Cloches et clochers

On April 15 of this year, as Paris remained in lockdown, one of Notre Dame’s bells rang out to mark a year since the fire that largely destroyed the cathedral’s interior. The bell’s name was Emmanuel, and a grainy still from a video shows what was happening inside the tower.

You can see a big, stationary bell (cloche) with someone standing beside it and pulling the clapper on a rope. Normally, the bells swing back and forth, so this must be a safety precaution in a building that is still being repaired.

Emmanuel is the oldest bell in Notre Dame, and dates from the 17th century. Its note is a low F-sharp. There are ten bells in all; the other nine are 21st-century creations. They were dedicated in 2013, to mark the cathedral’s 850th anniversary. They replaced an ill-assorted group of bells that were themselves 19th-century replacements for bells destroyed in the Revolution. Like the ones they replaced, the new bells all have names: Marie, Gabriel, Anne-Geneviève, Denis, Marcel, Etienne, Benoit-Joseph, Maurice, Jean-Marie. They were placed in the nave before their dedication, allowing the public a close-up look at the variety of designs.

You can see and hear them here:  the visuals show them swinging back and forth. To the best of my knowledge, the bells survived the fire along with the bell towers (clochers).

Later, on 25 August 2020, bells across Paris were rung to commemorate the 76th anniversary of the liberation of Paris in the Second World War.

Tradition has it that all Paris’s bells were rung on that August day in 1944. Perhaps not all, but many churches joined in. According to a story in the book Is Paris Burning? by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, the parishioners of St-Philippe-du-Roule were miffed that their church bells were silent when other churches were ringing theirs. The parish priest, one Canon Jean Muller, had to remind his congregation that, ahem, the church actually had no bells, but this might be a good time to take up a collection for some.

This image, taken before St-Philippe-du-Roule’s roof was engulfed in a huge protective cover, shows only a single bell in a little cage. Ah well, it was wartime and I daresay the parishioners didn’t have much to spare.

The war was hard on bells. Thousands throughout Europe were confiscated and melted down for their component metals (bells are made of bronze, typically four parts copper to one part tin). French bells largely escaped the worst of this plunder. Italy, Austria, Belgium, and eastern European countries fared far worse and lost a precious heritage. Here are some of the bells awaiting their doom in the Glockenfriedhof (bell cemetery) in Hamburg.

But melting down bells was not a German innovation and it was not unique to the Second World War, as Stephen J. Thorne explains:

The practice of confiscating and transforming church bells into tools of war is not new. It was a longstanding tradition of European warfare that artillery commanders had rights over the bells of conquered villages, towns and cities. Napoleon, in particular, relished claiming this right, and added to his war coffers by requiring vanquished cities to buy back their bells. If they could not, the commanding general was entitled to dispose of them as he saw fit. Half the revenue would be his, the other half went to the central treasury. The practice was called “Rachat des cloches,” or “redemption of the bells.”

But the scale of the destruction in the Second World War was unprecedented. It has been estimated that 175,000 bells were confiscated and 150,000 destroyed. Many more were lost or damaged in air raids.

These numbers got me wondering how many bells there are in Paris today. Campanologist and musician Regis Singer did an inventory in 1995 and came up with a total of 878, although he believed that this was an undercount, since many remained in convents to which he was not given access. He thought the real number was closer to 1,000.

That’s a lot of bells. But Regis Singer was thorough and included bells that others might have overlooked.

For example, not all are in churches. The former mairie of the first arrondissement* has a fine bell tower, often mistaken for the tower of the next-door church, St-Germain-l’Auxerrois (the former mairie is on the left in this postcard view).

Not all are in towers. The chapel of St-Yves inside the Cité du Souvenir has five bells hung on the wall of the abutting building, like teacups on cup hooks.

One, on the former chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Jouy, just visible over the wall from the avenue Denfert-Rochereau, is so tiny it looks like a sparrow on the rooftop.

Some swing back and forth and sound as the clapper hits the inside; some are stationary and are hit with a tapper (typical of bells that mark time in clocks). Some are operated manually; others electronically.

Notre Dame’s Emmanuel isn’t the oldest bell – that honour belongs to the church of St-Merri, which has a 14th-century bell. Saint-Severin has one dating from the 15th century. The biggest in Paris, indeed in all of France, is Savoyarde, in Sacré-Coeur, weighing in at 19 tonnes. It could use some protection from the local pigeons.

Paris has only two carillons. The carillon, a set of bells used to play melodies, either manually from an oversized keyboard or electronically from a regular keyboard, is largely a northern French and Flemish tradition. Carillons may have as many as 40 bells. If you have seen the movie Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis (2008), filmed in Bergues in northern France, you will remember the scene in the bell tower.

One of the two carillons in Paris is in the belfry beside the mairie of the first arrondissement (shown above) and the other is in the unusual church of Sainte-Odile in the 17th arrondissement, built in the 1940s. Sainte-Odile’s website proclaims that is has the only hand-operated carillon in Paris (the one at the former mairie is presumably operated electrically).

Although Paris has a wealth of bells, they are heard less than they used to be. A century ago, you would hear the Angelus early in the morning, at noon, and at dusk (usually three sets of nine peals each time). A few churches still ring the Angelus at noon and dusk, but the early morning set does not square with modern lifestyles. In 1995, Regis Singer commented sardonically that Parisians express no objections to the noise of sirens, alarms, or traffic, but claim to be disturbed by the bells, and in the 1990s demanded that the early-morning Angelus tradition be discontinued. Churches that do still ring bells in the morning do it at 9 a.m. rather than the traditional 6 or 7 a.m.

Personally, I can’t understand why anyone would want to silence bells. Norman and I lived for four years beside St. James Cathedral in Toronto, which has a full peal of English-style bells for change-ringing** as well as bells that toll the hours, half-hours, and quarter-hours throughout the day (although not at night). When we were married in the cathedral, I remember the bells ringing out as I entered the church and the way it made me feel as if my feet weren’t quite touching the ground. And for our recessional, we chose the finale of the first organ symphony by the blind composer Louis Vierne, which mimics the sound of bells.

Bells permeate French music. Debussy, Ravel, Bizet, and Massenet also wrote works that use the sounds of bells. Recently, after listening to a recorded piano concert in Paris by Jean Dubé, I bought his CD “Cloches” which features these composers and others. I am listening to it now, as I write.

Bells recall us to ourselves. When we lose them, we lose something that draws us together. I hope the bells of Paris will continue to sound, to mark the hours and the seasons, in celebration and grief and danger, to ring in better times than those we are living through now.

Text by Philippa Campsie. Images of St-Philippe-du-Roule, Ste-Odile, and Notre-Dame-de-Jouy from Google Street View; pictures of the dedication of Notre Dame’s bells, the Glockenfriedhof, St-Yves, and Savoyarde from Wikipedia. Postcards from our collection.

* This building is no longer used as a mairie. The four innermost arrondissements of Paris have merged administratively, and together use what was originally the mairie of the third arrondissement; the other three buildings have been given new functions.

** Change-ringing is a world unto itself and I would not presume to describe it in a footnote. But here is an overview.

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A November day some years ago. We are dawdling by the Seine when we spot a barge filled with coal being pushed up the Seine.

Two days later, we are exploring the Parc André Citroën. As we cross over to the right bank, we see demolition rubble being loaded onto another barge, this one with movable metal coverings over the holds.

On another day, after a visit to Le Petit Palais, we are crossing Pont Alexandre III and notice a colourful barge loaded with cardboard bales headed for a recycling depot.

Barges, or péniches, do the heavy work of getting bulk freight into and out of the city.*

The term péniche may be translated as a barge or a narrow boat. There are other uses for the term, such as péniche de débarquement, which is a military landing craft. For civilian craft, those that have their own power source are called péniches automotrices. But in everyday parlance, pretty much everything used in commercial water traffic gets called a péniche, whether it has its own power source or is pushed or towed by another vessel.

The term chaland, or canal barge, generally refers to the very narrow barges built for English canals. They are not used as modern cargo carriers, but are popular as dwellings and vacation boats. We once saw one of these boats in the locks at the Bassin de l’Arsenal.

Péniches have a long history in French waterways. Let’s look at a few historic images.

In the photo below, the boat in the foreground has the traditional look of a péniche. The turning basin of La Villette saw many péniches, coming, going, loading, and unloading. The pile of stone held by a wooden retaining wall was undoubtedly unloaded from a péniche at the site.

