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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Petite Ceinture: Ring around the city

About 10 years ago, Norman and I were staying in part of a converted workshop in a courtyard in the 14th arrondissement. One day, as we walked towards the Porte de Vanves on a Saturday morning to visit the flea market, we crossed a bridge over a disused sunken railway and I took a picture of a cat on the tracks, all alone in its private domain.

It was the Petite Ceinture (the Little Belt), an old railway line ringing the city that predated the Metro by about  50 years.

We lingered on the bridge, looking down into a quiet green world. We’d heard that urban adventurers would climb over the fence and down the embankment to walk along the tracks and even into the tunnels. On another walk in the area, we did see some people down at track level.

On a later visit, when we were staying in a borrowed studio in the 16th around Christmastime, we crossed a level part of the Petite Ceinture nearly every day. It had been turned into a recreational trail, winding its way through Passy. The tracks were gone, but the right of way remained.

On this year’s trip in January, we were in Ménilmontant to visit Patrice Rambaud, an artist whose work I enjoy. We were early for our appointment, and noticed that just beyond the building there were steps going down to the old track. We followed them down and found a short stretch of track popular with dog walkers (mind your feet), with the remains of old platforms on either side, little flowerbeds in raised boxes, and a box for compost.

We mentioned to Patrice that we had explored the sunken line, and he suggested we check out the part in the 14th, the bit we had seen all those years earlier, which is now open to the public.

A few days later we took the bus to Avenue Général Leclerc. The former Montrouge station is now a pleasant café, and steps behind it lead down to the tracks. It was a cloudy weekday and there seemed to be nobody about. The walls at the bottom of the stairs were covered in graffiti. The line immediately went into a tunnel. We approached it warily. I had read online that this bit of line was soon to be closed for a few days for improvements to the lighting. That struck us as a Very Good Idea.

We debated whether to continue. The tunnel had several sets of arches on either side, which hid parts of the space from view as you walked through. The sight of some other walkers in the distance gave us more confidence and we went through the tunnel without incident and onto the main part of the pathway. At that point, the space broadened out, there was more vegetation and less graffiti and we began to enjoy ourselves.

After about a kilometre, we came to another tunnel that was fenced off and a metal staircase led upwards to street level. A group of young men were clustered near the steps, but a glance at their book bags showed that they were just lycéens from the local school hanging out at lunchtime.

Our walk continued through a recently completed and whimsically designed linear garden over the buried line. A sign explained that the tunnel underneath was home to the largest colony of chauves-souris (bats) in Europe. A children’s climbing structure paid homage to these creatures.

The Petite Ceinture was built in the 1850s and 1860s, but not all at once, and a variety of different interests were involved. One purpose was ostensibly military: a ring of fortifications had been completed in 1845 (the Thiers enceinte) and the army needed to move troops from one part of the fortifications to another.*

But a more pressing problem than troop movements at the time was that Paris’s eight main railway stations were owned by separate companies, with lines that did not connect. This was merely a nuisance for passengers passing through Paris, but it was a real barrier to the movement of goods by railway.

The first bit to be completed, in 1852, was in the northern part of the city, where huge freight yards converged on the Gare du Nord and the Gare de l’Est. This line was then extended around the eastern part of the city to link the Gare du Nord with the Gare d’Austerlitz. Part of it was in a tunnel under Belleville. The short open stretch near Ménilmontant that we saw was part of that eastern extension.

Meanwhile, a different company built a passenger line connecting the Gare St-Lazare with Passy and Auteuil on the western side of the city. That was the part we saw in the 16th.

The final part was built in the 1860s and circled the southern part of the city. It was opened in time for the 1867 Exposition. The section we saw in the 14th belonged to this stretch.

The following map of the completed circle includes the schedule for passenger trains in the late 1860s. The pink circles are the stations.

This final stretch included a many-arched bridge where the line crossed the Seine at the “Point du Jour” (I explained the origins of this name in an earlier blog). The bridge, also known as the Viaduc d’Auteuil, is shown in a couple of postcards in our collection.

A blog devoted to this bridge includes an odd little film clip taken during the 1910 flood, during which rubbish was thrown into the Seine from the bridge because the routes to the regular disposal sites were under water and the authorities feared that the build-up of garbage would cause disease. This bridge was one of the few that was still well above the water line; it was also at the farthest downstream point of the city.

The bridge was damaged in the Second World War, demolished in 1959, and replaced with the Garigliano bridge in the 1960s.

Clearly not all of the line was at or below street level – there were some elevated stretches, and I hope to visit them on our next trip. The viaducts on either side of the vanished Point du Jour bridge have gone, but one stretch of elevated line can be reached from a flight of stairs where the line crosses the rue de Vaugirard in the 15th, shown in this screen capture from Google Street View.

At first, the line was simply called the Ceinture, until a “Grande Ceinture” line was added in the 1870s and 1880s, also ringing the city, but about 15 km farther out, serving communities such as Versailles. It too carried freight and passengers. Some bits of this line are still in use.

Passenger service on the Petite Ceinture ended in the 1930s, although parts of the line continued to be used for freight until the early 1990s. Then the whole thing was sealed off and left undisturbed, other than by cats, bats, and a few urban adventurers. The vegetation closed in and wildflowers proliferated.

Years went by. What to do with the space? There were meetings. Studies. Consultations. More meetings. More studies. Much talk of biodiversity. Some talk of commercialization. The question of reviving the circle line for its original use was mooted, but abandoned in favour of regular surface transit (part of this line is still identified as “PC” on the bus map). For many years, a botanist who worked for the city was allowed to give guided walking tours along parts of the line.

The first bit to reopen to the public, in 2007, was the trail in the 16th, perhaps because it was at street level and easily accessible. Then a bit in the 12th with a garden. Then a longish stretch in the 15th. Then the 13th. Then the 20th. Then the 14th. Each arrondissement seems to have dealt with its stretch of the line in its own way, which makes the open stretches interestingly varied. It also means that finding out about access may require one to consult the mairies of different arrondissements.

Of the more than 25 stations of the Petite Ceinture, a few survive. Some were down beside the tracks, some perched over them. Some, like the Montrouge station and the Passy Station, have become cafés or restaurants.

A few survivors are buried behind new facades, like the former Ornano station, now La Recyclerie.

To us, it seems that the Petite Ceinture benefited from decades of benign neglect. The flowers flourished. The bats found an undisturbed place to hang out. Cats could sun themselves without fear of dogs. I hope that opening up the spaces will not destroy what charmed us all those years ago – the prospect of a hidden world where life continues at its own pace above or below the busy streets of Paris.

Text and contemporary photographs by Philippa Campsie; postcards of Ornano Station, Point du Jour bridge, and Montsouris from our postcard collection; map and postcard of Ménilmontant from Gallica; images of La Recyclerie and rue de Vaugirard from Google Street view.

