A beautiful spiral staircase tower in one of the Hôtel de Ville's internal courtyards
This past weekend the European Heritage Days (journées européennes du patrimoine) took place, meaning free access to many buildings and monuments throughout the continent. Pushed on by my visiting brother-in-law, we really took advantage of this once-a-year event. After our long and busy Saturday, waking up at an early hour on Sunday seemed impossible. But near-miraculously, by about 11am we were out the door and headed to the Hôtel de Ville – Paris’s City Hall.
I was happy enough about visiting the place, which is normally closed to the public, with the exception of a library and a small museum featuring free and usually excellent temporary exhibits of art, photography, and/or elements of Parisian history. (This latter is definitely something to check out if you’re planning a trip here.) Besides my general curiosity, I was also excited to see inside the Hôtel de Ville because it would bring me that much closer to Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë, one of my heroes, and probably my favorite living politician.
I have to admit, I don’t really follow politics, but I think that Delanoë runs our city well – and represents the ideal kind of world for me, and a great part of the French mentality: respected for his skills at his job, no one cares that the mayor is openly gay. In addition, though he could have taken an extensive portion of the Hôtel de Ville for his personal quarters, Delanoë opted instead to use a lot of it for a nursery where city hall employees’ children could spend the day close to their parents. Add to this a past as a partier, and a lifelong love and patronage of art, and in my opinion, we’ve got one truly great man as Mayor. In my own little way, I’ve awarded Delanoë the highest symbol of my trust and admiration, by putting a picture of him in our bathroom. I knew he probably wouldn’t be mingling with visitors at the Hôtel de Ville that day, but what a thrill it would be to see his office!
Besides that, though, I wasn’t overly excited. The Hôtel de Ville could have been a really interesting visit, I thought, had it been the original building, which was constructed from 1533-1628.
But in 1871, during the turbulent final days of the Paris Commune (a revolutionary Socialist government that took over the city for a few months before being crushed by the official French leaders), it was set on fire, like many other buildings that represented oppressive authority. After the blaze, the Hôtel de Ville was a ruined shell of itself.
After the fire, 1871 (image source)
Ruins of one of the grand reception rooms, photo by Charles Marville (image source)
Almost immediately after, work began to rebuild it, following more or less the same plans as the original – but on a slightly larger scale. The project would span most of the 1870's and half of the 1880's.
The Hôtel de Ville today. (image source)
One thing I hadn’t thought about was how the "new" Hôtel de Ville would be decorated inside. I was in for an incredible treat.
We only had to wait on line 15 minutes or so before getting in. We were glad it wasn’t longer – although a very peppy jazz band had come out to entertain the crowd, so I felt some slight regret as we got to the metal detectors and prepared to enter.
One of the building's interior courtyards:
At first, the inside was what I expected, full of pomp and circumstance, and friendly government employees handing out free information and brochures. Here, though, the first great surprise of the day was that there were also brochures of themed walking tours of the city – very cool.
The grand staircase was lovely – but it wasn’t till we got to the top that I had an inkling of what was in store:
At the top of the stairs, looking up you could imagine you were in one of Paris's very ornate churches, not a government building.
Just after the magnificent archway was "L'hiver" (“Winter”), a huge fresco by 19th century Symbolist painter Puvis de Chavannes, one of my favorite artists. “Summer,” another fresco by de Chavannes, was on the opposite wall:
The stained glass windows mimicked Renaissance designs, featuring the coats of arms of different guilds –
- but as I looked up, the ceiling just above us was most definitely…Belle-Époque.
It turns out that, though the exterior of the Hôtel de Ville was more or less a replica of the old one, the interior had been given a contemporary design. In addition to Puvis de Chavannes, dozens of minor Belle-Époque painters – often given free range in how to interpret and portray their subjects – had decorated the lavish rooms we were about to walk through. Oh. my. gosh. My love for the Belle-Epoque is almost equal to my love for chocolate - BIG. The boyfriend looked over at me as we entered the first of the Hôtel de Ville's ornate reception rooms. I felt like I was glowing more than the gilded wall details.
“If the original Hôtel de Ville hadn’t burnt down, they probably wouldn’t have rooms here decorated like this,” I murmured. “It’s like a phoenix from the ashes,” my boyfriend observed.
