one crossed to the right bank where one’s work would be hung and exhibited in the Louvre.

The Pont des Arts was one of many contributions to the city by Napoleon, to beautify Paris and glorify his reign. As First Consul, he ordered the construction of this, Paris’s first metal bridge, a nine-arch pedestrian bridge or passerelle. It took its name from the Palais des Arts (Arts Palace), as the Palais du Louvre (Louvre Palace) was known during the First Empire.

With abutments for nine arches, however, the Pont des Arts represented quite a obstruction for ships and barges, which hit it frequently. This photo shows an engraving by Jules Després of the Frigorifique which ran aground against the bridge piles in 1879.


One can understand the logical appeal of the X-bridge: with only one pier in the centre of the river, it would be a less likely target for passing vessels than the Pont des Arts.

Nonetheless, the Pont des Arts survived the unrealized “X” bridge proposal. Popular Mechanics (July 1910, p. 47) made no mention of the impracticality of having horse-drawn traffic negotiate the mid-river intersection (the illustration, like so many renderings of proposed structures, shows enough life to make the bridge seem useful, but not so much that it reveals the potential bottleneck the bridge might represent). Nor does the article mention what would be torn down and lost to make its construction possible. The only hint of disbelief is found in the words “If erected” rather than “When erected.”

The Pont des Arts suffered bombardment during the First and Second World Wars, but it survived and was eventually replaced by a similar-looking structure of seven steel arches that opened in 1985. The new Pont des Arts is still a lovely pedestrian crossing, somewhat marred by the heavy incrustation of padlocks left by visiting “lovers.” The bridge is a space free from vehicles in a busy area. Places for moments of quietness are one of the great riches of Paris.

Having seen many renderings, visions and proposals from various times advocating a “new and improved” Paris, I am not particularly surprised by the “X” Bridge proposal. I am only grateful it did not go ahead.

But there is more to the story. I read about this in the July 1910 issue of Popular Mechanics, not in a fashion or tourist magazine. Popular Mechanics was then the kind of magazine aimed largely, but not exclusively, at young men with “grease under their fingernails.” In the early 1970s I interviewed a then-retired mechanical engineering professor who was in his eighties. He told me that in each freshmen class of the 1920s, it was easy to spot the students who would become good engineers: “they were the ones with grease under their fingernails; they tinkered with motorcycles and engines.” They also read magazines such as Popular Mechanics.

So here in a magazine for people with grease under their fingernails we find a bridge proposal for Paris. We also find Paris being praised as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Perhaps it is a measure of just how much Paris was part of consciousness of the western world that it turned up in Popular Mechanics. And in that one issue, the X-bridge was not the only bit of Paris.

Among other features, an article titled “The Busiest Underground Corner in Paris” appeared in the same issue.

Pop. Mech, 1910, Paris010

The author appears to have been awe-struck, as I often am when using the Paris Metro. It starts: “Of all the wonderful engineering work done by the Metropolitan underground railways of Paris, the most complicated is that under the Place de l’Opera, where three great tubes cross each other, all of which must have station facilities in the crossing’s tangle.  The three tubes, the platform, stairways, and elevators constitute a veritable Chinese puzzle, and the wonder is that the congested underground and overhead traffic has not been even more disturbed during the work” (p. 48).

The image clearly shows “the three subway tubes, the platforms, stairways, elevators, and two of the openings leading from the boulevard.” Today, escalators move people far faster than elevators. The station is still a marvel and what the magazine failed to mention is that all this hidden “tangle” lies beneath the beautiful space in front of the Opera Garnier. It is all part of what makes Paris the world’s most-visited tourist destination and the second densest metro system; the Metro takes a bit of practice to get the hang of it, but soon one appreciates how easy it is to get around.

I wonder if the July 1910 issue of Popular Mechanics helped spark someone’s love affair with Paris; the love of someone with grease under his fingernails, perhaps. Each of us has a story about how we came to love the city. Mine started with the woman I love and with whom I write this blog. Those who hunted for gold in the Klondike and elsewhere used to say “gold is where you find it.” These pictures in a long-ago magazine for tinkerers and future engineers suggest that “Paris is where you find it.”

Text by Norman Ball

Photograph and illustration of the Pont des Arts from Paris en images.

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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16 Responses to An Unbuilt Bridge and the Allure of Paris

  1. Richard Ewen says:

    Interesting article and photos. I remember in the 50s there was a bridge over the Maumee River in Toledo, Ohio on Fassett Street that made a 90 degree turn over the water. It was a wooden plank driving surface and always scared me when we approached the turn.
    The photograph of the cross section of the Metro was enlightening. I then went on to the link you mention, “Paris En Images” and I’m still browsing this magnificent site!
    Thank you Norman Ball

  2. Ian says:

    Another wonderful and fascinating piece – I have always loved Paris, you help it to come alive in a way I never thought possible. Thanks once again

  3. Pingback: A Paris Bridge That Might Have Been X-Rated | FrenchNewsOnline

  4. Shannon Bellett says:

    Every article I read in your newsletter reveals something fascinating about Paris. I spend each April and September roaming and delighting in the city. Your articles will add to my enjoyment.
    Thank you.
    Shannon Bellett

  5. Tom says:

    Concerning the picture of the 3 metro lines under Place de l’Opera–I heard that there was a lot of water under the Opera. Do you know if this created problems when they built this deep intersection?