*The Petite Ceinture was indeed used to move troops during the turbulence of the Paris Commune in 1871.


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Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Reconsider.

Wherever we go in Paris, we see signs exhorting us to respect the environment, on garbage containers or in shops.  The sign in the photograph below (look carefully) says, “L’environnement au coeur de nos priorités” (the environment is at the heart of our priorities). I want to believe that they mean what they say.

As in Toronto, city officials and residents in Paris are increasing their efforts to reduce the amount of waste generated, and divert more and more of what is thrown away to reuse and recycling.

Of course, there is one significant difference between Paris and Toronto. Parisians incinerate their unrecyclable garbage in Issy-les-Moulineaux; Torontonians put theirs into a landfill near London, Ontario. In Toronto we know that every plastic toothbrush we have ever owned and thrown out is Still Out There Somewhere, which is a disquieting thought. Moreover, we know that not everything sent for recycling is actually recycled, and that not everything diverted from the waste stream is, in fact, diverted.

So the ubiquitous signs made me wonder about how Paris stands in relation to the 3Rs – reduce, reuse, and recycle.

Certainly, the city is good at reusing urban spaces, such as the Viaduc des Arts in the 12th arrondissement that was once a railway line and is now a collection of studios and boutiques under the arches with a promenade plantée on top. More recently, the city has found new uses for the old Petite Ceinture – the belt-line railway that closed in the 1930s. The bits of the line that are open to the sky have been made accessible to joggers and dog walkers after many years of neglect.

Reuse on a smaller scale is also encouraged. On a previous summer visit, we wandered into the courtyard of the Institut Protestant de Théologie, in which artists were invited to give new life to used materials. A heap of reusable items was spread out on the ground in the college courtyard for artists to choose from. The results were certainly fun to look at, although it was really more about creativity than about environmental responsibility.

Second-hand shops are fairly common, and we have noticed book exchanges and other ways to keep materials in use.

Many people, ourselves included, have reusable shopping bags. We inevitably acquire new ones on each visit. And yes, I know that the energy involved in making reusable bags requires us to use them hundreds of times to justify their existence. All I can say is that we’re working on it.

As for recycling, it is a visible part of every walk we take, as we pass the various receptacles used here.

Paper, metal, and some plastic go into green bins with yellow lids. (Note the Tesla just behind the bins.)

Glass goes either into a green bin with a white lid that is specially designed to accept bottles, or into a bottle bank. Unfortunately, the bottle bank on the nearby boulevard is always removed just before major manifestations – presumably to prevent the use of its contents as projectiles.

When it was taken away in mid-January, we found an alternative. Not far away is a small, unassuming little receptacle that allows for the collection of glass underground. I think this is rather nifty.

There are also bins for textiles and clothing, some of which is sent for reuse and the rest for textile recycling.

Composting food scraps requires access to a “brown box,” but as of early 2020, these are available only in the 2nd, 12th and 19th arrondissements; we in the 14th do not have these yet. (Municipal compost is well established in Toronto.) But we spotted one on a walk.

Christmas trees can be deposited in 195 neighbourhood parks across the city for pick-up and composting for use in public spaces. Most Paris Christmas trees are quite small and light and taking them to a park is feasible.

Electronics recycling is available through some electronics stores. And some shops offer take-back programs for plastic containers and packaging. It’s a start, but there is a long way to go in the area of beauty products, most of which involve more packaging than product.

Even museums that distribute sticky badges to identify museum-goers who have paid the entrance fee are trying to keep the badges from getting attached to the nearest lamppost when the visitor leaves the museum.

Whatever is left over from these waste-diversion efforts goes into green bins with green lids, to be picked up by green trucks staffed by men in green uniforms.

Nonetheless, rubbish accumulates. Efforts are being made, not always successfully, to deal with the problem of mégots (cigarette butts). The poster says that Paris accumulates 350 tonnes of the things per year, and urges smokers to stub out their cigarettes and put them into public garbage bins.

There is still a lot of single-use plastic in circulation. Plastic water bottles are everywhere. And more and more people are buying ready-made or take-out meals in individual plastic containers, while food companies try to keep up with demand.

We bought a container of carrot salad that came with a tiny folding fork on the inside of the lid. A little notice on the lid informed us that we could reuse this fork up to 20 times. (I am not making this up.) For heaven’s sake, why offer the fork at all? Most people do not need it, and who on earth would reuse it 20 times?

As for buying in bulk (en vrac) with reusable containers, such outlets do exist in Paris, but they are thin on the ground, and in out-of-the-way locations. I have yet to discover one in the 14th.

In certain quarters, the anti-plastic thing has become, as such things do here, a fashion. The popular shop Merci sells glass drinking straws in bright colours (although why able-bodied grown-ups need drinking straws at all is a question for which I have no satisfactory answer). Utensils in wood and bamboo are making an appearance in a few food outlets (and have recently been adopted by Air France, as we found out on our flight home).

An upscale hardware store on the rue du Bac offers an array of old-fashioned cleaning implements in wood and metal, offering the fantasy of cleaning one’s house as if one were on the staff at Downton Abbey.

At the same time, there are some long-standing traditions of conservation in France that predate our current concerns about the environment. Les minuteries (timed light switches) prevent hall lights being left on unnecessarily (the subject of endless jokes by English-speaking travellers unaccustomed to such things). Cold-water-only taps are common in restaurant and museum washrooms. Electricity and petrol are expensive, and are not wasted as much as they are in North America. And ingrained traditions of thrift persist among Parisians who remember the war (or who grew up with parents who did) and have never fully embraced the use-and-toss consumer lifestyle.

My decidedly unscientific survey suggests that Paris is making some progress in reusing and recycling, but has not fully embraced the ethos of “reduce,” any more than Toronto has. Particularly not during the January season of soldes (sales), when shops are desperate to clear out unsold merchandise in order to bring in new items.

Then I opened a copy of Le Monde and found this cartoon:

The EU customs officer is asking the baffled captain of a container ship that is belching black smoke into the sky: “Anything to declare? No plastic swizzle sticks or disposable baby wipes?”

It made me laugh and made me think. Yes, we can all do much more to avoid creating rubbish and to dispose of it responsibly, but the greatest gains may not be made by individual consumers, no matter how many shopping bags we carefully reuse and how many bottles we dutifully recycle.

Text and photographs by Philippa Campsie; photograph of green garbage truck from the website of the Ville de Paris.

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Early one morning

We do not, as a rule, take early-morning walks in Paris. If we do not have a morning appointment, we tend to dawdle over breakfast, reading and chatting and enjoying the view from the windows. Quick showers are not an option: the apartment has a deep bathtub that is an invitation to more reading, or to daydreaming. By the time we are on our way, we are ready for mid-morning coffee or even lunch.

So I do not remember what it was about that June morning that got us out the door at 6:30 a.m. It was not an invitingly sunny day; it had rained overnight and the sky was still grey. We took an umbrella. But something drew us outdoors, where the stallholders were setting up the market on the boulevard.

