Ar a very early period the municipality of Paris became conscious of its power and importance, and it was not long before the chief officer of the city, who was known as the Prévot des Marchands (Provost of the Merchants), acquired both the dignity and influence to which his position entitled him. He was, by virtue of his office, the head of the Council of Merchants which traced its origin back to the days of the Romans, and which became, in the Thirteenth Century, the Municipal Corps, and had its privileges confirmed by royal ordinance. This body first held its meetings in a house on the Quai de la Mégisserie, in the vicinity of the Grand Châtelet, and subsequently in a house which stood on the site of the present Place du Châtelet. Later still, the meetings were held on the opposite side of the river, near the Porte Saint-Michel. Feeling the necessity for some fixed place for the city Government, Étienne Marcel, the famous Mayor of Paris, bought a house situated on the Place de Grève, and called the House of Pillars (Maison aux Piliers), from the row of massive pillars which adorned the front and supported the first floor. It was sometimes known as the Dauphin's House, because Charles V. had lived there whilst he was dauphin. This was the commencement of the present Hôtel de Ville.
In 1529, the House of Pillars was found unsuited to the necessities of the municipality, and was pulled down, and on the 15th July, 1533, the first stone of the present edifice was laid. It was not completed, however, until 1605, during the reign of Henry IV. It was considered a splendid establishment at the time, but was so far from supplying the wants of the city in the Eighteenth century, that in 1770 it was proposed to abandon it and build a larger town-hall on the south side of the Seine just below the Pont Neuf. This plan was not carried out.
The present splendid structure was erected principally during the reign of Louis Philippe. The old building was found to be too small and too common for the uses demanded of it, and it was resolved to enlarge it. The work was begun in 1837, and finished in 1841. The old building, which comprises the centre of the front of the present edifice and the court back of it, was allowed to remain, but was very much improved. The houses and churches that surrounded it, from the river to the present Rue de Rivoli, and from the Place de l' Hôtel de Ville to the rear of the present edifice, were swept away, and the hall enlarged to its existing dimensions.
It is at present one of the handsomest buildings in Europe. It forms an immense quadrangle about three hundred feet long by about two hundred and fifty feet deep, and has three fine courts in the style of the Renaissance. Its principal front is towards the west, and is massive and handsomely ornamented; the central portion and the two pavilions with pointed roofs which flank it, constitute the front of the original pile. The buildings and pavilions at the north and south corners were erected during Louis Philippe's reign. The façade on the Place Lobau, which forms the rear of the Hôtel, and the lateral galleries connecting it with the western front, date from the same period.
Two immense archways, used upon state occasions, lead from the street to the courts, but the principal entrance is by the doorway in the centre, under the statue of Henry IV., which adorns this part of the building. Over the statue is an illuminated clock, and above that still an eight-sided bell tower. The building is two stories and an attic high, and is surrounded by niches containing statues of the great men of Frailce, who have been famous in the history of the city, from the earliest times down to Lafayette. It is said that there are several hundred statues in and about the building.
Entering by the gateway under the statue of Henry IV., the visitor finds himself in a splendid court, which formed a part of the old building, but which has been covered with a glass roof under the present empire. It is handsomely paved, and is decorated with colored marbles. A statue of Louis XIV., as a Roman warrior, and one of Charlemagne stand in the court. Just opposite the entrance is a fine stairway, consisting of two flights, ornamented with fountains. It was built for the reception of Queen Victoria, at the time of her first visit to Paris, and leads to the apartments of State.
"There are two suites of State apartments: the first and oldest on the lower floor, and inhabited by the Prefect, are not generally shown; they are in the primitive building, and contain the Salle du Trône, ninety-five feet long; the chimney pieces at each end are of the time of Henry IV. This room is magnificently decorated, and is used for State banquets, and will hold two hundred guests. On the walls are allegorical paintings intended to represent Paris at different epochs from the fifth century. Here was the Cabinet Vert, so called from its green draperies, where Robespierre, Couthon, and St. Just were arrested on the 5th Thermidor, in the year 5. From its window Louis XVI., in a bonnet rouge, appeared before the mob, and from it Lafayette presented Louis Philippe to the people in 1830. On the landing place leading to this hall, Robespierre and his associates attempted suicide. In the adjoining Salle de Zodiaque are wainscotings by Jean Goujon. In one of the rooms called Salle Victoria are busts of the Queen and Prince Albert, presented by them to the city of Paris after a magnificent ball given in their honor by the city on the 25th August, 1855.