    • Tom, it is an intriguing question. However, I do not know the answer. I have a few places I will look and let you know if I find anything about construction difficulties.

  6. Bernard KIRCHHOFF says:

    One of the commentators referred to the water under the Opera. There is a sort of lake under the Opera building itself (not the Place de la Opera). It plays a major role in “The Phantom of the Opera.” Here is a story from the London Telegraph, which tells about it.


    Barney Kirchhoff

    Where the Phantom was born: the Palais Garnier

    The underground lake; the deadly chandelier; the buried corpse…where do myth and reality overlap at the Garnier Opera House?

    By Lucinda Everett,Telegraph of London

    5:32PM GMT 17 Feb 2010

    It began with the water. In 1861, Parisian workers attempting to lay the concrete foundations for a grand, 2,200-seat opera house in the centre of the city were baffled. The theatre had been commissioned by Emperor Napoleon III as part of his sweeping reconstruction of Paris, and 12,000 square metres of ground had been cleared. Yet a seemingly endless flow of water bubbled up from the swampy, newly cleared ground – and no one could do anything to stem it.


    Thirteen years later, in 1874, architect Charles Garnier’s neo-baroque masterpiece, Le Palais Garnier, was finally complete. But rumours of a vast, fish-filled lake swirling beneath the building endured.

    One Parisian who grew up with the rumour was the detective writer Gaston Leroux and in 1910 he would use it as the inspiration for his gothic love story The Phantom of The Opera.

    In fact, historical and fictional events are so blurred in Leroux’s story that he was able to claim in his prologue (and on his death bed) that ‘the Opera ghost really existed’ – a claim that has left the Paris Opera, as it is now known, shrouded in mystery ever since.

    Pierre Vidal, curator of the Palais Garnier’s museum and library, is more familiar than most with the myth of the Phantom’s watery lair but admits that the reality is rather less exciting.

    He says the ‘lake’ is actually a huge, stone water tank created by the construction team after numerous failed attempts to pump the site dry. ‘The pressure of the water in the tank stops any more rising up the through the foundations, and the weight of the tank stabilises the building,’ he explains.

    Today, the tank (which is covered, except for a small grate) is used by Paris’s fire fighters to practise swimming in the dark. And while Vidal concedes that the cellars are large enough to contain a makeshift home, they actually house the building’s technical rooms.

    Olivia Temple, who looks after the archive of Maria Bjornson (the late designer of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s original West End stage production), visited the Palais Garnier’s cellars in 2005 and understood immediately how they could have inspired Leroux. ‘It was completely convincing that somebody could have lived down there,’ she recalls.

    ‘There were alcoves and arches that I’m sure had passageways that very few people would have bothered to explore. And it’s bound to stretch out under the streets of Paris and join up with other watery cellars. Somebody like the Phantom could have had the run of it.’

    But Temple admits they have lost a lot of their eeriness. ‘Because of health and safety rules, there are rather horrid bright lights down there now,’ she explains. ‘It has definitely washed away the gloom of those netherworld regions and you don’t get the feeling of what it must have been like when it was just lit with candles.’

    Further inspiration for Leroux’s story came in 1896, when the counterweight from the building’s grand chandelier fell, killing a construction worker. Leroux wove the incident into the novel’s climactic moment, during which Erik (the Phantom) kills an audience member by causing a chandelier to fall during a performance and, in the furore that follows, kidnaps Christine, dragging her down to his underground home.

    However, perhaps the most ingenious blending of fact and fiction in The Phantom of the Opera is in the prologue, when Leroux mentions the burying of phonographic recordings in the cellars of the opera house. He explains that, while the cellar is being prepared to house the recordings, a corpse is uncovered that is identified as Erik’s.

    There may not have been a body, but the burying of recordings did take place. In 1907, the Gramophone Company sealed 24 records in two containers and locked them in the cellars of the opera house, to be opened 100 years later. In 2007, the containers were opened and the records digitised by EMI, which released the collection as Les Urnes de l’Opera.

    Today, many remain unsure where the Palais Garnier’s history ends and Leroux’s story begins, and Vidal regularly receives calls asking him if the story is true. ‘We don’t like to break the illusion,’ he says, ‘but nobody has seen a ghost in the opera house. Although we do blame the “Phantom” as a joke if something inexplicable happens.’

    There is, however, one element of Leroux’s story that holds some truth, and which Temple can bear witness to: the Palais Garnier’s water tank is home to a large, white catfish, which is fed by the opera house staff and can be spotted swimming past the open grate from time to time.

  7. Pingback: The Paris Blog: Paris, France Expat Tips & Resources »Blog Archive » The Bridge That Never Got Built

  8. Teepee12 says:

    I always wanted to go to Paris. Never made it, but this was a nice virtual taste 😉

  9. says:

    Really interesting !

  10. Alice says:

    ‘The pressure of the water in the tank stops any more rising up the through the foundations, and the weight of the tank stabilises the building,’ he explains.

    Does anyone know the science behind this mechanism? How is the building stabilised by this body of water?

    • As I understand it, because there is already water in a tank underneath the Opera, more water cannot come through. After all, something can’t flood if it is already flooded. And the weight of the water acts as ballast. Water is heavy and it moves slowly. The tank is a deadweight. Engineers use similar water-tank technology at the top of tall, slender buildings these days, to prevent them from swaying too much in a high wind. Does that help?


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