We passed a snail, heading towards the lettuce stall, clearly hoping for a dropped leaf.

He was quite safe; the boulevard was deserted.

We turned down the rue de la Santé, past the high prison walls on one side and the lower walls of the Lycée Notre Dame de France on the other, with its empêche-pipi in a corner.

A worker for the sanitation department waved at us from his green truck as we walked under the elevated Metro line on the boulevard Saint-Jacques.

From there, we wandered down the rue Ferrus, curious about the archway visible at its far end. As we got nearer it resolved itself into the blue gate of the Centre Hospitalier Sainte-Anne, with a pigeon surveying the scene from the knob on top.

As we stood peering through the gate, the man in the guardhouse invited us to come in and look around.

The interior boulevard drew us into a miniature town.

There were streets and sidewalks and walls and streetlights. I took a photo of one of the lights and only later, as I re-examined the photo, noticed the plaque about the huge German bomb – “obus” – that had fallen here near the end of the First World War.

There were parks and gardens on every side, many with statues.

A war memorial indicated that this was, in fact, a psychiatric hospital.

Eventually we found a plaque that answered some of our questions. In the 15th century, the site had housed a sanitarium for people with contagious diseases, which was given the name of Sainte-Anne in 1650 in honour of its patron Anne of Austria (mother of Louis XIV). It included a farm where the patients could work as they regained their health.

In the 1860s, on the orders of Napoleon III, this hospital-farm was transformed into a psychiatric institution for the treatment of and research into mental illness. Napoleon III asked Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann to make it happen, and Haussmann delegated the task to an architect called Charles-Auguste Questel. Another historic panel showed the buildings in his original plan, many of which are still standing.

A motto from Questel was included on the descriptive plaque:

« Il faut penser sans cesse à l’harmonie générale, les détails viendront toujours. »

“One must think continuously of the general harmony, the details will always come.”

The principle seems to have worked well here. A “general harmony” was evident in the arrangement of larger buildings, smaller pavilions, colonnades, paths, gardens, and wooded areas (we later found a website from which we learned that there are more than 1,000 trees on this 14-hectare site).

Granted, it was so early in the day that there was nobody about, but we were struck by the sense of peace and calm as we explored.

Eventually we returned to the front gate and turned left into the rue Cabanis, where we passed an unusual installation: three glass-fronted panels containing wooden boards on which words in distinctive capital letters had been carved. An explanatory panel provided a transcription. Another identified them as the “Plancher de Jeannot.”

They are floorboards, taken from a house in the Béarn region near the Pyrenees, carved by a young man who had returned traumatized from fighting the war in Algeria in 1959 to find that his violent and abusive father had committed suicide. When his mother died in 1971, he withdrew from the world and carved a message into the floor of his room, beginning with the words:


“Religion invented machines to control the mind of people and animals…”

He died not long after completing his message, in 1972, aged 33. Two decades later, his sad testimonial was found and conserved by the purchaser of the farm – a retired psychiatric doctor. The boards have been exhibited in museums as examples of “art brut” (outsider or naïve art) – which seems disrespectful to the sufferings of this young man, who was not trying to create art, but to put into words what he saw as the source of his suffering. The boards finally found a home near the Sainte-Anne Hospital, where passersby may draw their own conclusions about what they mean and how they should be considered.

Our final discovery came as we made our way home along the Avenue René Coty. Another hospital, in a beautiful 18th-century building – the Hôpital Rochefoucauld. It was originally intended for aged and ill members of the military and clergy. It is now a geriatric and palliative care hospital.

In stark contrast with the serene white buildings is a small, ugly, much-graffitied hut on the lawn.

What on earth? we wondered. On Google Maps, this blot on the landscape is identified as “Regard XXV de l’aqueduc Medicis.” Wikipedia helpfully provides the alternative name of “Regard de Saux.” All this takes a bit of translation.

In fact, it is a very old and elaborate cover for a shaft allowing maintenance staff access to an underground watermain (what used to be called a “manhole”). “Regard” probably meant it allowed people to go down and take a look. There were 27 of these Regards along the route of the Medici aqueduct from Rungis, which is south of Paris, into the city. The aqueduct dates from 1623 and is still in service, an admirable example of long-lasting municipal infrastructure. The last of the “regards” is a fairly large building beside the Observatoire.

We were home by 8:30 a.m. Our walk through the 14th arrondissement had evoked its history as an area beyond the old city walls filled with convents and monasteries, with their gardens and orchards and tree-lined walkways. A few convents remain, glimpsed through archways or beyond high walls. The many hospitals in this district are their legacy, for hospitality and caring for the sick was once the work of religious establishments.

Two vast convent gardens survive – one behind the Monastère de la Visitation, visible from the rue Boissonade, another behind the Maison Santé des Soeurs Augustines, part of which is just visible from the very end of the Square de Port Royal. We have walked all around the blocks in which these gardens form the centre, hoping for a better view, but have always been disappointed. Perhaps we need to get up earlier in the morning…

Text and photographs by Philippa Campsie; photograph of the Plancher de Jeannot from Google Street View.

We wish all our readers a very happy New Year in 2020.

Posted in Paris gardens, Paris history, Paris hospitals, Paris parks, Paris quartiers, Paris streets | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

It never hurts to ask

The Institut de France on the Left Bank of the Seine, near the Pont des Arts, is a familiar sight. We’ve walked past many times, and never thought we’d have occasion to enter it ourselves. But one never knows where research will take one. Just follow the rules. Or not, as the case may be.

Rule # 1: It never hurts to ask.

I had identified an obscure document from a meeting of the Académie des Sciences in 1824 that had a bearing on my research into the work of Charles Barbier. I honestly did not expect that the document would have survived the intervening 195 years, but, on the off-chance, I sent an e-mail from Canada to the Académie archives. A day or so later, I received a cordial reply: Yes, it was there. When would I like to come in and see it?

Rule #2: Be prepared for hurdles.

I asked cautiously about what was required to gain access to their reading room. Oh, it was just a matter of making an appointment and providing a piece of photo identification. This sounded far too easy. I remember the trouble I had gone to secure a reader’s pass at the Bibliothèque St-Geneviève when I was a student. I had to provide several photos and fill in endless forms and I did not get access to the library until several days later.

So I made the appointment for shortly after our arrival in Paris, on the assumption that I would probably need to go back if I could not get access to the archives immediately.

On a sunny April day, Norman and I presented ourselves to the security guard at the front gate. He examined our passports and retained them, and directed us to the innermost of the three courtyards, last entrance on the right, up to the top floor. We crossed the courtyard, admiring the sun dials and fountains, pleased at our progress so far.

The archives occupied a pleasant room under the roof, with views over the courtyard on one side and the rue Mazarine on the other. It wasn’t very large, but then, the number of researchers who sought out this obscure space was probably not large either.

