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?
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.
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.
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.