Every year during a weekend in September the French government opens for public touring many buildings normally closed to the public. The event is called Journées Européennes du Patrimoine, and one way we took advantage of the opportunity was to see Hôtel de Ville (city hall).
Hôtel in French is used in the name of many different types of buildings. Some hotels are hotels, but the name can apply also to hospital buildings, private residences, police stations and government buildings. Hôtel de Ville is the standard term for city hall. I had no idea that it wasn’t a hotel the first time I saw it. Unlike City Hall in Poulsbo, Hôtel de Ville is not a place you can wander into to pay your water bill – each of the city’s administrative districts (called arrondissements), has its own building for the normal interactions between citizens and government. Hôtel de Ville is where city council meets and the mayor lives, though the current mayor Bertrand Delanoë declined to live there and opened up his flat as a nursery for workers children and for the display of public works of art.
Hôtel de Ville was established in 1357 by Etienne Marcel, then provost (mayor) of the merchants. In those days he would have had jurisdiction over the affairs on the right bank. Paris had separate administrations for the left bank (colleges and the University of Paris) and for Île de la Cité. The square in front was then called Place de la Grève (now Place de l’Hôtel de Ville) and was used for public floggings and executions. You can see a good description in the “Hunchback of Notre Dame”. These days it is used for more mundane public entertainment – an ice skating rink, a garden show complete with tons of dirt, trees and grasses planted, & lawn chairs, a tennis court with big screen and lots of chairs to view the French open, a rock concert, or beach volleyball courts with tons of sand for Paris Plage.
In 1537 King François I established plans for a new building in the Renaissance style. He was also rebuilding the Louvre Palace in a similar manner. Work on the new Hôtel de Ville was not completed until 1628 during the reign of Louis XIII, but no further changes were made after that for the next 200 years. During the French Revolution in 1789, the mayor was killed by an angry crowd, and a few years later the Jacobin leader Maximilien Robespierre, leader of the Terror that was such a destructive part of the Revolution, was wounded (prior to his execution) when he fled there after the National Convention had voted to execute him and other members of his Committee for Public Safety. In 1835 two more wings were added to allow more space for the government. During the revolt of the Paris Commune following the Franco Prussian War of 1870, the Communards burned the building down. Hôtel de Ville was redesigned and rebuilt from 1870 to 1892 using the same exterior stone walls but redesigning the interior in the 19th century style.
Our tour was fantastic. The city had employees on hand to explain many details about the building and promote some aspects of local government. The huge halls and staircases were spectacular. There were people to explain how the parquet floors are made, about the special hardware they use on doors, how the old furniture is maintained, how the heating system is maintained, and how they keep the clocks working. They showed how the city saves money on electricity by converting the chandeliers and other lights to LED lighting. They showed art work made from recycled materials, and other artworks displayed in the Mayor’s quarters. We saw the chambers for the city council, as well as their huge library. The extensive Mayor’s office was reserved for last. The art work in the mayor’s office is on loan from museums and private parties.