Rule #3: Always bring a book.

I filled out a form with details of the documents I wanted. It was probably the least complicated form I have ever seen in France.

Then I settled down to wait. I wasn’t in a rush. We had all day. I delved into my bag for a book. I had barely taken it out when the document was in front of me. So much for that rule.

Rule #4: Research results never resemble your expectations.

The document itself was a surprise. I had expected some sort of multi-page report, but what I saw was a large piece of thick paper, almost like a poster, folded up and inscribed in the tiniest of printing. The title mentioned Persian and Chinese shorthand, but there was no sign or mention of Persian or Chinese in the text or illustrations. Curiouser and curiouser. Now I know why the Académie des Sciences in 1824, having accepted Barbier’s document and agreed to write a report on its contents, never did anything with it. Clearly their members could not make head or tail of Barbier’s peculiar venture into alternative writing forms. Neither could I.

I asked if I could photograph it, expecting to be refused. Mais bien sûr, allez-y. This was starting to feel surreal. All the barriers I had imagined were simply disintegrating. But the best was yet to come.

Rule #5: Always ask for suggestions about further research.

After transcribing the document (not easy with such small writing) and taking several photographs of its strange scripts, we got into conversation with one of the librarians and explained about the search for Barbier’s work. She expressed interest and suggested we make inquiries at the Société d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale.

I was gobsmacked. That Napoleonic-era organization still existed? I knew that Barbier had had dealings with it, but I never dreamed that it was still a functioning entity. Ah yes, just across from the Eglise Saint-Germain, right on the square. It was perhaps a fifteen-minute walk away.

We gathered up our things and set off back through the courtyards, feeling slightly giddy.

Rule #6: Persist.

The building was as described, but what startled us at first was that part of the ground floor had been turned into a restaurant. Two women in fashionable attire and extremely high heels asked us what we wanted. We explained and one gestured to a set of glass doors, beyond which was an ordinary-looking office.

There I poured out my story to a woman behind a desk. She looked thoughtful and asked us to wait while she made a telephone call. This took a little time, but then she told us we were in luck (we knew that already). Although it was the Easter holidays, and the building was undergoing painting and renovations, one of their members, a retired engineer, was working upstairs on an inventory of the Société’s books and documents and would be prepared to help us. She would take us to see him.

We took a short elevator ride, and then crossed a large empty space the size of a ballroom.

A corridor on the other side led to a narrow staircase. We went up to the top floor. There was a strong smell of fresh paint.

Once more we found ourselves in a room under the roof with sloping ceilings. A man sat at a crowded desk, surrounded by piles of books and documents.

I launched into my usual explanation. He made another, even longer phone call to another member of the organization. Then he asked us to follow him to a nearby room. It was essentially the attic of the building, containing shelves of books, now swathed in drop-cloths to protect them from the painters. The books were bound copies of the Bulletin of the Société and they were indexed. There were several index entries for Charles Barbier.

Finding the relevant pages took a little time, and one bound volume seemed to be missing, but we found more than enough to make the trip worthwhile. The helpful man said he would see us back downstairs, but on the way he said he had something to show us.

Rule #7: Pay attention to your surroundings.

In the huge ballroom, he stopped in front of a plaque, which stated that the first public presentation of a moving image by one of the Lumière Brothers had taken place in this room in front of the Société’s members in March 1898. Not long before, we had attended a public lecture about the culture of the spectacle in Paris in which this event had been mentioned, so we were particularly interested and very glad that he had taken the time to show us.

He even turned on the lights in the ballroom, which began to look a bit grander and less abandoned, despite the ugly modern chairs and plastic tables.

It was extraordinary to be standing in this room, the site of events attended by Paris’s leading industrialists and thinkers in the 19th and early 20th century. It was quiet and we seemed miles away from the busy Boulevard St-Germain, which was just beyond the windows.

Eventually we reeled out onto the square and back into the 21st century. We decided to treat ourselves to a good lunch nearby. We celebrated our productive morning and toasted one final rule of research:

Rule #8: Most really interesting discoveries are a matter of serendipity.

Text by Philippa Campsie; opening photograph of Institut exterior from Google street view; all other photos by Philippa Campsie and Norman Ball.

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Art Nouveau and Aerodynamics in Auteuil

The southern reaches of the 16th arrondissement might be considered the Wild West of Paris. Auteuil was largely countryside when Haussmann was at work on central Paris, and his ideas about tidy facades that lined up neatly never stood much of a chance here. Art Nouveau, however, with its asymmetrical shapes and writhing decorations, settled down comfortably and took root. So did a unique laboratory created by Gustave Eiffel. One summer’s day, we decided to explore.

Appropriately enough, our walk began as we came out of one of the Metro exits designed by Hector Guimard. Who needs Halloween decorations when you have lights like this?

We passed one of Guimard’s early architectural efforts at 41, rue Chardon Lagache. It was created in 1892–93 for a grocer called Louis Victor Jassedé. It is now hemmed in by other buildings, but once it would have been one of the only houses in this area, with space on all sides. In fact, when it was built, the street was called rue du Point du Jour – the street of the break of day. If that seems an odd name for a western suburb, the legend goes that this area was given the name after an 18th-century duel that took place at dawn.*

I hope Mr. Jassedé liked the house Guimard built for him. We found it a little…incoherent. Guimard seems to have been trying too hard and had too many ideas for a single structure.

Next door, near the entrance to one of those private streets known as “villas,” is a calmer 1907 Guimard construction, the Hotel Deron-Levent, built for a textile merchant. Alas, poor Charles Deron-dit-Levent didn’t have long to enjoy his mansion. He died there in 1911. However, in 1912, Guimard was called upon to design his tombstone for the Auteuil Cemetery, so Mr. Deron got to live in a Guimard structure for eternity.

Another distinctive building in the neighbourhood (not by Guimard) was the Algerian embassy on the rue Boileau, built in 1908 as the Hotel Danois (the name of its original owner). The façade was not altered in any way when the embassy moved in; it has always looked like this.

Gaston George Charles Emmanuel Danois is in some sources listed as a civil engineer and in others as a chemical engineer. He also appears to have owned – or perhaps his family owned – a dry-cleaning company (blanchisserie) in Boulogne-Billancourt. How he came to commission this remarkable residence from the architect Joachim Richard and why he wanted such an unusual design remain mysteries. Like Mr. Deron next door, he died after only a few years in the house, in 1914.

But the main  destination of our walk was farther down the rue Boileau: the Laboratoire Aerodynamique, created by Gustave Eiffel. In the early 20th century, from his perch on top of the tower he designed, Eiffel became interested in meteorology (understandably). Over time, his study of the weather increasingly focused on winds and aerodynamics. He had been conducting research at the base of the Eiffel Tower, but the city wanted that space, so he moved his laboratory to Auteuil in 1912.