A beautiful motif decorates an unusually bare wall.
What followed was a bit of a blur – gorgeous reception room upon gorgeous reception room, late 19th century decorative elements, frescoes, canvasses, and statues as far as the eye could see.
Here are some of my absolute favorite images, though it was hard to narrow down:
A crowd of 19th century men meets some muses.
The figure in this painting, who might represent "La fée éléctricité" (the electricity fairy), gave us a sort of steampunk vibe.
Beautiful paintings on a part one of the room's very ornate ceilings:
The breathtaking salle des fêtes reception room made me think of the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. According to this article, that was the intended effect....:
In this detail of a very elaborate mural, a medieval Parisian crowd watches a king enter the city:
This massive mural shows Louis XVI's visit to City Hall. My brother-in-law pointed out the contrast of the courtiers' clothing and the sober outfits of the city council members. Sort of the old guard and the new.
Even the view outside the windows was magnificent:
Overhanging the curtains in one room were elaborate embroderies with the coat of arms of Paris in the center:
One of the smaller(!) reception rooms:
This wonderful statue was ready to party:
Detail of one of the many, many ornately decorated walls:
Paris's coat of arms has its place in the ceiling decorations:
In this ceiling painting, a Belle-Epoque singer's performance evokes the gods and spirits of music:
In a spirit of fairness and respect, the city hall workers had decided to have the grand rooms filled with stalls featuring professionals whose contributions to the building might have otherwise been overlooked: electricians, clockmakers, woodworkers, even the cleaning crew had their booths. Unfortunately, the booths blocked up the large spaces – but the gesture was wonderful. And one of the booths even made me laugh – the costume designers’. They create outfits for various city programs, including the promotion of safe sex, as these two proudly displayed glittery condom costumes attest:
After strolling through the reception rooms, we continued on to the Bibliothèque de l’Hôtel de Ville (City Hall Library), a classified historical monument that’s open to the public and is a charming example of 19th century library architecture.
My life story, in the Bibliothèque de l’Hôtel de Ville?:
The reading room seems to be completely wood-paneled, but in true mid- to- late 19th century style, the ceiling vaults are actually made of metal. They were skillfully painted to stay in harmony with the rest:
From the windows in the corridor that connects the library with the rest of the building, a rare view of a portion of the stunning courtyard tower and part of the Hôtel de Ville’s signature rooftop:
After that, we arrived at the hémicycle. While I’d seen these amphitheater-style debating/voting areas at the Assemblée Nationale, and, the day before, at the Sénat, I hadn’t realized that even here, one was necessary. But it made sense – the city council and other committees did have a lot to vote on, after all. Not that I hadn't thought about it before, but the entire Hôtel de Ville experience really brought home what a prosperous, busy, complex place Paris must be to run.
Though the reception rooms had been even more extensive and breathtaking than those of the Sénat, the hémicycle here was (understandably) much smaller – and much less ornately decorated. Still, it did have one thing the other hémicycles don’t: Bertrand Delanoë’s chair!!!!
A little further on, down a hallway bordering a magnificent staircase decorated with more Puvis de Chavannes frescoes, we arrived at what I’d been waiting all day to see: Bertrand Delanoë’s office!!!! It was hard to get a good picture of the huge corner space, with windows looking out onto Notre Dame and the lovely facades of the northeastern end of the Ile de la Cité, but the boyfriend, who’s much taller than me, managed to get the camera over the dense crowd to capture Monsieur le Maire’s desk – and the contemporary painting that exemplified the room’s general artistic adornments.
After going down that sublime staircase,
we ended up in a small private garden. There, a little tent was set up where you could get a free Polaroid of yourself and a friend with your heads on the bodies of typical Hôtel de Ville statues. I thought that was a really fun touch – and a great way to end the visit.
The Hôtel de Ville was definitely a surprise. If you love late 19th century art and are here during the European Heritage days, it’s a must-see. I’m so happy we went! Now if only I could meet Bertrand Delanoë himself…..
The back of the Hôtel de Ville.
If you'd like to see pictures from inside another grandiose government building in Paris, please feel free to click here for photos from my visit to the Palais du Luxembourg, home to the French Senate.