Canal Saint-Martin and La Villette roundabout. Paris (XIXth arrondissement), circa 1900.

The next photo, taken by Eugène Atget in 1923, provides a moody depiction of two péniches in the quays. The large buildings and boats disappearing into the background on the far bank of the Seine add to the sense of a still foggy morning. It is all rather dreamlike, but was probably cold and damp.

The quays (Winter). Paris, 1923. Photograph by Eugène Atget (1857-1927). Paris, musée Carnavalet.

This one, taken in the early 1930s by François Kollar (1904-1979) at the quai de Grenelle in the 15th arrondissement, says much about the look and traditional role of péniches. They provided Paris with large quantities of relatively low-cost, heavy, bulky goods. In this overhead view, workmen are unloading slender logs cut to uniform length. The pile in the background stands ready for the winter and would diminish as temperatures dropped. Before delivery to furnaces and fireplaces, most would be cut to shorter lengths.

This 1936 photo of péniches flanked by large warehouses at the Bassin de la Villette reminds one of the closeness of parked cars in Paris. The two most prominent péniches in the photo show the movable metal panels that protected cargo that was either sensitive to exposure to the elements or was likely to be stolen.

Péniches served as more than just freight carriers, though. The interior of this ambulance péniche, photographed in October 1914, is spartan. It appears to have only stretchers surrounding the central stove. Stretchers would have been in great demand at the time.

World War One. Interior of an ambulance barge. Paris, early October 1914.

A month later, this is the interior of one of the ambulance boats established by l’Union des Femmes de France. This interior is much less grim, with flowers and proper beds for patients.

World War One. Inauguration of the first ambulance boats set by the French Women Union. Paris, pont Alexandre-III, on November 26, 1914. Photograph published in the newspaper “Excelsior” of Friday, November 27, 1914.

The next photo is perhaps one of the most unusual péniche interiors and it comes with a story of links to fame and compassion. It shows the interior of the Louise-Catherine

Salvation Army : the Louise-Catherine barge, floating refuge. Paris. Photograph by Marcel Cerf (1911-2010). Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris.

Here’s the back story. Born in Munich in 1856, Maria Louise Katharine Breslau moved to Paris in 1874 to study art at the Académie Julian. In less than five years she had opened her own studio and dropped Maria from her name. Her career can be described as meteoric and in 1879 she joined the Salon de la Société National des Beaux-Arts in Paris where she exhibited her work and served on the jury. Louise-Catherine was the third woman artist and the first foreign woman artist to be honoured by France’s Legion of Honour. While a student, she made friends with Madeleine Zillhardt, who has been described as her muse, model, confidant, supporter, and companion of more than 40 years.

Upon Louise Catherine’s death in 1927, Madeleine Zillhardt inherited the bulk of her estate. With the support of Winaretta Singer, Madeleine purchased a péniche and named it Louise-Catherine. This was not destined to be an ordinary vessel. It was redesigned by Le Corbusier as a 160-bed Salvation Army shelter for homeless men. The Salvation Army closed it in 1994 after the hull flooded. 

Regrettably, the vessel, now owned by the Fondation Le Corbusier, sank during the February 2018 flood of the Seine, just as it was being renovated to become a new cultural space. We took this photo about a year before it sank. The vessel was refloated in September 2018 but its future is uncertain.

If one péniche honoured an accomplished painter, another artist used a péniche as a home and studio. In about 1925 the barge shown below was the Paris home of Henri-Gaston-Jules-Louis Buoy, known as Louis Buoy. He worked primarily in pastels and was noted for his female figures. 

The barge of the painter Bouy. Paris, about 1925.

Fashion designer Paul Poiret is less well known today than his rival Coco Chanel. However, Poiret was famous for the hobble skirt and harem pants (one hobbled women, the other freed them). At the International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts in Paris in 1925, an invitation to dance on Poiret’s péniche Orgues must have been a prize reserved for the wealthiest or most well-connected. Surely no péniche had a more distinguished, or shall we say, theatrical ceiling. It was not Poiret’s only péniche. There were also Amours and Delights, for example.

International exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts. Dance hall aboard Paul Poiret’s barge, “Orgues”. Paris, 1925.

Delights featured up-to-date fabric curtains, cove moulding, and recessed lighting. What appears to be a movable divider probably separates the dining area from the kitchen. Delights seemed an excellent place to imbibe, dine, and enjoy life.

Evening on board a barge. “Delights” of Paul Poiret.

And if the temptations of Poiret’s péniches led one astray, there was always the Chapelle des Mariniers, Pont St-Michel, a péniche that held out the opportunities for redemption, shown here in an Yvon postcard from our collection.

But these unusual barges were the exceptions.

This early-20th-century postcard from our collection shows a more typical group. Péniches on both banks are strikingly similar in size and configuration. Those on the left bank show the large rudders and on the right bank the rather stubby bows. This is the same location as the photograph by Atget.

The history of the péniche cannot be separated from the history of French canals. And if there is one man who stands taller than others in creating the modern canal systems of France, it is Charles-Louis de Saules de Freycinet (1828-1923). Freycinet graduated as an engineer from the prestigious École Polytechnique and joined the French Civil Service as a mining engineer. He eventually rose to the position of Inspector General of Mines in 1883. He also served four terms as premier. 

Nineteenth-century economic growth and industrialization created a need for better transportation systems. Elected to the Senate in 1876 and named Minister of Public Works in 1877, Freycinet instituted the Freycinet Plan, whereby the government purchased existing railways and built extensive new ones. It also tackled the question of increasing uniformity in the canals and reducing the need for trans-shipment.

A law of August 5, 1879, established a minimum lock size of 39 metres long, 5.2 metres wide, and 2.2 metres deep. To pass through the locks, péniches were limited to 38.5 metres long, 5.05 metres wide, and 1.8 metres draught or depth. Clearly, a tight fit was the order of the day. New canals were built and many existing ones re-engineered to fit the Freycinet standard. 

Freycinet’s influence was so great that canal traffic doubled between the opening of the 20th century and the Second World War. His work endures. By 2001 there were 5,800 km (3,604 miles) of navigable waterways in France that corresponded to the Freycinet gauge and these accounted for 23 percent of waterborne traffic. Over time, though, the size of many vessels has increased beyond the dimensions in the Freycinet standard and today we see many of these larger vessels on the Seine. But even as vessels changed in size and configuration, the names remained the same: a péniche is a péniche is a péniche.

Text and original photographs by Norman Ball. Postcards from our collection. Historic photographs from Paris en Images and Bibliothèques specialisées de Paris.

* In 2019, Ports of Paris announced that more than two million tonnes of merchandise, from building materials to consumer products, entered Paris by boat, an amount that would otherwise have required 100,000 trucks to transport. 

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Thinking about the chambres de bonne last month reminded me of another distinctive space found in many older Paris buildings – the entresol. It, too, provided a space where servants might sleep, unless it was being used for storage or extra commercial space or the concierge’s apartment.

The entresol is the floor between the rez-de-chaussée (ground floor) and the first floor proper (sometimes called the étage noble). If it’s a complete storey, it is an entresol; if it covers only part of the rez-de-chaussée, it should really be called a mezzanine.

The name literally means “between floors,” and that makes me think of the movie Being John Malkovich, and the scene that takes place on floor 7½ of a New York office building. Here is a still (the actor is John Cusack) and you can watch a short film clip showing how he takes the elevator to this strange space here.

But that’s New York. Entresols in Paris have a staircase for access and most of them allow people to stand up straight. This model of a “typical” Haussmannian immeuble from 1860, which can be seen in the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, includes an entresol just above the ground floor.

The cross-section of the 1883 building that I showed in the previous blog has an entresol (in the image, it is labelled as the third floor, but its ceiling is lower than those of the floor below and the two floors above). It seems to serve as an office with a meeting room.

But entresols long predate Haussmann. They were well established when Antoine Chrysostome Quatremère de Quincy wrote his architectural dictionary in 1788. In the entry on entresols, de Quincy explains that the first entresols were additions to grand houses with high-ceilinged ground floors. Given all that wasted space overhead, it made sense to insert some extra usable floor space. De Quincy describes these early entresols as “furtive,” “concealed from the exterior of the building.”

Later, when they became a planned part of the architecture, de Quincy notes the problem of how to incorporate them into the façade: “Being usually quite low and placed below the main floors, it is easy to see that one should consider them more like an ‘hors-d’œuvre’ in the decoration of the façade rather than an integral part. One cannot apply an ‘order’ to them, because it would be ridiculously small relative to those above it.”*

De Quincy also abominated the practice of having two entresols, which he called an “abus révoltant” (a revolting anomaly), like creating a small house inside a large house.