We gazed up at the building, desperately curious about what was inside. On a whim, I rang the doorbell. I figured I could at least ask if visits were possible.

After a while, a harried-looking man opened the door. No, he said, we would have inquire at the mairie to arrange a visit. For himself, he was busy right now. But he stepped back into the room to retrieve a pamphlet for us, and we followed him in. We closed the door politely behind us.

The room was set up with displays (there were even little models of streamlined cars), and since it was clearly intended for visitors, we felt a bit bolder.

Well, the man said, yes, we do sometimes give guided tours to groups, but he was very busy that day. I asked if we could take a few photographs. Erm, all right, but we had to understand that he was terribly busy.

I was starting to feel harried myself, and later I realized that several of the photos I took in haste were out of focus. But as I snapped away, I caught sight of the big central room with the wind tunnel. I pointed. Could we just take a quick look? Just for a moment?

Oh, if we must, he supposed, but he was really extremely busy. We moved towards the huge object, which turned out to be the air intake.

Norman, as a historian of technology, knew enough to ask some knowledgeable questions. In spite of himself, the man told us a bit about how it worked, and pointed to a diagram hanging on the wall.

The purpose of a wind tunnel is to determine how air flows around a particular shape. A stationary object in a wind tunnel behaves as it would if it were flying through the air. Engineers use wind tunnels to test the shapes of aircraft or cars or anything designed to go fast, or to test the performance of stable structures exposed to wind, such as bridges.

Eiffel’s work contributed enormously to early aviation and he continued his research throughout the First World War, publishing a summary of his main findings in 1919, by which time he was 87 years old. When he died four years later, aviation enthusiasts claimed that his contributions to aerodynamics vastly exceeded his contributions to civil engineering. Anybody can build a tower, they implied, but what Eiffel had learned about air flow was of greater importance.

And here we were standing where he did this pioneering work.

But yes, we understood that the fellow who had let us in was dreadfully busy and we really must go. It was lunchtime anyway and we found Le Tunnel Brasserie on the nearby boulevard Exelmans. It seemed to be something of a hangout for the laboratory staff.

We encourage you to explore Auteuil and we note that Eiffel’s laboratory may be open during Jours du Patrimoine in late September. Just don’t ring the doorbell on a working day. They’re awfully busy in there.

Text by Philippa Campsie; photographs by Philippa Campsie and Norman Ball.

*Antoine-François, comte de Coigny, was challenged and killed by Louis-Auguste, Prince de Dombes, on March 4, 1748. The prince was insulted by the count’s having mentioned that the prince’s father was an illegitimate son of Louis XIV. The duel (with swords) took place on the road between Paris and Versailles. There are varying accounts of what the count actually said and what happened that morning.

Posted in Paris architecture, Paris history, Paris quartiers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Postcards: Little windows into a vanished Paris

Many of our blogs begin with a postcard. That is not a coincidence. When we are rummaging through the bins of 1- and 2-euro cards at flea markets, we are drawn to images that make us stop and wonder, “What is that? Where is that? Why is that?”

I can’t remember where or when I bought this particular postcard, postmarked 1904, showing an unusual view of the Seine, but it raised those questions and I decided it was time to put them to rest.

You can see the Pont des Arts in the background and the Louvre on the right bank. In the foreground is a basin with a few barges as well as a row of floating, shuttered structures on the right. A large concrete pier separates two areas of the basin. At the far end of the basin is a series of abutments, connected by what appears to be a metal catwalk. There is also something moored on the far side of the river. I got out my loupe and peered at it closely.

It resolved itself into a small barge connected to the shore by a footbridge, with a two-storey building behind it and steps leading down from the upper quai to the lower embankment. There were signs on the barge and I could just make out the word Guillout on one of them. I could see a person standing on an open area of the barge, perhaps another on the footbridge. Already I had lots of questions.

I found another view, postmarked 1925, this one showing the same scene, but from the other side, so probably taken from the Pont des Arts.

The basin and the concrete pier are there, with a collection of barges between the pier and the embankment and assorted other craft in the basin. Seen from this angle, the abutments have steps cut into them. The shuttered structures are still there, on the left, looking somewhat the worse for wear. The bridge in the background is the Pont Neuf and beyond it on the left is the tower of the Préfecture de Police on the Quai des Orfèvres. In the distant background are the buildings on the east side of the Place St-Michel.

So far, so good. Having zeroed in on the location, I looked for a map. This took some time. Many maps provide exquisite detail of the land part of Paris, but very few showed details of the river. Finally, I found what I wanted in the Atlas municipal des vingt arrondissements de la ville de Paris, in a version dating from 1888 (the Atlas was updated every few years).

The map adds the word “écluse” or lock, and that provided the clue I needed. The lock was apparently known either as the Écluse de la Monnaie (the lock at the Monnaie or Mint – the nearest building on the Left Bank) or, less often, the Écluse du Pont Neuf.

But the map is somewhat inexact. The lock was the narrower part between the embankment and the concrete pier. The series of abutments between the Left Bank and the Ile de la Cité were part of a “barrage” or dam, known as the Barrage de la Monnaie. The whole thing was built in the early 1850s and remained in place until the 1920s.

It was part of a river control system. For centuries, goods entered Paris in bulk on a barge – coal, wood, wine, wheat, hay. But the Seine made an unreliable highway. Occasionally it froze in winter, and at other times the water level sank too low to allow for boats and barges.

Work in the first half of the 19th century on the Seine and its tributaries made the river easier to navigate. Dams and locks were constructed above and below Paris to control the flow. “Canalization” consisted of dredging, building up the banks on either side, and generally making the unruly river behave more like an obedient canal. (That is why the previous postcard has the words “Vers le canal” – this branch of the river had been made into a mini canal.) Meanwhile, new canals were built to bypass sections of the winding river entirely.

The “barrage éclusé” near the Monnaie allowed river traffic going upstream (east) to rise 1 metre during the trip through the city, making the journey easier for barges. Downstream traffic used the wider, unimpeded channel on the far side of the Ile de la Cité.

Finally, I found another postcard, postmarked 1907, clearly identifying the barrage. This image does not show the lock (out of sight on the right), but the much larger basin. Note the floating swimming school on the left, moored against the right bank. And the little pointy-topped structure at the end of the concrete pier.

Now look what happened during the flood of January 1910. This image is from Gallica. The pointy-topped structure is one of the few things poking up through the high water.

The flood was the beginning of the end for the lock and dam. Not only was the barrage damaged, but later efforts to prevent further floods made the lock redundant. The whole thing was finally demolished in 1924.

(By the way, in the flood photograph, what appear to be two spires on the far shore were part of the old Samaritaine department store. The scaffolding is probably from the enlargement of the store around this time. The white floating structure in front is the Bains de la Samaritaine – the Samaritaine baths – which eventually sank completely during the flood, leaving only the rooftop with its fake palm tree above the waves.)

