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  • Writer's pictureTer Hollmann

A Brief History of the Hôtel de Ville, City Hall of Paris

What is the Hôtel de Ville?

The Hôtel de Ville is a Renaissance-style building that houses the Paris’ local administration.

Hôtel de Ville

Hôtel de Ville History

In one of the most famous images of the Hôtel de Ville, the building is hardly visible at all but rather serves as a subtle backdrop for a young couple in embrace as the world rushes by around them. Robert Doisneau’s famous picture, The Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville encapsulates the myth of Paris, the city of love, in a single beautiful moment. It also enhanced the legend around one of the must-see buildings in the capital, making it an important stop for lovers, photographers, history buffs and tourists.

The Hôtel de Ville is the home of local government in Paris and it’s been that way since 1357. In July of that year Étienne Marcel, the provost of merchants, or the mayor, bought the building located on Place de Gréve, the so-called House of Pillars, for use by the municipality. Unfortunately for Marcel, he would never get to use the building himself, after he was publicly assassinated in 1348 for trying to govern too ‘robustly’.

In the 16th century, King Francis I decided that Paris needed a city hall worthy of its status at the time as the largest city in Europe. The House of Pillars was torn down and the Hôtel de Ville was born, although construction wasn’t finished until 1628, during the reign of Louis XIII. The building would subsequently remain unchanged for the next two hundred years.

During the revolution, the Hôtel de Ville fell three days after the Bastille and was used as the Revolutionary government’s headquarters. In 1794, the radical Jacobin leader Robespierre was captured inside the building and taken away to be executed. The Paris Commune seized the building in 1871 and used it as their base of operations, but when the French army stormed their headquarters, the communards burnt the place to the ground, also destroying the building’s historic archives.

It would take 13 years to rebuild the Hôtel de Ville. The exterior was a copy of the original 16th-century French Renaissance building, however the interior was enhanced with all the flourishes and lavish design aesthetics of the 1880s. There are 338 sculptures of famous Parisians lining the façades of the building carved by over 230 sculptors, including Auguste Rodin.

In August 1944, when Paris was liberated by the allies, President Charles De Gaulle delivered his speech from the Hôtel de Ville, greeting the massed crowds from an upper-floor window. In fact, the square in front of the building has always been a popular gathering place. For many years it was the site of most of the city’s executions, and in 1792 a shiny new guillotine was set up there just in time to sate the blood-lust of the French Revolution. Today, it remains popular with Parisians, but for slightly less macabre reasons.

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