One of the earlier examples of an entresol in Paris is that of the Palais Royal, parts of which date from the 17th century. In this image of the exterior facing the rue de Valois, you can see a long vista with arched windows just above the ground floor. (This Google Street View photograph includes the bonus of a peek inside the staircase of No. 25).

An image from the late 18th century of the “Bœuf à la Mode,” a Palais Royal restaurant, shows a sign on the stairs indicates that further tables and private rooms are located on the entresol.

Within a few minutes’ walk of the Palais Royal, you can see entresols everywhere. The Place des Victoires, created in the late 17th century by Jules-Hardouin Mansart, is awash in them. Their windows form the upper part of the arches above the doors and shop windows.

Streets such as rue des Petits Champs contain many examples. On one corner, the original windows remain.

On another corner at the same intersection with the rue des Moulins, much of the space has been filled in and the windows are smaller.

In the Place Dauphine on the Ile de la Cité, one wonders if there really is enough space to stand up straight in either the rez-de-chaussée or the entresol of certain buildings. This place dates from the early 17th century, and although most of the buildings have been altered and added to over the years, the spacing of the lower floors is probably original. Tall people, mind your heads!

At the other extreme, here is an image of 25, rue de la Harpe (built circa 1800), taken in about 1912 by the largely forgotten photographer Charles Joseph Antoine Lansiaux (1855–1939). The entresol is vast and its façade ornate.

Rez-de-chaussée et entresol, 35 rue de la Harpe. Paris (Vème arr.). Photographie de Charles Lansiaux (1855-1939). Tirage au gélatino-bromure d’argent, vers 1917. Paris, musée Carnavalet.

Entresols feature in quite a few of Lansiaux’s many Paris photos. Here is one of the courtyard behind 8, rue Royale.

One famous entresol was at No. 7, Place Vendome, the home of the Club de l’Entresol in the 1720s. It was a place for influential aristocrats to discuss politics and foreign affairs, and that, predictably, led to its demise only a few years after its inception, since discussing these sensitive topics was frowned on by King Louis XV. Alas, the actual space is long gone, although the façade facing the square survives. Whatever was once behind the façade was replaced in 1930 by a modern building with a big courtyard that you can walk through.

Many major buildings have entresols. The Louvre, of course. The Opera Garnier has two (de Quincy would not approve), mostly used for dressing rooms. Entresols are a feature of many arcades, often with windows looking into the covered shopping area. Some are offices, some are loges for the concierge, and we have eaten in more than one restaurant entresol in an arcade. You get an interesting view up from up there. Here is the Passage Choiseul, photographed by Eugène Atget.

Passage de Choiseul. Paris (IInd arrondissement), around 1907. Photograph by Eugène Atget. Paris, musée Carnavalet.

Once you start looking for them, you will notice entresols in all kinds of central Paris buildings. Hotels. Stations (well, those are really mezzanines). Here is a postcard of the Rue de la Paix from our collection, and the entresol has its own little awnings above the windows.

Probably the most famous entresol-dweller was Colette, shown here in 1930 of the Palais Royal with the unmistakably shaped window behind her. And a cat. Both looked faintly annoyed at being disturbed by the photographer – André Kertesz.

The entresol seems to have become extinct as an architectural feature during the 20th century. As with the chambre de bonne, some entresols have become bijou residences in trendy areas. In preparing this blog, I lingered over a few real estate ads for entresol apartments. They may be a bit noisier than chambres de bonnes, being much closer to the street, but then one need not use an elevator (an advantage in pandemic times). They look rather cosy.

As the Andrews Sisters used to sing, I can dream, can’t I?

Text by Philippa Campsie. Still photograph from “Being John Malkovich” from YouTube. Model of Haussmannian building from the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine. Image of the “Boeuf a la Mode” from ResearchGate. Lansiaux photos from Paris Musées. Atget photo from Paris en Images.  Kertesz photo of Colette from Christies online. Other images from Google Street View or our postcard collection.

* “…se trouvant ordinairement fort bas & placé au-dessous des grands-étages, il est facile de voir qu’on doit le considérer plutôt comme un hors-d’œuvre dans la décoration d’une façade que comme devant en faire partie intégrante. On ne sauroit lui appliquer aucun ordre, car cet ordre seroit ridiculement petit eu égard à ceux qui le surmontoient” (Encyclopédie Méthodique: Architecture, p. 345).

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Chambre de bonne

When I was a student in Paris, I lived in a chambre de bonne (maid’s room) at the top of a building on the corner of the rue du Ranelagh and the rue Raynouard in the 16th arrondissement.

My room contained an iron camp bed (the elderly mattress sagged in the middle, so I slept in a shallow trench) with a shelf over it; a table with a hot plate on it, a wall cupboard over it, and a stool under it; a sink (cold water only); and an immense wardrobe with shelves inside. Between the wardrobe and the wall was a short railing for hanging clothes. The window opened toward the courtyard, but over the roof opposite I could see the tip of the Eiffel Tower, which cheered me every morning.

This is a Google satellite view of the rooftop where I lived. I think my window was the one to the left of the red brick chimney in the middle.

The toilet à la Turque (two places to put your feet, a hole in the floor, and a chain that released a violent flow of water) and a separate room with a grimy shower stall were down the corridor.

The house had what is called “double circulation” – two completely separate sets of entries, staircases, elevators, and corridors that did not intersect. The front version was attractively lit, with an ornate ascenseur around which carpeted stairs rose. The back one had bare floors and dim lighting, and the ascenseur was severely utilitarian. I used the front staircase twice: the day I arrived and the day I left. Otherwise, I entered by a door marked “Service” to the left of the entrance to the parking lot.

A narrow corridor took me to the back of the building and a gloomy courtyard. The staircase and the second ascenseur led off the courtyard; the stairwell was not fully enclosed but had openings to the outside air. It was cold, but it was not musty. I would take the ascenseur to the 7th floor. I was lucky; in most Paris apartment buildings, the elevator does not go to the servants’ floor, if indeed the back staircase has an elevator at all.

On each landing of the back staircase, one or two doors led to the kitchens of the main apartments. This was the route taken by the rubbish bins on their way to the courtyard. It was also how I entered the apartment of my employers to fulfil my domestic duties. For 10 hours a week, I was a bonne à tout faire (the lady of the house preferred to call me an au pair).

Although I was surprised by this severe separation between the parts of the building used by the owners of the flats and the backstage area for the servants, I realized right away the benefits of having a place with its own entrance, where one could come and go unremarked. I daresay the original occupants of such rooms preferred this arrangement to a room within the apartment, even if the heating was dodgy, the toilet was manky, and the furniture had seen better days. Liberté: yes! Égalité: ah, no. Fraternité: that depended on the neighbours.

Each apartment below the sixth floor had the use of two chambres de bonne. The other one belonging to the family I worked for – across the corridor from mine with a view over the street – was occupied by one of my employer’s teenaged sons, who evidently appreciated the independence it offered. The other residents of my corridor and of the floor above (there were two floors of these rooms) were students and young working people of all nationalities. I met a few of them (how could one not?), but did not get to know any of them well.

What strikes me now is the fact that this building dated from 1934. The original occupants had a mere five years to maintain this stratified way of life before war came and turned everything upside down. After the war, servants were scarce. Indeed, they were getting scarce before the war. The designer of 28, rue du Ranelagh was fighting a rearguard battle to preserve an outdated version of domestic life. Already, other designers, encouraged by improvements in elevator technology, were making desirable apartments on the top floors that offered views over the city.

Curious about this anachronism, I went in search of the person responsible for this building. I came up short until I discovered that the building has two addresses: the current one on the rue du Ranelagh and an older one on the rue Raynouard.

The owner’s name was Jean-Maurice Lesage (1869–1934). He was an engineer agronomist and a grand officier of the Légion d’honneur for his services to agriculture, particularly as a director at the Ministry of Agriculture (he was given this honour at the same time as André Citroën and Vincent d’Indy). In this group photo from the Petit Journal of 11 janvier 1931 showing the new grands officiers, he is the (only) one in a top hat.

In 1908, Lesage had commissioned a builder to create a two-storey house on this spot, where he lived for about 20 years with his family (five daughters, one son, all but one surviving to adulthood). Given the address, I assume his house faced the rue Raynouard. On the other side of the intersection was a gasworks (where Radio-France is now).