But back to the original photograph. What about those floating, shuttered structures? A comparison with other Seine photographs on Paris en Images shows that they were bateaux-lavoirs – laundry boats – permanently moored beside the Square du Vert Galant at the downstream tip of the Ile de la Cité. Laundresses (lavandières) would bring piles of sheets and other laundry here for washing. There were many such barges up and down the river, but this central one was particularly large. And yes, the sheets were washed in river water (try not to think too hard about that). The shuttered openings could be raised to allow the laundresses direct access to the river.

As for the boat or barge on the far side of the river, I did some more squinting at it and decided that the large sign read “Exquise Goulliout.” A quick Google search explained this odd combination of words. Goulliout was the name of a biscuit manufacturer and exquises were a form of biscuit. It was an advertisement.

Another hunt through our postcard collection turned up a view of the Right Bank in this location with an indecipherable postmark. There are two barges, covered with advertisements, linked to the shore with footbridges, and two boats moored to the barges. The nearer one is filled with men in top hats and women with parasols. They are bateaux-omnibus or river buses and the barges linked to the shore served as the waiting rooms and ticket offices. My 1910 Baedecker indicates that the stop in this location served the Charenton–Auteuil line.

Finally, I examined the two-storey structure beyond the boat. I realized it was on what used to be called the “Quai du Louvre” (most of which is now called the Quai François Mitterand). I did a search for that name on Paris en Images and lo and behold, at the very bottom, I saw a photograph by Charles Marville: the Bureau des voitures à voie ferrée Vincennes-Sèvres.

Bureau des voitures à voie ferrée Vincennes-Sèvres, quai du Louvre. Menuiserie. Paris (Ier arr.), entre 1858 et 1878. Photographie de Charles Marville (1813-1879). Paris, musée Carnavalet.

Voitures à voie ferré” (vehicles on iron rails) I take to be trams. This service linked the centre of Paris with the eastern (Vincennes) and western (Sèvres) suburbs. On Wikipedia, I found the same image labelled, “Bureau d’Omnibus de la Compagnie Générale, quai du Louvre.”

This is the view from the upper level of the quay; the lower part is invisible. But the original photograph showed steps going down to the lower level, so this would have been an interchange between the trams and the river buses. Makes sense.

Having satisfied my curiosity about the original postcard, I searched for other images of the locks and barrage. I think my favourite is this one from Gallica, showing the abutments being used as springboards for a women’s swimming competition in 1913. It also gives a sense of scale for the dam. It’s larger than it seemed in the first postcard.

I also found an oil painting of the lock, dated 1907, by Marie-Gabriel Biessy, showing the locks in the evening with the lights from the Pont Neuf sparkling on the water.

So now, if you happen to see an image like this…

…you will know what you are looking at. You’re welcome.

And if you have a mysterious Paris postcard or photograph image you cannot place, I’m willing to have a go at identifying it.

For more stories inspired by postcards, see “A palace of commerce and a 1904 rendez-vous,” “The postcard collector,” or “Postcards of a working river.”

Text by Philippa Campsie. Map from Portail des bibliothèques municipales spécialisées. Postcards from our collection. Photographs from Gallica and Paris en Images. Painting from Artnet.

Posted in Paris bridges, Paris maps, Paris postcards, Paris travel, Seine | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

The ugliest building in Paris

In the last blog, I mentioned Gabriel Davioud, who is credited with designing some of the classic street furniture of Paris. I wanted to know more about him. That proved to be a challenge. The ordinarily helpful Gallica offered 25 images of his creations, from monuments to theatres to an over-the-top lamp standard he created for the 1867 Exposition. But no articles, no books, no biography.

Eventually, I tracked down an exhibition catalogue published in 1982 by the mairies of the 16th and 19th arrondissements, called Davioud: Architecte de Paris. There were no copies in Toronto, but I was able to get one through inter-library loan. It begins:

Parisians do not know Davioud… And yet of all the architects who have shaped modern Paris, the city we see every day, Gabriel Davioud (1824–1881), who was born and died in Paris, is the one who contributed most strongly to give us an image of the capital so familiar we cannot imagine that it could be different.

« Les parisiens ne connaissent pas Davioud… Et pourtant de tous les architectes qui ont modelé le Paris moderne, celui que nous contemplons tous les jours, Gabriel Davioud (1824–1881), né et mort à Paris, est celui qui a le plus puissamment contribué à nous donner de la capitale une image tellement familière que nous n’imaginons pas qu’elle eût pu être différent. »

Well put, I thought. Then I looked at the frontispiece, his portrait, with the words “M. Davioud, Architecte du Palais du Trocadéro” underneath.

Really? That monstrosity?

Before I inflict the full horror on you, I will give you the view from a distance, in a postcard dated 1904 we found in a flea market. The writer has used the arch of the Eiffel Tower to shape an invitation to lunch to some friends. (I hope they made it.)

The beastly thing was built for the 1878 exposition. Davioud died three years later, perhaps of embarrassment.

The next view shows the vast wings extending to either side, with,visible on the left, one of the pavilions that terminated these extensions.

Here’s a closer view, slightly off-centre because of what appear to be repairs to the Iéna bridge, which links the site to the Champ de Mars.

The middle part is a very large theatre, in case you are wondering. The book contains a cutaway view. The auditorium housed an enormous pipe organ, and Charles-Marie Widor played at its inauguration.

Looking at it in all its awfulness, I have questions. What was there before? How did it get its name? (The current occupant of the site is called the Palais de Chaillot.) What on earth was Davioud trying to accomplish? And what happened to it in the end?

First, the history of the site. Until the mid-19th century, this was the far western edge of the city, with a customs barrier where the wall met the river. There had been a convent here at one point, but it was destroyed during the Revolution.

Napoleon Bonaparte envisioned a massive palace here, even bigger and better than Versailles, which he was going to call the Palais du Roi de Rome. (The King of Rome was Bonaparte’s son, who reigned for about two weeks as Napoleon II.) He had plans drawn up by Charles Percier et Pierre Fontaine. Construction started in 1811, but petered out when the Empire crumbled in 1814–1815. Here’s a view of how it would have looked.

Note the curving colonnades, possibly inspired by the curved colonnades in front of St. Peter’s in Rome. That idea persisted in what came later.

A decade went by. The monarchy was restored. And in 1823, there was something to celebrate – a French military victory at the Trocadéro Fort in Spain, near Cadiz. The French had gone there to liberate King Ferdinand VII, who had been imprisoned for refusing to accept a constitution. The French attack was successful, the king was freed, and absolute monarchy was re-established in Spain.

Bad cause, good victory. And the French needed a victory to make themselves feel better after the defeat of Waterloo. National rejoicing ensued. In 1826, a military jamboree, complete with a temporary Arc de Triomphe (the permanent one was still under construction), was held on the Chaillot heights to celebrate the triumph of Trocadéro. And that pretty much explains the name.