"The rooms which are shown were decorated in the reign of Louis Philippe, so as to make them perhaps the most gorgeous apartments in gorgeous Paris, towards which painting, gilding, carving, glass, and velvet have done their utmost. They are entered by a passage from Escalier A, in Great Court on the right. The first two rooms offer nothing very remarkable. In the second one are seen the marks of two balls fired in 1848. The third is most splendid, the Salon des Arcades, seventy-one feet long, and divided into compartments by magnificent gilt arches; the ceilings are covered with modern allegorical paintings of the sciences, and the walls with arabesques. The chandeliers and vases are magnificent. Beyond this is the large naked dining hall, leading to the Salle de Napoleon I., which contains his portrait by Gerard, and on the vault a large painting of his apotheosis by Ingres. From here opens the Galerie des Fétes, a vast ball-room, occupying nearly the whole eastern length of the building, having at each extremity ante-rooms called the Salles des Prévots, opening on the grand staircase, in which are relief busts of the Prévots des Marchands or Mayors of Paris, from 1205 to 1705, and forming a kind of cornice. The great gallery is magnificently painted and furnished, surrounded by gilt Corinthian columns, and lighted by chandeliers which contain nearly 3,000 wax-lights. At each extremity are the music galleries. The whole suite is upwards of 1,000 yards in length, and is lighted and thrown open to some 7,000 guests, at the balls given by the Prefect. A certain number of tickets for these balls are sent to the different ambassadors through whom strangers may obtain admission."
The Hôtel de Ville is the official residence of the Mayor of Paris, or Prefect of the Seine, as he has been styled since 1789. It may be seen on certain days of the week by applying to the Prefect for tickets of admission, which are usually granted without hesitation. In addition to the State apartments, it contains the rooms of the Prefect, which occupy the side facing the river, four hundred offices for the clerks connected with the municipal government, magnificent apartments, for the sessions of the Council, and a library containing 70,000 volumes. This collection is particularly rich in documents relating to the history of Paris, and in works concerning the towns and cities of France.
There are few buildings more interesting in an historical point of view, for its history is almost that of the city of Paris. It was the central point of the émeute of the Maillotins, in 1358; and in 1606 was resplendent with the fetes which welcomed Henry IV. to his capital; and during the troubles of the Frondé was one of the most important points of the city. In 1660, Louis XIV. was married here to Maria Theresa, and in 1759 it witnessed the marriage of the daughter of Louis XV. to the Duke of Parma. In 1765, the Dauphin was married here. It was not until after the capture of the Bastille, however, that the Hôtel de Ville achieved its greatest notoriety. The leaders of the populace at once established themselves here, and three days later Louis XVI. was forced to show himself at the central window of the great hall, wearing the bonnet rouge. It was here that the terrible Commune de Paris (Common Council of Paris) held its sittings, and here it was that Robespierre and his friends took refuge on the 27th of July, 1794. When the gendarmes and soldiers entered the building, he was found on the landing place of the great hall with his face half blown away from an ineffectual attempt at suicide. During the Revolution of 1830, the Orleanist clique established themselves here, and it was from the central window that Lafayette presented the trembling Louis Philippe to the populace as the "citizen King." In 1848, the Red Republicans established their headquarters here, but the moderate Republicans managed to make their way into another portion of the building, and finally got possession of the government. Lamartine made his great speech from the principal stairway, and by his eloquence saved the country from anarchy. Troops were quartered in the building in 1848 and 1849, and some slight damage was done to it. In 1867, a number of magnificent fetes were given to the sovereigns attending the great Exposition. A lady who was present gives the following account of the "Ball of the Sovereigns," which took place on the 6th of July, 1867: "To the event of the 6th at the Hotel de Ville, then, without further preface or promise, except the insertion of a copy of the municipal invitations of the season, and the instructions as to dress for gentlemen, accompanying; not issued for this special occasion, it is true, but supplying some idea of the strict though unpretending form used in such instances:
"Neither you nor most of your readers need be told that the "City Hall" of Paris is almost, or quite the equal, of the Tuileries and the Louvre in its architecture, and that it has a history quite as extensive and interesting as either; but some need to be told that there are apartments in the Hôtel de Ville more richly decorated and showing the evidence of a costlier taste from floor to ceiling, than any of the other palaces of France! Yet so it is. Here, as sometimes it used to be in London, the 'City' occasionally asserts itself, and shows that when it will it can come near to overtopping the 'State' the civic above the national money above the political sinews which it strengthens if it does not create them.