In 1930, by which time he and his wife Lucie-Aline-Marie Lucet were empty nesters, he obtained a building permit for an eight-storey structure on the same plot of land. The summary of the permit that I found online notes “pas d’architecte.” Does that mean no architect was involved, or that the architect’s name is not noted in the building permit? I don’t know.

I imagine Jean-Maurice as a fellow of the old school, who probably formed his ideas about buildings and domesticity in the Belle Époque. After all, he was the one wearing a top hat in 1930 when most other men wore fedoras or homburgs. He died just as the block was completed in 1934.* According to one source, the construction ruined him financially.

Why did Jean-Maurice Lesage consider two floors of servants’ quarters a necessity in 1934? We cannot know, but we can trace the origins of the chambre de bonne that influenced his thinking.

According to a book about the lives of domestics in 1900,** the use of the top floors of apartment buildings as servants’ quarters was the outcome of economic (that is, real estate) forces and social changes. By the second half of the 19th century, land prices in Paris were high. So landowners made full use of new regulations that allowed increased height for buildings, provided that the roof leant back and away from the street (the permitted height depended on the width of the street). The spaces created under the roof usually had sloping ceilings and were considered appropriate only for servants. Meanwhile, a growing desire for greater privacy for the families in large apartment buildings meant banishing servants’ accommodation from the apartment itself and placing it out of sight. Et voilà: the chambre de bonne is born.

Two cutaway drawings illustrate the transition. The first is by the illustrator Bertall, from Edmond Texier’s Le Tableau de Paris, published in 1853, and it shows a building with only five storeys. The top floor is occupied by a jovial artist and friend, a bedridden man, and a family with four children.

The second is an illustration by Louis Poyet from a book called L’Electricité dans la maison, published 30 years later, in 1885. It shows seven floors (although here the bottom one is a cellar) and the top floor is a neat row of identical chambres de bonne. They are empty, because the maids are at work. Given the subject of the book, the important feature here is the electric bell in each room, so that the family can summon a maid when needed – presumably in the middle of the night, because that would be the only time the rooms were occupied.

Today, these little rooms are considered mini-apartments, sometimes called “chambres de service” (a gender-neutral version of chambre de bonne) or, in real-estate-speak, “studettes” for mini-studios. They are highly sought after and they are not cheap. According an article in Le Figaro, there are about 115,000 of them in Paris and they are defined as dwellings of 15 square metres or less without a full bathroom.

For many people, the chambre de bonne is their first accommodation in Paris. One blogger got her friends to draw the layouts of the places they had first lived. They looked familiar.

In January 2020, we visited a friend who had bought a chambre de bonne in the 16eme. It had recently been renovated after a fire, and was cozy and attractive. It had a compact kitchenette, discreet storage, and its own shower (the toilets across the hall were clean and up-to-date). It also had a spectacular view over the city from its western edge. The elevator, however, only went as far as the floor below.

To me, the chambre de bonne illustrates the comments made at the beginning of the documentary Paris, Roman d’une ville:

Those who build a city disappear, the city remains. Cities do not count the time as we do.

It’s a little bit like an apartment – the day we move in, we make changes, and then one day we move out, and those who come after us live with the decisions and changes we made. They use it as they wish, without questioning how the changes came to be.

Lesage created a certain kind of building with rooms on top for domestic servants who slept and dressed there, but otherwise spent all their time at work in the larger apartment. Today, such rooms have become miniature apartments where people cook and eat meals, watch television, study for exams, and even carry on small businesses. All of us live with decisions made in the past by people like Jean-Maurice Lesage, who were old-fashioned even in their own day. We seldom stop to question those decisions.

Still, I would like to belatedly acknowledge M. Lesage for installing a second ascenseur that went all the way to the seventh floor. Merci, monsieur.

Text by Philippa Campsie, photograph of 28 rue du Ranelagh by John Campsie, other images from Google and Gallica.

* He may never have had a chance to occupy an apartment in the building. His death record notes that he died at 16, rue Oudinot, the address of a clinic or hospice run by Augustinian nuns. His wife survived the war and her husband by 20 years, dying in 1954 in La Celle–St-Cloud in Yvelines. I don’t know if she ever lived in the building.

** Anne Martin-Fugier, La place des bonnes : La domesticité feminine à Paris en 1900 (Paris: Grasset, 1979).

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One of our favourite TV programs, Dix Pour Cent/Call My Agent,* opens with the following image, taken either from the roof of the Louvre or from a drone. It is never on screen for more than a few seconds, and I took a screen shot so I could examine it more closely.

In the foreground is the rue de Rivoli, with its recognizable arcades – they also appear in many scenes at street level. On the left is the rue de Marengo. The church on the right is the Oratoire du Louvre. I found another image of this exuberant if rather hemmed-in church in our postcard collection.

I wanted to take a closer look at the image of the commercial building, because the series maintains the fiction that it has a rooftop terrace – several important conversations and a big party take place up there. The still image does not show anything of the sort, but to be doubly sure, I checked on Google Satellite. And there I found something interesting.

First, it shows that what appears to be a simple rectangular block is actually wedge-shaped. And second, what on earth is that coffin-shaped structure between the commercial block and the church?

It took me a while, but eventually I learned that the answer lies in the building’s history. The block that surrounds the coffin, which bears the street address of 149 rue St-Honoré, was once part of the Grands Magasins du Louvre, a massive department store that faced the rue de Rivoli, founded in 1855 and expanded several times after that. This part, to the east of the rue de Marengo, was an annex to the main building, and the coffin-shaped space was the Hall des Tapis – an opulent display area for rugs and carpets.

As I hunted for images on the Internet, I discovered that the Hall des Tapis had recently been renovated to form the headquarters for the fashion company Maje.

A new floor has been created at the level of the balustrades over which the rugs are hanging in the postcard image, and the chandeliers have gone, but the rest of the space has been left with its columns and glazed roof. You can see a series of photographs on the website of the architectural firm that carried out the restoration (DTACC).

I also found out that this part of the Grands Magasins du Louvre once served as a military hospital in the First World War, associated with the Val de Grâce.

These interesting discoveries kept me absorbed for some time, but they didn’t answer my original question about the rooftop in the television series. So I went back and took a still from one of the scenes in which it is featured.

Other than a stellar view of Norman’s beloved chimneypots, it didn’t offer a huge amount to go on, but it was enough. I cruised over the rooftops of Paris with Google satellite view in 3D and eventually identified the distinctive roofs in the distance on the far left as the tops of the buildings on the north side of the Place de la République and the building sticking up on the right near the crane as a hotel called the Renaissance Paris République.

This information allowed me to do a bit of triangulation, and eventually I found that the rooftop scenes had been filmed on top of  Le Bon Coin, an Internet sales company with offices on the rue du Faubourg St-Martin and a rooftop venue with extraordinary views over the city. Here is the view facing in a different direction.

By now, I was rather enjoying my vol d’oiseau above the city, peering down into courtyards and tilting the view to admire the skyline. It was a rainy afternoon, and I had time to spare. So I took a little promenade from the original building along the rue St-Honoré. And once again, I encountered a surprise.

Not far from the intersection with the rue de Castiglione, I spotted an oddly curved wall inside a courtyard.

I tried 3D, angled it a bit and came at it from the west.

I went in as close as I could (the image started to break up). But I could see little windows in the upper part of the wall.

Could this be part of one of the old walls of the city? I needed to compare it with some old maps. (If you love old Paris maps, and you have some time on a rainy afternoon, I recommend this link.)

After several false starts, I found a 1700 map by Alexis-Hubert Jaillot that showed what is now the Place Vendôme, formerly the Place Louis le Grand. Since the rue de Castiglione runs north into this square, it helped me zero in on what is now the intersection with the rue St-Honoré. There I found the Couvent des Feuillants (a Cistercian monastery, built in the early 17th century). So not part of a wall, then. I noticed a church with a rounded apse. Bingo.

Now I knew what I was looking at, and looking for, I was able to place it in an earlier map, one by Matthaüs Merian, dated 1615. In this bird’s-eye view from the west of the city, the rounded apse on the east side is not visible. Just above the red circle showing the Couvent, you can see the nearby city gate (the Porte St-Honoré) in the wall of Charles V, with a bridge over a narrow moat. The convent is between that gate and a second moat that circled the whole of the right bank. The inner moat joined the outer moat at the Porte St-Denis. So the Couvent was effectively on an island formed by the two moats and the Seine.

