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The Gilded Age

The Beautification of Paris

By the mid-19th century, when Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (or Napoléon III, nephew of number one) took up the reins of France, Paris had become a squalid breeding ground for disease, overpopulation, low morale and general ill repute. For some (the ruling classes), they were the best of times; for most, the worst of times. Something had to give. And so, Napoléon appointed the ambitious Georges-Eugène Haussmann, lifelong civil servant, as prefect of the Seine tasked with a major overhaul of the city, and so began the Gilded Age of the city.

The Gilded Age

Over the next two decades, from 1853 to 1870 – a period when Paris essentially resembled a building site – Baron Haussmann oversaw a staggering array of public works projects: the construction of two new train stations to rival those of London and Berlin; a general overhaul of the sewer system; the modernisation of irregular, medieval dwellings into the gorgeous, ordered apartment blocks characteristic of Paris today; and that oh-so-Parisian perk, the city’s spacious boulevards, to name just a few improvements. His work was met with a mixed bag of criticism and praise. Although Paris had become healthier, more spacious and boasted formidable architectural developments, families and businesses were displaced, critics bemoaned the loss of the historical “Old” Paris, and residents grew weary of the relentless construction work (not to mention the exorbitant cost). Nevertheless, the city was transformed into a place of opportunity rather than perdition, with an improved quality of life.

It was during this time that Paris saw a brand new layer begin to form around two millennia of architecture and infrastructure: an eclectic makeover of sorts, drawing on ancient Greco-Roman elements here, offset by Baroque and Rococo details there. The Palais Garnier Opera House, the Louvre’s Pavillon Richelieu, the Tribunal de Commerce (Commercial Court) and Théâtre du Châtelet were just some of the landmarks erected at the time, all of which have since come to define the Parisian aesthetic. The city was also one of the first in Europe to embrace the use of gas streetlamps in the 1860s – hence the name City of Light.

Long before that, the city survived multiple Viking and English invasions and bubonic plagues, built the Notre Dame de Paris (one of the greatest architectural feats of the Middle Ages), founded the famed University of Paris as a celebration of knowledge, and eventually became one of the preeminent cities of the Renaissance.

Over the centuries, Paris has lived up to this name in more ways than one. It has served as a beacon of light for the people of France, and indeed the world at large. Paris was the main intellectual hub during the Age of Enlightenment – an era often credited with planting the seed of the French Revolution, the American Revolution and its subsequent Constitution, the abolition of slavery, and even feminism.

Since the Enlightenment, Paris has seen one of the most famous revolutions of all time, been home to an egomaniacal ruler from Corsica (uncle of number three, in case you don’t follow, whom history books revere and revile in equal measure), and produced the Belle Époque – that golden era of peace, love and free thought, during which the arts flourished. The city has also come to symbolise the resilience of the human spirit, both in the wake of the Nazi occupation during WWII and of more recent acts of terrorism.

Throughout every one of the seven ages of Paris, it could never resist garnishing with gold its rooftops, cherubs, angels and gods, its interiors and exteriors, and any other embellishment, great or small….

As though unable to resist – through thick and thin – a little elevation of the soul.