Reflections on My Paris Neighbourhood — in 1900

by / Sunday, 24 April 2011 / Published in Uncategorized

My fascination for the photo above can be explained not only because, dating more than a century ago, it wonderfully evokes the quaint fin-de-siecle romanticism of the Belle Epoque. Taken in 1900 from the pont Alexandre III, the photo shows the opulent pavillions that sprouted like a magnificent 19th century Disneyland along the Seine as part of the 1900 Exposition. The parasoled Victorian women and top-hatted gentlemen in the foreground were presumably visiting the world’s fair. Millions visited Paris that year to behold new-fangled inventions like escalators and sound-recording machines. Oscar Wilde, who would die in Paris later that same year, visited the fair where he made a brief recording of his voice, reading four lines from his poem, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”. 

The photo holds another fasciation for me: it shows my current neighbourhood, the 7th arrondissement, a once-aristocratic enclave located between the faubourg Saint-Germain and Eiffel Tower. The Art Deco building on the Quai d’Orsay where I live today stands roughly where, in the photo, the colossal ice-cream structure was boldly bursting forth on the banks of the Seine in 1900. The fact that my building is 1920s Deco is revealing. Nearly all the edifices built for the 1900 Universelle reflected the Art Nouveau aesthetic of the era — and most, sadly, were torn down after the fair, making way for post-World War I modernity.

The Grand Palais still stands today, along with the Petit Palace en face — both were built as the Exposition’s architectural centrepieces. So does the Gare d’Orsay train station, today converted into the Musée d’Orsay. The Air France building on the Invalides esplanade is another architectural vestige of the Exposition. But gone are all the proud and lavish pavilions along the Seine on the spot where I live today.   

The pont Alexandre III, named for the Russian tsar, was built for the 1900 Exposition with the functional purpose of linking the Grand Palais and the national pavilions on the other side of the Seine. The bridge, needless to say, remains today and is admired as perhaps the most beautiful in the city. I took the photo below in an attempt, only partially successful, to capture the precise viewpoint in the photo above taken more than a century before. In the foreground, modern tourists have taken the place of quaintly Victorian personages, but the same statues and lamps are precisely where they were in 1900 (the photo on the homepage of this blog was taken from the same vantage point). In the background, however, the contrast is stunning. The modest spire just right of the Eiffel Tower belongs to the American Church, built in the 1920s when many American writers and artists were here colonizing the cafés of Montparnasse. The extravagant architectural opulence of 1900 has vanished.

Rare is the day when I do not cross the pont Alexandre, frequently on a walk with Oscar. Each time, I instinctively stop and look back at my neighbourhood along the Seine, thinking about how it once looked a century ago. Today the Eiffel Tower, which itself was supposed to be torn down after its construction in 1889 but was saved by the advent of the radio, remains as an architectural testimony to that proud epoch. 

My neighbourhood can boast intimate associations with great literature of that era, but that too has not been unaffected by the ravages of time. On the Left Bank near the pont des Invalides (just out of view on the left in both photos) lived one of the most flamboyant French aristocrats of the Belle Epoque, count Robert de Montesquiou, a mythic figure for his extravagant devotion to the decadent cult of aestheticism. Two great French novels took inspiration from his personal mythology. In the novel Against Nature, the eccentric protaganist Jean des Esseintes was modelled on Montesquiou. And more notably, Marcel Proust based the character of Baron de Charlus on Montesquiou in his classic work, Remembrance of Things Past. Montesquiou lived in a splendid hotel particulier at 1 avenue de Latour de Maubourg, located about 100 yards down the road from my place. Today, little remains of Montesquiou’s lavish residence. It’s home to a Chinese Cultural Centre whose modern facade doubtless would have horrified the dandified tastes of its aristocratic owner a century ago. 

Paris, it is true, is a city that has changed comparatively little over the centuries. Notre Dame, after all, was constructed nearly a thousand years ago. Yet Paris has also been marked by periods of rupture and transformation. The Second Empire of the late 19th century was one of those periods, when Baron Haussmann demolished the old pre-revolutionary Paris and gave the city the proud imperial dimension with wide boulevards. The Exposition of 1900 was, in many respects, a tribute to that 19th century vision of Paris and its status as the centre of the world. 

We all, I suppose, have to live in our own time.