Further plans for the hill came and went. One included an obelisk as a permanent memorial of the Battle of Trocadéro (why an obelisk? you may well ask, and I have no answer), surrounded by some Mediterranean-looking houses, at least one of which was to serve as a military barracks. That went nowhere, but the artist’s renderings were interesting.

More decades went by. A bird’s-eye view map from about 1850 shows open land with some trees and a residential area nearby.

For the 1867 exposition, the land was cleared to create an open area on a slope offering views across the river to the exposition grounds. Then in 1876, the powers-that-be decided to extend the 1878 exposition site across the river from the Champ de Mars, and a competition was held for a building to crown the Chaillot hill. Davioud and another architect called Jules Bourdais jointly won the competition and collaborated on the plans.

According to a modern French description it is “a Moorish, neo-Byzantine palace”  (« un palais mauresque néo-byzantin »). I think that is architecture-speak for something designed by a committee. Maybe Davioud and Bourdais didn’t get on.

The book I borrowed quotes critical assessments for and against. My favourite is from Marcel Proust, and appears in “The Prisoner,” part of A la Recherche de Temps Perdu:

As a monument, it’s pretty ugly, don’t you think? (« Comme monument c’est assez moche, n’est-ce pas? »)

Some writers tried to find something nice to say. Others gave up.

Charles Blanc : What appreciably redeems the obesity of the palace in the centre is the height of the two towers on either side. Ce qui rachète sensiblement l’obésité du palais au centre du plan, c’est la hauteur des deux tours dont il est flanqué»)

Jules Simon: I admit that the rotunda is perhaps a little vulgar.  J’avoue que cette rotonde est peut-être un peu vulgaire. »)

Joris-Karl Huysmans : It’s a mess of platitude and pastiche. (« C’est le gâchis dans la platitude et le pastiche»)

Construction of the building revealed, as it does so often in Paris, quarries underneath the Chaillot hill. Making a virtue of necessity, the builders shored them up and opened them to the public. Oddly, this subterranean area was known as the Aquarium du Trocadéro.

Anyway, for about sixty more years, the Trocadéro palace squatted on the Chaillot hill and glowered across at two more expositions, in 1889 and 1901. The jaunty name, its most endearing feature, was borrowed for picture palaces, dance halls, restaurants, and nightclubs in England, Australia, and the United States.

Finally, the organizers of the 1937 exposition decided that the obese rotunda and the towers had to go. The current building is a reworking of what was left (the two smaller structures that remained on either side of the rotunda, the building’s basement, and the curved colonnades) in an Art Deco style.*

The Palais de Chaillot is now the home of one of our favourite galleries: the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, where we have seen amazing exhibits ranging from detailed model buildings and landscapes made from cut-out paper to an exhibition focusing on the links between urban architecture and bandes dessinés (comic strips).

Meanwhile, an ornate window frame and an arched doorway from the old toad remain like garden gnomes in the grounds to this day.

Text by Philippa Campsie. Postcards from our collection; map, aquarium, and exposition images from Gallica; images of unbuilt projects and the vestiges in the gardens from Wikipédia.

*One of the architects involved was Jacques Carlu, known in Toronto for his design of the Eaton auditorium on College Street, now an event space called The Carlu.

Further reading: Délégation à l’Action Artistique de la Ville de Paris, Gabriel Davioud: Architecte de Paris, Mairies Annexes des XVIe and XIXe Arrondissements, 1981–1982.

Posted in Paris architecture, Paris expositions, Paris history | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Are you sitting down?

A few years ago, I bought a folding shopping bag from Monoprix, which I have used regularly ever since. The pattern on it is intended to represent Paris: the Eiffel Tower, the French flag, a person with shopping parcels, a suitcase, a tree, and a bench. Gazing idly at it the other day, it occurred to me that the anonymous designer had avoided some of the worst Paris clichés (such as poodles) and offered a take on Paris that suggested tourism, shopping, and sitting down in the shade. And that got me thinking about benches.

Today, benches are ubiquitous on Paris boulevards and in parks. It was not always so. Before the days of Haussmann, sitting down in the street meant either a chair outside a bar, or making use of a convenient chasse-roue, as we see in this photo by Charles Marville.

Rue Gracieuse (from the rue Daubenton). Paris (Vth arrondissement), 1866. Photograph by Charles Marville (1813-1879). Paris, bibliothèque de l’Hôtel de Ville.

Even gardens were short on benches. The opening pages of Les Promenades de Paris by Adolphe Alphand (c1870) contain a brief illustrated history of gardens going back to the Egyptians, including gardens in Japan and China, and formal gardens from the French and Italian Renaissance. Is anybody sitting down in any of the pictures? No. Ladies and gentlemen drift through the landscape admiring the parterres and the statues and the long vistas, but nobody is seated.

The first picture in Alphand’s book to show anybody sitting down is on page 213, in a view of the Square des Arts et Métiers.

The rest of the book is a high-level how-to for public gardens, with examples drawn from Alphand’s own creations: the Bois de Boulogne, the Bois de Vincennes, the Parc Monceau, and the Buttes-Chaumont, among others. If you want precise instructions for planting a full-grown tree or creating a water system for a fountain, Alphand is your man.

Among the detailed diagrams for everything from pavilions to pissoirs are three for benches that any Paris visitor will recognize: the curvy version with multiple slats (known as the “gondole”), the simple planks held up with metal supports that resemble tree branches (the Buttes-Chaumont model), and the two-sided version usually seen in the boulevards (banc-double).

The designs are usually attributed to Gabriel Davioud, along with the designs of other quintessential elements of street furniture, such as lamp standards and news kiosks. Did Davioud actually draw the designs himself? Or did he simply sign off on designs created by his staff in his capacity as the “chief architect of Paris promenades” under Alphand? Whichever it was, his is the name attached to them.

The three designs are still in evidence today. The gondole shown here is in the Bois de Boulogne, in a spot favoured by the resident cats.

This Buttes-Chaumont model is actually in the Square des Batignolles. This design is part of a trend visible in many parks to imitate wood in metal or concrete.

And this rather grubby banc double is from the boulevard Edgar Quinet, just outside the Cimitière de Montparnasse.

There is also a hybrid model : a single bench made with uprights similar to those of the banc-double. This one is in rue Cardinet, just outside the new Clichy-Batignolles-Martin Luther King park.

According to urbanist Stéphane Malek, the first benches were not just places to rest, but theatre seats that allowed the flâneur to watch the passing parade – and to be seen as well. Malek produced a fairly exhaustive study of public benches for his master’s thesis in 2011, which included maps of the density, location, and even altitude of benches across Paris, created by cartographer Jules Grandin, and displayed on Grandin’s website.

I’m not entirely sure what insight can be gained from that level of detail, but it is impressive, and I say this as someone who has spent a considerable time reading papers by master’s students.