"There was even more rarity in the ball at the Hôtel de Ville than in the grandest at the Tuileries. For the Imperial palace is often ablaze, and in the 'season' so many fêtes are given, that gaities there seem to be things of course. But it is different at the civic palace. It has not before been entirely opened for any festivity, since Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were entertained there, ten or fifteen years ago — I do not remember how many; and I suppose that nothing less than a congress of sovereigns, like that which has lately seemed in perpetual session in Paris, could again have brought the pet palace of the city into entire requisition. For, apart from the costly splendor, it is no trifle of space that is surrendered to festivity when the Hôtel de Ville is given up to it they say the salons, placed in a line, would extend something like fifteen hundred yards or little less than a mile! They tell me, too, in spite of my woman's horror of any other figures than those of beauty or a cotillon that the Grand Hall is nearly two hundred feet in length by half that distance in width, and that very few less than one hundred thousand wax lights are necessary to bring out all the rooms of the immense building in their full glory. You can imagine that they must be occasions, indeed, on which this space is occupied, and all this outlay in chandlery justified! But justified they were, then, if ever; for did not the number of regular invitations reach beyond six thousand? — and are there not plenty who believe that the number present, beside a perfect assembly of notabilities forming part of it, must have reached nearer to ten thousand than six? We have seen two or three thousand persons, on rare occasions, at our old New York Academy of Music; but multiply that number by three, or possibly five, and the splendor of each particular group by fifty or one hundred, and some faint idea may be formed of the guests of Baron Haussmann on that Saturday evening!
"You are aware what magnificent open spaces surround the Hôtel de Ville, with the Rue Rivoli on the one side of it, and the Seine with its bridges and quays on the other — with the great Caserne Napoleon behind it, but at a considerable interval, and the shops and houses in front standing at a corresponding shy distance. "Well, can you imagine what a crowd it was that filled that wide open space? — the Czar only just arrived in Paris, everybody on tiptoe to see him, and the additional excitement of standing in the glare of that line of gaslights stretching across the palace front, and seeing hundred upon hundred of the showiest people in Europe, and many of the handsomest women, going by in the handsomest of equipages, and to the most magnificent of balls? An orderly crowd, I must admit — though I do not believe in the good order or harmlessness of Parisian populace, as I may have after-occasion to tell you; but still a crowd of the densest and most eager description, making the passage of that wilderness of vehicles almost impossible.
"Were you ever a fire-fly? — a will-o'-the-wisp? — a fire-balloon? or a comet? I suppose not, and yet I saw something of one or the other, or of all of them, that night, with humanity supplying the material! Think of one feature of the arrival of the Imperial party through that crowd, in so many carriages that I do not like to hazard a guess at the number — perhaps twenty, perhaps thirty, or forty; all guarded down the side by squadrons of the splendidly-uniformed and dashing lancers of the guard; and every carriage, with its gorgeously appointed occupants, lit up inside, as if it had been a ball-room on its own account! Think what a line of magnificent will-o'-the-wisps that must have made; and how that light must have flashed and glittered to the eyes of the crowd, on face and figure that they wished to recognize — on dress and jewel and decoration! It was a case of distinguished people 'making a show of themselves,' to please the public eye a case odd enough to deserve mention, and I think a little commendation. I could only see that part of the pageant for a few moments, glancing back from my carriage as I made an arrival almost late enough to have been 'royal' in my own right; but I am not likely soon to forget the general effect, even in that which followed.
"Light is to be the glory of the other spectacle, to be spoken of by-and-by. Music and flowers were the features of this, as if something ugly in the past needed to be covered up and danced merrily over. Ugh! I wonder if there was not? Ma foil as my French hosts say, I thought so before I left the building; but I must tell you that in its proper place. Music and flowers — flowers and music — probably the order should be changed, for there were even more floral glories than witcheries of sound.
"There is one portion of the Hôtel de Ville with which I know you are familiar, for I have heard you speak enthusiastically of it — the grand entrance from the Place de la Hôtel de Ville, with its costliest hangings of cloth and silk, gold-fringed and gold-emblemed, sweeping down around columns that seem to have been shaped and gold-incrusted during some one of the many dreams of the 'Arabian Nights.' There is nothing like it, I think, in the world; as there is certainly nothing else that I have ever seen, comparable in costly splendor to its elaborately-decorated saloons, with their frescoes from the ablest pencils, their panellings in which cost seems to have been entirely ignored, and their pictures, which have certainly been derived from the unscrupulous 'appropriations' of centuries, as well as from the 'liberalities' of one of the richest cities on the globe.
