Napoleon III and the City of Light

When we think of Paris today, we imagine long boulevards, five story tall buildings with iron balconies, and grand parks. But Paris was not always such. Before Napoleon III came to power in 1848, Paris was still largely the medieval city it had always been for the past few centuries.

Center of Paris before 1848

It was a congested city mired in filth, and rife with disease and unrest. The center of the city was a bed rock of discontent. It had seen seven armed uprisings alone during the reign of Napoleon III’s predecessor, Louis Philippe, from 1830 to 1848.

Parisian street before renovations

Napoleon III was elected president of the newly formed republic in 1848, in large part due to his promises to try to end poverty and improve the lives of the common people. “Paris is the heart of France. Let us apply our efforts to embellishing this great city,” he declared. In 1853 Napoleon III appointed Georges-Eugene Haussmann, commonly referred to as Baron Haussmann, Prefect of the Seine, with the mission to “aérer, unifier, et embellir” Paris. In other words, Haussmann was charged with opening up spaces to let the city breath, connect the different parts into one whole, and make the city more beautiful.
Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann

Haussmann immediately set to work. With the help of Jean-Charles Alphand, the parks of Paris were restored, and a number of new parks were built, including the Bois de Boulogne, the Bois de Vincennes, the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, and the Parc Montsouris.

Old postcard of the Bois de Boulogne 

Paris would also double in size from 12 arrondissements to 20 arrondissements (or districts) with the annexation of the surrounding suburbs. At the height of the industrial revolution, Paris would also see many public works introduced into the city under Haussmann.

Map of Paris circa 1859 with proposed renovations

Demolition of old Paris for Haussmann's renovations

The sewers of Paris were renovated, two new train stations, the Gare du Nord and the Gare de l’Est were built and the Gare de Lyon was rebuilt. Most notable of Haussmann’s innovations was the widening of the streets into large boulevards flanked by five story building facades with high roofs and balconies. Gas street lights and trees were to line these new avenues. Famous boulevards like the Boulevard Saint-Germain, the Boulevard de Strasbourg, the Boulevard Sébastopol, the Rue Rivoli, and the Boulevard Saint-Michel would all make their debut under the Second Empire, creating large axes through the city. In all, Haussmann constructed six miles of new boulevards.

New boulevards of Haussmann

Public squares were also enlarged around the new Paris Opera (also being built), the Etoile around the Arc de Triomphe, and in front of Notre Dame. The Hotel Dieu, the oldest hospital, was also rebuilt. The skyline of Paris was to forever be different, a city of light and grand avenues.

Aerial view of the Arc de Triomphe and the Boulevard Haussmann

Napoleon III and Haussmann pulled off one of the largest city renovations of the nineteenth century, and Paris would not be what it is today without their tenacious efforts.

Harrison Hunt
Harrison Hunt


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