Between the convent and the Seine are a manège for equestrian exercise and sports (you can see little horses in the picture) and the gardens of the Tuileries, laid out by Le Nôtre.

Finally, to confirm what I now knew, I found a photograph on French Wikipedia showing the remaining wall of the Feuillants church.

During the early years of the French Revolution, the monks were evicted, the contents of the church were removed, and the site became the meeting place for a group (Club des Feuillants) that supported a constitutional monarchy. The location was handy for the Assemblée Nationale, which had taken over a building that had been part of the manège (it had been built in the early 18th century and so is not visible on Merian’s map).

As you can imagine, it didn’t end well for members of the Club when a more radical element (the Jacobins) came to power.

The rest of the church (except, oddly, this curved wall) was demolished in the early 19th century. A painting by Etienne Bouhot shows the ruins in 1808.

My little journey to find a particular rooftop from a 21st-century television series had taken me over central Paris and back several centuries. I have mentioned here only the highlights of my rainy afternoon skimming the rooftops of Paris (I went down a few additional rabbit holes, as one does). For now, this will have to be the next best thing to being there.

Text by Philippa Campsie; photographs from Google Satellite View, Wikimedia, and stills from the France 2 production of Dix Pour Cent.

* Dix Pour Cent / Call My Agent is a series about an agency that represents French actors and film-makers. Each episode features at least one famous French actor (Natalie Baye! Isabelle Adjani! Juliette Binoche!), and the series as a whole follows the ups and downs of the agency, its four principals, and four assistants – financial woes, shifting alliances, love affairs, breakups, betrayals, and reconciliations. It’s a France 2 production, available on Netflix in French with English subtitles. Three seasons of six episodes each are available and a fourth season is in production.

Posted in Paris architecture, Paris history, Paris hospitals, Paris shops, Paris streets | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 42 Comments

A view of the pandemic (so far) in five masks

To readers: please be advised that this blog contains no Paris content whatsoever. We will return to our regularly scheduled comments on Paris next month.

Mid-March: homemade.

The lockdown catches us by surprise. On Monday we are in the library, collecting our books and chatting with a friend, on Wednesday we celebrate an anniversary with brunch at a bagel shop and a visit to the art gallery, on Friday we shop for food at the St. Lawrence Market. The following Monday, everything closes. I’m glad we picked up those library books. We’re going to need them.

At this point, the authorities implore us not to buy face masks, which are needed for front-line workers. A friend cobbles together some masks from cut-up bandanas, and her sister drops them off. Literally drops. She stands, masked, on our porch, holding them in a bag, and rather than put the bag directly into our hands, she throws it at our feet. We understand. We have no idea what to do, either. But having a mask seems like a good idea.

April: couture.

Life hasn’t changed much. Norman is retired, and I am a freelancer, accustomed to working from home. We learn to “attend” church online. We rather like the lack of traffic, the quiet, the clear air. We shop locally for groceries, but cannot use cash. I give an otherwise unusable five-dollar bill to a panhandler, wondering if he will be allowed to spend it somewhere. We make online donations to charities and struggling arts organizations. We write to far-flung friends and family and talk to neighbours. I follow a musician called Matthew Larkin on Facebook who is creating music in deserted Ottawa churches.

The weather is cold and wet.  We go out for fresh air and exercise, sometimes alone, sometimes together, trudging down streets in our neighbourhood we’ve never noticed before, avoiding other people by crossing the road.

In a shop nearby two stylists with sewing machines are making masks. They are elegant and form-fitting, but the elastics are tight. I feel my ears are being pulled forward day after day. Norman cannot wear his hearing aids with the masks, because the ear loops dislodge them, and his glasses fog up. Once masked, he is deafer than usual and cannot see well. Over time, he learns to control his breathing so at least he can keep his glasses on.

Meanwhile, the world turns upside down. We once prided ourselves on using transit for most outings. Now if we cannot get somewhere on foot, we take the car. We once avoided single-use plastics and disposable items. Now they represent protection and sanitation.

Overzealous bylaw enforcement officers hassle people on park benches. Someone drapes benches with yellow plastic tape marked “Caution.” I contact my city councillor. No, he says, benches are for those who need them. City staff remove some of the tape. I remove the rest.

Signs appear warning us to keep a distance of three geese from each other. The local geese are unmoved by this appeal to their civic-mindedness and refuse to line up neatly.

May: disposable.

As the weather warms up, tiny insects appear by the lake in swarms; my mask keeps them out of my nose and mouth. Disposable masks are now widely available, so we buy a dozen. They’re easier on the ears.

We line up outside food shops, and the city puts orange cones on the roadway to create more room for the queues, because the sidewalks are too narrow to accommodate them. We have long since finished our library books, and the pile of bought-but-not-yet-read books is dwindling. An unprecedented situation.

We come up with new projects. Norman takes down a dead tree. I digitize my dad’s old 35mm slides (here’s an example from 1969, showing my parents).

Norman builds a new stone pathway. I try new recipes (I don’t bake bread, but I make a lot of pesto – see recipe below).

June: imported.

We finally return our library books and recycle our wine bottles. I cut Norman’s hair. We and our neighbours are gardening obsessively. A neighbour gives us a hydrangea. I give someone else a rose of Sharon.

A local dress shop reopens, selling masks by an American fashion company. I choose a cotton one in a summery fabric with adjustable ear loops. A day later, I go back to buy another for my stepdaughter.

Walks are replaced by bicycle rides. I venture farther and farther along the waterfront bike trail. Parts of Toronto’s waterfront are quite wild, and I spot garter snakes, rabbits, and bright little songbirds. The mask keeps cottonwood fluff out of my nose and mouth. With mask, sunglasses, bicycle helmet, baggy shorts and T-shirt, I am for all intents and purposes unrecognizable. I enjoy the anonymity.

The parks are full of people. Family togetherness takes various forms, including the parent walking with a child while barking into a cellphone about return on investment or marketing budgets, as the child plods along, staring glumly at the ground.

We arrange physically distanced drinks with a friend or two at a time on our back porch. They bring their own glasses. I serve snacks that require no handling on my part, arranged on individual trays. Guests come and go along the driveway beside the house. They remove their masks once they are seated on the porch.

July: seasonal.

I have my hair cut and my first proper visit with my mother since March. She has dementia and lives in a long-term care facility. Zoom visits didn’t work; she couldn’t understand that she was supposed to look at the screen and kept staring at the staff member who’d arranged the call, complaining loudly that she had no idea what was going on. Window visits weren’t much better: we couldn’t hear each other, she would blow kisses for a minute, then complain of the draught and slam the window shut. We ended up with phone calls, in which she just kept asking when she was going to see me.

The July meeting takes place outdoors, under a translucent canopy that does nothing to shield us from the heat of the sun. I fill out a questionnaire and have my temperature taken. Given the heat, I am surprised that I register as normal. I wear a mask, as do all of the staff members, but my mother does not. She has had a fall and broken a tooth during the lockdown. Her hair is longer than I think I’ve ever seen it. But she is safe and well. I tell her about what is happening and she keeps repeating, “It’s all so strange.”

I ride my bike in the mornings before it gets too hot. There is usually a bit of a breeze by the water.

The local bookshop reopens and we buy books on race relations and indigenous peoples. The pandemic has exposed fault lines; we need to be better informed.

I find the gradual reopening almost more stressful than lockdown because the rules are too vague and differ from place to place. On my bike rides I see more and more people either without masks, or wearing them as chinstraps or hanging from one ear. The city finally makes the wearing of masks mandatory in indoor public spaces and on transit. Some people protest, most people comply.

I sit down to write a blog about Paris, but I can’t focus on it. So I write this instead.

After a while, I go back to the dress shop and buy another designer mask, this one in a silky fabric and a darker colour. For fall. I reckon I will still need one when the weather cools down.


Pandemic Pesto

In a food processor blend together:

8 oz / 225 g spinach

⅓ to ½ cup olive oil (to taste)

Zest and juice of 1 lemon

½ cup (125 ml) grated Parmesan cheese

3 garlic cloves

¼ cup chopped cashews (I’ve also used pistachios)

Any green herbs you like in any quantity you want: dill, basil, chives, oregano, parsley – all work well

Salt and pepper to taste

Use in potato salad, pasta dishes, over steak, slathered on a slice of baguette…

Bon appétit !


Text and photographs by Philippa Campsie. Thanks to Gill and Meg Morden for the homemade mask.