What is more interesting is the social function of benches. An interesting detail comes from an 1898 Baedecker guide (p. 74), which explains that chairs on the boulevards can be rented for 10 centimes, but benches are free.

There is something inherently democratic about a bench. One might sit next to almost anyone (hence the popularity of the park bench as a setting for New Yorker cartoons). Benches also allow for hand-holding, kissing, and all sorts of romantic encounters. Georges Brassens sings about them in “Les Amoureux des Bancs Publics.”

Nowadays, couples are more likely to be studying their portable phones on benches than engaging in romantic dalliance.

Norman and I have a bench that is part of our history together – the one where we had our first picnic in Paris, the day after our arrival, on our first trip to the city together. Some years later, we went back to the Place Constantin Pecqueur in Montmartre. It is a tiny park with a few trees, a statue, and a great many benches. The benches have been moved away from the centre of the park where we sat, so we do not know exactly which one is “ours.” But it would have been one like this.

The range and shape of benches has enlarged over the years, and so have the numbers of places to sit down in public in Paris, from bus stops to the steps of the new Opera. But there is something timeless about the painted green wood, the shady tree nearby (the designer of that Monoprix bag knew that trees and benches often go together) and the feeling that so many others have been here before, kissing, holding hands, picnicking, laughing, crying, chatting, checking their messages, or watching the world pass by.

Text and original photographs by Philippa Campsie. Marville photograph from Paris en Images. Alphand illustrations from Gallica. Final photograph taken in the park just outside the Picpus cemetery.


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Avoiding the crowds in Versailles

It may seem impertinent to write about Versailles on Bastille Day, the ultimate Republican holiday, but I am not talking about that Versailles – the royal chateau, now overrun with tourists. I want to talk about the other Versailles – the attractive town with its quiet tree-lined streets and bustling markets. In Versailles, getting off the beaten track is easy, since there is only one beaten track. Everything else is uncrowded and peaceful by comparison.

I went in April, with our friend Mireille, in pursuit of Charles Barbier, the original inventor of point-writing (precursor to Louis Braille). As I mentioned last time, most of what has been written about him is balderdash and I am trying to set the record straight.

Barbier lived in Versailles in the 1820s, and I wanted to learn more about his time there, if possible. I had two addresses for him, and I knew that the Archives communales de Versailles had records of a yearly census that had taken place in the 1820s. That was enough to plan a visit.

So on a sunny Friday, we endured a crowded RER ride from Les Invalides. We got off at the Rive Gauche station, and headed along Avenue Général de Gaulle. And when everyone else from the train surged left towards the chateau, we kept going towards a residential area. Our way led through the Marché Notre Dame, which was in full swing.

It was tempting to dawdle there, but we carried on and found our first address: No. 4, rue Sainte-Victoire. The building was old enough to be the one that Barbier would have known. It was on a quiet narrow street, and we could see tantalizing glimpses of gardens behind the houses. In fact, I placed my camera on the ground and took a shot underneath a gate (okay, I’m nosy).

We circled the block to see what else might be visible, but the houses kept their secrets.

The second address was just around the corner: No. 95, boulevard de la Reine. Just as this was beginning to seem too easy, I saw something that made my heart sink: No. 91, ancient No. 75.

Zut alors! The street had been renumbered at some point, probably after Barbier’s time. So I snapped away at likely-looking houses in the vicinity, hoping that I could sort out the numbering at the archives.

We were diverted to see that the utility boxes on the boulevard were decorated with illustrations from La Fontaine’s Fables. Barbier used those fables to illustrate some of his alternative forms of writing, including this one of the fox and the grapes.

By this time, we were ready for lunch, so we retraced our steps and had a choice of inviting cafés and bistros on the streets surrounding the market.

The market was closing up as we walked through it after lunch. I spotted a stand selling baskets for 5 euros and picked out one into which I dumped my notebook, my pencil case, my map, and my cardigan (by then unneeded).

Finding the archives proved to be more difficult than we expected. The mailing address I had written down turned out to be the magnificent city hall.

The interior was every bit as grand as the chateau, and we had it all to ourselves.

We asked the man at the desk at the foot of the imposing staircase. No, the archives were in a different building, “over there, across the street,” he said, gesturing vaguely. Since the city hall stands at a large intersection, “across the street” could be interpreted in a number of ways.

We set out in the direction of his gesture and found ourselves walking towards the chateau. We inquired at the Écuries du Roi (the former royal stables). Nobody there had even heard of the Archives communales. We returned to the intersection and tried the other side of the street. We passed an interesting installation made of curving staircases.

We also noticed an amusing trompe-l’oeil in the window of a nearby building.

Finally we spotted a small blue sign, positioned sideways, beside the entrance to a courtyard. Aha!

Some cars were parked in the courtyard, and only after working our way around the periphery did we see another blue sign. It told visitors to go around the corner and through another archway. We found the entrance, with a stairway leading upwards. The archives were on the top floor. Up we toiled, to find a spacious room lined with bookcases, containing large tables and computer monitors.

An archivist showed us how to view the censuses on the computers. Mireille and I sat down beside each other and we each chose a different year to begin with. After a few false starts, we found our man.

The census covered five years of his stay in Versailles, during which time he was living in the boulevard de la Reine.

1824: Barbier is described as a “rentier célibataire” (single man of independent means) aged 61 (he was actually 57), paying 50 francs a year for lodging. Clearly the census takers weren’t fussy about getting ages correct.

1825: Barbier “et sa femme” are living in 2 rooms and paying 60 francs a year. What! All the other records suggest that Barbier never married. And why didn’t they give the woman a name?

1826: Barbier, 62 (he was 59), “et une bonne” (maid) are living in 2 rooms and paying 70 francs a year.

1827: Barbier, 60 (bingo! finally!), “et une bonne” are living in 2 rooms and paying 70 francs a year. Maybe the “wife” of 1825 was actually a maid. Or Barbier had a live-in significant other he was passing off as a maid. How will we ever know when we don’t even have a name to go by?

1828: Barbier is now living alone in one room and paying either 30 or 50 francs a year (the handwriting was not clear). The nameless woman in his life (who might have been a maid or a lover or both) has gone and Barbier has downsized (money troubles?).  At some point in the year following the census, Barbier returned to Paris, and he does not appear in the 1829 census.

That was all. I had been hoping that the census might identify how Barbier described himself in terms of his work (inventor? writer?). I was hoping for a clue to his decision to live in Versailles during those years. And the archivists were unable to help with the question of changed street numbers, so I still don’t know which house on the boulevard de la Reine he lived in.

Ah, well. We had a mercifully uncluttered day in Versailles, a good walk, a good lunch, and found some unexpected information to chew on. As we squeezed ourselves into a train bulging with weary, sweaty tourists, we felt quite smug.

Text and photographs by Philippa Campsie

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