"There may be more glorious sensations of being in another world while yet breathing the breath of this life, than those supplied on entering the civic palace; but I have no hope of ever sharing them, and it is not too sure that any accession would be desirable, even if one could arrive at it. Imagine that more than regally-splendid vestibule, with its gorgeous hangings and decorations, with so many and such rare flowers decking it at every point, that all else seemed to be but unreal exhalations sprung up in the midst of the most rich and varied garden of the generous tropics — with a great fountain of exquisite shape and detail in the centre, flashing out its wealth of water, every drop a gem in the soft blaze of the innumerable wax-lights that made doubly beautiful everything upon which it radiated; with all that could be devised of most gorgeous in attendance and reception, scattered among all that could be selected of royal, rich, queenly, and fair pearls and diamonds on brow and bosom of beauty, answered by the flashing of the like rare gems on the starred and crossed and decorated breasts of manhood silks, satins, and velvets, little less than a sea in which the gazer seemed to be floating, swimming, almost drowning; and then add to this the most voluptuous music that ever floated from horn or rang from string, seeming to drip from that marvellous baton waved by white-gloved Strauss himself — Strauss, to whose notes, even when others gave them feeble utterance through picked-up orchestras that had never known the master-hand, oar senses have thrilled and our feet bounded so often — add all this, and throw over it all that glamour which only comparative youth and full happiness can bestow, from that fairy-land in which we have all believed since childhood — then and only then will some dim light creep into the eyes and some suspicion into the brain, from that moment of moments enjoyed on entering the 'Ball of the Sovereigns' at the Hôtel de Ville.
"But do not suppose that either the splendor or the interest was exhausted at this mere first glimpse — neither was further entered into than the building — the vestibule only in each. For, the great escalier once ascended, in the midst of that human, musical and floral bewilderment, no less than a dozen of those great halls, au deuxième, opened into each other, all devoted to the purposes of the fête, and each, as it seemed, more ravishing than the others in the rarity of its pictures, the talent employed upon its frescoes, the richness of its hangings, the softened blaze of its waxlights, and the sense of passing into some new and charmed existence, inevitable on entering; while the very ingenuity of taste had been employed in creating little passages, at the end of which came sweet new surprises, in the way of rare flowers, more ingenious arrangements of light, and temptations to lose one's self away from the present and wander into the charmed past and rainbow future of romance, history, and — let me be honest on the dangerous theme the intoxicating — whispers of love-making, that might not have been indulged in a more matter of-fact existence!
"I have omitted, so far, one of the rarest elements of pleasant intoxication, of the whole. It has appeared to me that it should crown all, and have no mention while any rivalry remained. Does the thought strike you what other sense must have been ministered to than even the sight, the sound, the pride, the vanity, and the sense of the romantic? What must have been the perfume, think you, of all the sweetest flowers of all lands, thus grouped and gathered, and flung broadcast with lavish wastefulness? What else than the very drunkenness of delight must have ravished the sense, when all the sources from which Lubin and Violet have extracted their thousand odors, were blended in one wealth of fragrance, carrying the weight of sweetness to the very verge of oppression? We have all heard of the lady who 'died of a rose, in aromatic pain,' and I beg you to believe that I could have easily fainted from the same influences, under slight additional strain of the over-delighted olfactories.
"Let me recapitulate —something which they say is a woman's custom, especially in detailing grievances —and see whether I have succeeded in conveying any idea whatever of that wonderful scene. The grand halls of the Hotel de Ville; music under Strauss's own hand, and by the orchestra brought by Strauss himself from Vienna; wax-lights by the ten thousand; flowers by the literal cart-load, and perfume with no measurement but its own volume; ornamentation; pictures; statues; five or six thousand well-dressed 'nobodies,' half of them fair woman, and all bedecked and bejeweled in the utmost splendor of a wasteful age; hundreds of celebrities, noble if not royal, and each the cynosure of many eyes; and, to crown all, emperors, kings, and royal highnesses enough to have revolutionized a republican world, each more or less resplendent in court blazonry and gemmed orders, while on brow and bosom of their ladies blazed diamonds and rubies and pearls and sapphires, of such size and cost that they seemed seas of light in which kingdoms had been melted.
This is what I saw, quite as much with my mind as my eyes; this is where I was that part of me which had not floated away in the enchantments of luxurious novelty."* [* Paris in '67.]
Source: Paris by Sunlight and Gaslight; a work descriptive of the mysteries and miseries, the virtues, the vices, the splendors, and the crimes of the city of Paris. By James D. McCabe. .