Posted in Toronto | Tagged , , , , , | 23 Comments

Far from the Madding Crowd

Recently, the Financial Times posed the question: “Is now the right time to escape to the country?” The article contrasted “packed, polluted and pandemic-ridden cities” with the “space, greenery and lower prices” of the countryside. Now that people can leave the city while (ostensibly) maintaining the career and lifestyle they prefer – thanks to the Internet, videoconferencing, and home delivery of everything from food to furnishings – the countryside beckons.

It’s an attractive proposition, but before you call your agent, talk to someone who has actually done it. We were lucky enough in 2019 to visit friends who had restored a rundown house in a rural part of Burgundy, close to Avallon and Vézelay, and we were staggered at the amount of work that had gone into making the house into a comfortable retreat. It is not a prospect for the faint-hearted. The results are, however, delightful and would induce rural-home envy in the most committed of city dwellers.

Patrice and Noëlle bought “La Cure” in 2015. It has that name because the house was once the home of the curé (priest) of the local church. For the previous 30 years, it had been uninhabited; the garden had become a jungle and some parts of the property were used as a squat. But it had good bones; Patrice is an architect who specializes in restoration, and he saw the potential.

He sent us this image from an 1826 plan showing the house and its surroundings.

The red shape with the cross at the top left is the church. The house itself is the red shape to the right of the walled garden, which is indicated by diagonal lines. A lane links the house to the main road. The third, L-shaped structure shown in red consists of a large barn and a series of outbuildings enclosing a courtyard. The blue curved shape is, yes, a moat. In the 12th century, the site was occupied by a fortified manor house dominating a village (in every sense, since the occupant controlled the lives of the villagers).

By the 15th century, the village had been abandoned after the Hundred Years War against the English, and the original manor house had fallen into ruins, but a newer fortified house was built on the site in about 1700, during the reign of Louis XIV. During the Revolution, the place was bought by a priest who had sworn allegiance to the Republic (not all priests did). In 1820, he transferred ownership of the property to the local commune. During two centuries this was the centre of religious life for the neighbourhood and generations of children learned their catechism here.

But by 1985, a shortage of priests led to the closing of the church and the abandonment of La Cure, and the property was sold in 2015. Shortly after Patrice and Noëlle bought it, they sent us some pictures of the garden façade and the kitchen.

They had their work cut out for them – and for a small army of artisans and builders. Patrice drew up a detailed plan. Here is a view the façade of the house that faces the lane. There were no remaining windows on the ground floor on this side, and the plan called for four new ones, as well as two on the top floor.

Over the next year and a half, 39 “compagnons” (we explained this term in a previous blog) representing 21 different trades, drawn from the surrounding area and from Paris, worked on the house. Masons restored fallen walls and created openings for the windows. Carpenters restored wooden floors and panelling, and built furniture. Electricians discreetly installed hundreds of outlets and new wiring. And a team of builders shored up the wooden staircase and created a new dormer and a new skylight in the roof.

That description makes the project sound relatively straightforward. But even something as seemingly simple as new windows are a project in and of themselves, with the fabrication of the windows in a way that fits the historic context, and the creation of custom hardware for opening and closing them. To say nothing of the complex maze of permissions required to alter any historic building in France.

Having followed some of this activity through e-mails, we were very eager to see the place.

In May 2019, Noëlle met us at the station in Avallon and drove us to La Cure. This is the side on the lane – the main entrance to the house is through the garden on the other side. There is also a side entrance into the courtyard, just visible on the right.

We were given a splendid room with a stately fireplace that was apparently the one in which visiting bishops used to stay. There was even a small room to one side designated for the bishop’s attendant. We had views out to the lane on one side and the garden on the other.

We enjoyed many meals in the light-filled dining room – the kitchen is tucked away around the corner. This is the same room shown above, with the fireplace now restored to all its glory.

Patrice gave us a tour of the property. Work was still in progress on one of the garden walls. It was eventually completed by four stone workers over seven months.

The outbuildings off the courtyard (Patrice said it had taken months to clean out the accumulated rubbish) retained a fascinating array of ecclesiastical leftovers, from piles of old catechisms and Sunday School colouring books to the remains of a plaster set of bas-reliefs for the Way of the Cross.

(I noticed the latter were marked “Raffl et Cie,” so I looked up the name later. It was a Parisian maker of religious statues from the mid 19th to the early 20th century.)

The interior of the barn was one of the oldest parts of the property. We gazed up into the rafters, straight into the Middle Ages.

Mind you, Patrice has since sent us photos of even older objects found on the property – a Roman coin and two Neolithic flints, in addition to 17th– century coins.

And fossils. All kinds of fossils.

In tidying up the stone terrace recently, Patrice and Noëlle found a boundary stone marked with four incomprehensible signs. The land continues to yield up small mysteries and clues to its former life.

This year, Patrice and Noëlle are focusing on the garden, clipping hedges, pruning the fruit trees, planting flowers, creating a potager. It’s a lot of hard work, as any rural property owner knows. Remember Rudyard Kipling’s words: “…such gardens are not made / By singing: – “Oh, how beautiful!” and sitting in the shade.”

The house remains cool in hot weather (thick stone walls will do that), but it is also cold in winter. It is quiet – if you don’t count the birds, the insects, and the heifers in the adjoining field (who sometimes stray, as shown here), as well as all kinds of small creatures going about their own business in the hedges and long grass.

We look forward to returning one day. For now, revisiting La Cure in our memories will have to do.

Text by Philippa Campsie with background material supplied by Patrice Roy; photographs by Patrice Roy, Noëlle Roy, Norman Ball, and Philippa Campsie.


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Places of healing

As businesses and institutions in France begin to open up, cautiously, I find myself trying to imagine life in the city right now. Those thoughts start with the quartier we know best – the Observatoire. It’s a neighbourhood that I have written about before.

One of its main features is the prevalence of hospitals.

The Val de Grâce military hospital consists of a glorious array of 17th-century buildings crowned by a dome, and a modern hospital, the two separated by a vast empty garden.

The Port Royal maternity hospital has a lovely hidden courtyard.

The Ste-Anne psychiatric hospital is a little village in itself with calming green promenades linking the buildings.

The sprawling, bustling campus of the Cochin Hospital features a complex system of interior streets.

We have also been watching the transformation of the nearby Hôpital St-Vincent-de-Paul on the boulevard to the west of us. It closed some years ago. The site is now occupied by “Les Grands Voisins,” and has become a temporarily repurposed space for start-ups, shelters, workshops, craft sales (like the one shown below), performance spaces, cafes, and community services.

The site was due to be redeveloped into housing and green space starting this year. But last I heard, the volunteers there were distributing food parcels and making masks, so perhaps that timetable has moved back.

Our research at the Association Valentin-Haüy takes us past a series of medical establishments along the boulevard du Montparnasse, including the Necker children’s hospital (Enfants Malades), which has recently undergone a major renovation.

When we take the 95 bus in the other direction, we glimpse the huge La Pitié–Salpetrière hospital near the Gare d’Austerlitz with its domed chapel. A friend who has lived in Paris tells me that she used to enjoy walking in the spacious grounds.

La Pitié–Salpetrière has a murky history as a prison for prostitutes and an asylum for mentally ill women (many of whom were kept chained up), not to mention as a gunpowder factory (which uses saltpeter, hence the name). In the 19th century, Doctor Jean-Martin Charcot developed the study of neurology here (his theories were later superseded, but he established the field of study), and inspired further study by the likes of Sigmund Freud, who attended his lectures. It is now a general and teaching hospital.

So many hospitals.

And I have been thinking of the front-line workers and the patients at all these places. As the threat from coronavirus recedes somewhat, Paris, like Toronto and all major cities, is facing a backlog of other medical cases and emergencies – an exhausting prospect for already exhausted staff.

Thinking about hospitals sent me, as usual, to our postcard collection, looking for images. Paris hospitals often occupy historic buildings and many include courtyards and gardens (some of which were once the cloisters of religious establishments). I found quite a few images. Here’s the entrance to the Hôpital St-Louis, close to the Canal St-Martin, in an image dating from the early 20th century.

This entry pavilion is little changed today.

Another postcard provides an overview of its extent in the 17th century.

The central courtyard is still there, and so is the chapel, as we can see in this satellite view from Google.

St-Louis specializes in the treatment of cancer and in dermatology. The historic buildings are still in use for administration, while clinical services are provided in a modern facility, visible in the top right of the satellite view.

Another postcard shows the Hôpital Laënnec, now closed, which once had the depressing name of the “hospital for incurables.” It was named for the inventor of the stethoscope, who himself had worked at the Hôpital Necker. It is near the Bon Marché, and the site has been largely redeveloped, although the historic elements, including the spire and the lantern, remain.

The site now contains private apartments, student residences, offices, and a seniors’ residence.

The Hôpital Lariboisière was established after a cholera epidemic in the 1830s, and was intended to pioneer practices of hygiene and disinfection. It is now a teaching hospital affiliated with the University of Paris. It was originally called simply the Hôpital du Nord (it is close to the Gare du Nord), but when the Countess Elise de Lariboisière died in 1851 without an heir, she left her fortune to the hospital, which took her name in gratitude. The buildings are now under renovation.

The Hôtel-Dieu on the Ile de la Cité is Paris’s oldest hospital, founded in the 7th century. “Hôtel-Dieu” denotes a hospital intended for the treatment of the poor, and there are hospitals with that name in many French and Canadian cities.

The Hôtel-Dieu retains its emergency centre, as well as departments for ophthalmology and the treatment of diabetes. I have my own memories of it.

When I was a student in Paris, I developed an infection near my ear, and I went to the emergency department. Several residents examined me, and I was sent to the ear-nose-and-throat department. The people there determined that my ear was not, in fact, infected, and sent me to the surgical department to have the painful area dressed. I sat glumly in the waiting room, and the lady next to me struck up a conversation, asking me about myself.

When a doctor called me in, he said I would have to pay before he could treat me. As I had very little money, and was in some pain and stress, I burst into tears. Forthwith, the lady in the waiting room flew to my side and berated the doctor. “This young woman has come to France to learn our language and study our civilization and you are persecuting her!” The doctor gulped and took a step back. He hastily prescribed antibiotics, dressed the sore spot, and sent me packing. I was too intimidated to go back, but the antibiotics did the trick in time. And that wonderful lady helped me form a lifelong fondness for the French.

The next time I needed to see a doctor when I was a student, I avoided the Hotel-Dieu and went to the Hertford British Hospital, a huge neo-Gothic pile in the suburbs, founded by Richard Wallace, the same man who gave Paris its Wallace fountains. I don’t remember much about my experience there, so I assume it was uneventful.

The final image in our postcard collection is the American Hospital in Neuilly, in an image dating from the 1950s.

I have never been there, but someone I took a great interest in died in that hospital. Back in 2010, I became very taken with the work of Stanley Loomis (1922–72), an American writer of four books of French history and biography. He died there a few days short of his 50th birthday (and a few days before Christmas), after being hit by a taxi in the Place de la Concorde.

I ended up writing a Wikipedia article on Loomis (as well as a longer unpublished autobiography), with the help of some of his family members and friends and thereby made several friends myself with whom I am still in touch.

None of this, of course, tells you what is going on now in these places of healing. I guess I could say that I’ve looked at hospitals from both sides now, and it’s their illusions I recall. I really don’t know French health care at all.

Text by Philippa Campsie, image of Hertford Hospital from the Wellcome Collection, panorama of the Necker Hospital from the hospital’s Linkedin site, satellite and street views from Google maps, all other images by Philippa Campsie or from our postcard collection.

P.S. Last week was National Nursing Week, at least here in Canada. An Instagram post from the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto quotes Charles Kirk Clarke, a pioneering Canadian psychiatrist, as saying: “When one looks for the foundation on which the reputation of any great hospital is built, it will soon be learned that the efficiency of the nursing department is a greater factor than the competency of the medical staff.” Nurses, of course, have known that all along.

Posted in Paris history, Paris hospitals | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Empty streets

Birdsong. That’s what I hear these days when I wake up. Not the sounds of neighbours going to work or getting the kids ready for school. But the sound of robins and sparrows and starlings.

I hope our friends in Paris are also able to hear the birds, too. Certainly the sounds of traffic have dwindled. My stepson Alex sent us a video taken from a drone flying over an apparently empty city. Here is a still:

Of course, the residents are still there, they’re just not visible. And that made me think of a famous photograph, one taken by Louis Daguerre in 1838 or 1839 from the window of his studio, looking over the Boulevard du Temple.

Although the street seems empty, it would have been filled with people, horses, and vehicles, but given the exposure time of 20 to 30 minutes, all movement was erased, leaving behind only  a blur of a man on the pavement, with his foot raised and another blur in front of him that is presumably a shoe shiner. The two were there long enough to be captured by Daguerre. A curious immortality for a boulevardier and a practitioner of one of Paris’s petits métiers.

The same phenomenon appears to be at work in the view of the now-vanished Tuileries Palace by Edouard-Denis Baldus, taken in about 1860. Two men stand in conversation in the middle of the foreground and two small urchins crouch near the entrance to the fenced-off garden on the left. Nobody else is visible. Surely others passed this central location while the photograph was being taken.

Or not. Even when exposure times were shortened to allow photographs of moving traffic and pedestrians, photographers such as Charles Marville and Eugène Atget preferred to show images of a deserted Paris. They got up early in the morning specifically to take pictures of empty streets and vacant alleys. They were documenting buildings, not street life.

This is Charles Marville’s photo of the rue de Rivoli. When is that street ever empty? Yet here it looks as if the city has been abandoned.

Indeed, architectural photography, which avoided the untidiness that people represented, was one of the earliest forms of photography. As Sabrina Lynn Hughes wrote in an M.A. thesis called “Empty Streets in the Capital of Modernity: Formation of Lieux de Mémoire in Parisian Street Photography From Daguerre to Atget”:

Photography’s auspicious arrival coincided with the beginnings of official architectural preservation concerns in France. In 1837, the Comte de Montalivet and François Guizot, the present and former Ministers of the Interior, created the Commission des Monuments Historiques to survey the state of national monuments… Photographers would aid in the inventory process, creating an objective image of a structure’s condition at the moment of exposure; architects viewing the resulting images would identify the buildings most in need of repair and protection (pp. 24–25).

Edouard-Denis Baldus* was one of the photographers hired by the Commission, and for this work, he travelled through Burgundy and Provence. Meanwhile, back in Paris, the architectural scenery was already changing, as Ms Hughes recounts:

[When Baldus returned from his mission,] demolitions in Paris were underway. While Georges-Eugène Haussmann has been seen as the progenitor of modernization in Paris, Jean-Jacques Berger, Prefect of the Seine from 1848 until 1852, actually began some of the building projects more comprehensively executed by his infamous successor. Berger’s priority was dégagement, the liberation of  architectural monuments from parasitic structures and slums that had formed around them over decades, even centuries. Therefore, monuments were being cleared of conjoined buildings to make a more visually pleasing view of the city’s architectural patrimony (pp. 26–27).

One example was the Tour St-Jacques, which now sits in a garden-like setting. The tower was the only remaining part of a 16th-century church that was mostly demolished during the Revolution. Another of Baldus’s photographs shows it in the process of dégagement.

As usual, nobody in sight.

This trend of photographing empty streets and buildings continued well into the 20th century. The found photographs captured in Patrice Roy’s fascinating book Paris Marais 43, were taken in 1943 by A. Cayeux and F. Nobécourt, who clearly made every effort to avoid including messy humans. Even the café tables are deserted in this photo from the rue St-Antoine.

But Roy is not fooled. In a section at the back of the book labelled “Fantômes,” he documents 20 instances in which people are visible in the photographs, sometimes in shop window reflections, sometimes in blurry motion that makes them almost transparent, and sometimes in unexpected corners.

Here is one example, also from the rue St-Antoine. If you look closely, you will see several phantoms on the sidewalk, and one woman very clearly at an upper window.

No, there is nothing new about images of an apparently depopulated Paris. But the population is there, if you know where to look. And the larks are still bravely singing. Even now.


I will leave you with a sonnet about birdsong. A few days after everything shut down in Toronto, as Norman and I were taking an early morning walk, we heard a cardinal. I gather there are no cardinals in France (other than the ecclesiastical version), but the crested red birds are a welcome sight here in spring. The following day, I wrote this:

The days lie flat as graves amid the grass.
The news is grim: life cancelled, closed, postponed.
We look for ways to make the long days pass,
We’ve reached our friends, we’ve e-mailed, texted, phoned.
The travellers return, the kids stay in,
The lights are off in churches and in shops,
The streets and skies have lost their normal din,
All movement ceases, the machine just stops.
But no, the spring approaches, sap runs free
Our neighbour’s snowdrops one more time appear.
A cardinal is singing in a tree,
Unheeding of our silence and our fear.
The quiet is not quiet – we have heard
The Resurrection from a single bird.

We wish you, our readers, all the best during this difficult time, and we invite comments in which you tell us a bit about how you are, wherever you are, and how you are living through this peculiar time. Are the streets empty where you are? Are the birds singing?



Text by Philippa Campsie; Daguerre and Baldus photos from Wikimedia Commons; Marville photo from Bibliothèques spécialisées de la Ville de Paris; Cayeux and Nobécourt photographs from Paris Marais 43 (Créaphis Editions, 2015).


* Baldus is an unusual character. He was born in Germany, served with the Prussian army, moved to Paris in about 1838, found his métier as a photographer after 10 years of rejection  as a painter, helped found the Société Héliographique, exhibited his work at the Exposition Universelle in 1855, and as a result, received a commission from the Baron James de Rothschild to photograph his railway (Chemin de Fer du Nord) and its environs for a special album to be presented to Queen Victoria. This led to further commissions and considerable success. However, there was a secret in his past. In a recent exhibit of his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the curator revealed that to supplement his meagre pay as a Prussian soldier, Baldus had resorted to forging money. Apparently he was better at that than at legitimate artwork, but not as good as he was at photography. The German police never caught up with him.


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A pebble for Clare

The news comes in, day by day. Cancelled. Closed. Postponed. One by one, I delete events from my calendar. Well, I think, look at all the time I have to write the next blog. Funny how when you have all the time in the world, it becomes harder to focus.

My original plans for this month’s blog seemed out of step with the current situation, so, like many other writers, I started thinking about other times of emergency. Cholera. Spanish flu. War. And then I thought of Clare Gass.

I learned about her indirectly. As I wrote in an earlier blog, I have long been following a project called Flowers of the Forest, organized by Perth Academy in Scotland to honour the more than 160 men and one woman from the school who served and died in the First World War. My great-uncle John Lonsdale Sieber was among them.

Although the formal commemoration of the First World War ended in 2019, the project continues in a modified form, and the students continue to visit the battlefields and cemeteries in France and Belgium every spring (I don’t know if they will be able to go this year).

This year, Dave Dykes, who helps organize these events, had identified certain cemeteries in which former Perth Academy students were buried and came up with the idea of taking pebbles from their homes in Perth and placing them on the graves. Of the 14 men whose graves the students were to visit, the houses of 13 are still standing.

At the same time, he received an interesting letter. Over the years, Dave has built up an impressive network of people like me, relatives of those who died, who have contributed stories and mementos related to the fallen, and who support the Flowers of the Forest project in various ways. Recently, one sent Dave a copy of a letter written to her family about James Amess, a private in the Liverpool Regiment who died in a Canadian casualty clearing station near Esquelbecq in May 1918, aged 30. It was written by the nurse who had tended to him, Clare Gass.

As it turns out, Clare not only wrote letters to the families of the men she nursed, she kept a diary. And in 2000, her war diary was published by McGill-Queen’s University Press. It is a remarkable document.

She came from Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia, where she was born in 1887. Susan Mann’s introduction to her diary notes that she was “the oldest living child and only girl in a family of ten, three of whom did not survive infancy.” Her father owned a lumber mill and general store. She attended Edgehill School in Windsor, Nova Scotia, as a boarder.

This point interested me particularly. In the early 1970s, my godfather, John Derrick, was principal of Edgehill for a few years, as well as principal of the neighbouring boys’ school, King’s College. Eventually the two amalgamated, and they continue as King’s–Edgehill to this day. When I attended the University of King’s College in Halifax, I knew quite a few Edgehill alumnae. Immediately I could picture Clare at the big school building on the hill in Windsor.

Susan Mann suggests that Edgehill prepared Clare for a military nursing career in some ways: “Through the pattern of the school day, with its ‘rising bell’ at 7 a.m. to ‘lights out’ at 9:15 p.m., the girls were acquiring orderly, accepted discipline. Ten years later réveillé and last post would not be much different.” At Edgehill, she also met women who had chosen teaching careers instead of marriage and children.

As a teenager, Clare nursed her mother when she became ill after the birth of her youngest child, and this experience may have influenced her choice to train as a professional nurse in Montreal in 1909. This meant three more years of residence and discipline along with fellow women students.

Like my husband’s grandmother Elsie Pirie, another bespectacled nurse who did her training a few years earlier, Clare often used postcards to communicate with her family; some are now in the archives at Dalhousie University. Here is one sent from Montreal in 1909, announcing the start of her studies at the Montreal General Hospital.

After graduating in 1912, Clare did private-duty nursing in Montreal, before enlisting as a military nurse in 1915. Her attestation papers note that she had red hair and blue eyes. She received extra training and was sent overseas in May, arriving in France on May 18. Here are her very first impressions of France:

Went on board a small steamer at Folkestone…It was both foggy and rainy… I stayed on deck, we went at full speed. Near the entrance to Boulogne we passed two hospital ships leaving the port. We were conveyed by the Ambulance Waggons to our hotel, the Hotel Louvre. Such a funny place. Blue lights in the sitting room which are ghastly. A wide tiled hall. Close smelling rooms. Curtains of beautiful French embroidery palms & plants in abundance.

The diary continues with accounts of her work, but also of long walks or bicycle rides with other nurses when she had time off (where did she get the energy after a busy shift?), letters from family (three of her brothers were also serving), and quick impressions of the war.

I shall never forget the sound of the Motor Ambulances as they bring in the Convoys. The continual burr as they pass our huts, as one follow the other from the siding up to the highway, some slower than others according to the severity of the wounds of the patients they carry. (July 6, 1915)

Last night in the night a terrific explosion wakened us – an ammunition vessel we discovered later in the day has been blown up at the mouth of the harbour. (March 9, 1916)

A convoy of 55 came into D last night. All Australians from Beaupaume where the Germans are retiring. Such bad bad wounds. My heart aches for these poor lads so far from their home. Five shot through the chest, one arm blown off. One spine case paralyzed. One fractured pelvis. One pair of trench feet so bad that both feet will have to come off. (March 1, 1917)

In May 1918, when James Amess was in her care, she was at the No.2 Canadian Casualty Clearing Station, Remy Siding, on the Belgian border.

She was so busy that for many days that month (including the day of his death), there are no entries in her diary. In April, she noted that three nurses had returned to Canada.

We received heavily today both French & England patients. So many many hundred. Miss Gee & I are alone on the Ward. We are very short of Sisters. Those who have gone have not yet been replaced.

A few days later, May 5, she writes:

Our old hospital site is knocked to pieces. Ward H, the men’s dining room & the kitchens are no more. The Medical stores are smashed as is also the Estaminet at the Corner.

But she carries on. They all do. Ten days go by with only a single entry: “We have been very very busy for the last two weeks.” Yet in this period she found time to write to Amess’s family, and probably to other families as well.

Clare’s own brother Blanchard and her cousin Lawrence, with whom she had had a youthful romance, died in April 1917, within a day of each other. Her brother, Cyril, lost a foot at Ypres, but returned home. Another brother, Gerald, survived.

In September 1918, Clare was sent to England, and she nursed victims of the Spanish flu at a segregation hospital in Wales. It was her choice. “I offered my services in place of another who does not wish to go.” She and one other nurse were assigned to a 30-bed ward. “Such sick sick men. Many of them will die,” she noted, compassionately but realistically, on October 17, 1918.

Clare returned to Canada in December 1918, and served for most of the following year in a military convalescent hospital in Quebec, Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue.

She was demobilized at the end of 1919 and for the next 30 or so years, she worked in social services in Montreal, retiring to Shubenacadie in 1952, where she continued to do volunteer work in the community. She never married. She died in Halifax in 1968, aged 81, and is buried at Preeper Hill Cemetery in Shubenacadie.

The Royal Canadian Legion in Shubenacadie has promised to send a pebble from Clare’s birthplace that the Perth Academy students will place in Esquelbecq, either this year, or next year, if they cannot go until then.

During the days ahead, I will think of Clare, and of the nurses and doctors who are bearing the brunt of the pandemic. May they all come home safely, as she did.

Text by Philippa Campsie. Portrait of Clare Gass from Parks Canada; postcards of Edgehill School and Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue from Pinterest; postcard to Clare’s father from Dalhousie Archives; photograph of CCS No. 2 from the website of the Ontario Archives, colourized.

For information about Clare Gass’s war diary, visit this page from McGill-Queen’s Press.


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