FOR SOME TIME NOW I’ve been exploring the history of and recording the contemporary sounds inside the surviving Parisian passages couverts, the covered shopping arcades, which were at their zenith in the early 19th century. In all, some 150 passages couverts were built mainly in the area between the Palais-Royal and the Grands Boulevards and in the former industrial area around Saint-Denis.
In the second-half of the 19th century with the demise of the stagecoach, the opening of railway stations, urban redevelopment by Baron Haussmann, and the creation of department stores the fate of the passages couverts was sealed and they largely fell into disrepair, disuse or disappeared altogether. In the middle of the 20th century a wave of enthusiasm emerged to rescue and renovate the surviving passages. Of the original 150 that were built, 20 still survive today and most of those have been restored to their former glory.
The 1820’s and the 1830’s really marked the hey day of the passages couverts but, despite their subsequent decline, a hundred years later a new passage was to appear, a passage equally as elegant as the best of its early 19th century predecessors.
Léonard Rosenthal (1875 – 1955) was a French businessman, diamond merchant, and property developer. In 1924, Rosenthal acquired a property on the Champs Elysées that had been built originally for the department store owner, Georges Dufayel. It was on the site of this property that Rosenthal was to create a new passage couvert – the Arcades des Champs Elysées.
The French architects, Charles Lefebvre, Marcel Julien and Louis Duhayon designed the 120 metres long, 15 metres wide, Arcades des Champs Elysées in a mixture of Art Deco and neo-classical styles. Eight of the Scottish granite columns came from the old Hôtel Dufayel, to which were added eight more in red granite originally surmounted by gold capitals. A facing of blonde and black marble covers the walls.
The decoration inside the arcades was created by some of the top craftsmen in their field – the wrought iron work by René Gobert, the stained glass by Fernand Jacopozzi and the light fittings and shades by René Lalique.
The arcade was designed with a central space containing a café with a terrace and a bandstand surrounded by an array of two-floor boutiques. The boutiques are still there, the café is now a Starbucks and the bandstand has disappeared. And that’s not the only thing that has disappeared. Two fountains designed by René Lalique have gone, one to the Tokyo Museum and one to the United States and two lanterns that framed the entrance on the Champs Elysées mysteriously vanished.
For me, the most spectacular feature of the Arcades des Champs Elysées is the magnificent glass roof.
Sounds of the Arcades des Champs Elysées:
I’ve been to the Arcades des Champs Elysées many times but the other day I went specifically to record the sounds inside to add to my Paris Soundscapes Archive. My sound recording actually began before I entered the arcade because, completely by chance, I happened upon a group of African male dancers performing in the street outside. They were a lively bunch and they had attracted quite a crowd but I didn’t stay for their complete performance, instead I left them to it and I went to record the contemporary soundscape inside the arcade.
The sounds I captured on this particular Thursday afternoon were not as elegant as their surroundings and not as delicate as the sounds I’ve captured in some of the other surviving passages couverts. That is partly to do with the general hubbub emanating from the Starbucks emporium but it’s also a feature of the size and shape of the arcade. Long, narrow arcades seem to highlight and amplify the most delicate sounds but in the 15 metre wide Arcades des Champs Elysées with its high glass roof and coffee shop in the centre, the sounds seem to tend towards the cacophonous rather than the elegant – pretty much like all the other sounds in the Champs Elysées. Still, the sounds are what they are and consequently I think they are worth preserving.
Visitors to Paris may be familiar with the famous Parisian nightspot, the Cabaret Lido, which is a little further along the Champs Elysées. What the visitors may not know is that the nickname for the Arcades des Champs Elysées is the Arcades du Lido. And the reason for that is that the Cabaret Lido was situated in the Arcades des Champs Elysées from 1946 until 1977.
From 1929, one of the features of the Arcades des Champs Elysées was the underground health spa as we might call it these days, which was set up by the Société hydrothérapeutic et balnéaire des Champs Elysées. It occupied 4,400 M2 and comprised a heated swimming pool, a beauty salon, a hairdressers, a hammam, showers and a massage parlour. It was very fashionable and very popular. It was often referred to as The Paris Beach because the evenings had a Venetian theme reproducing the Lido Beach.
Its success though was short lived. In 1933 the establishment went into liquidation and was closed. In 1936 the impresario, Leon Volterra took it on and replaced the swimming pool with an auditorium in which he put on diners-spectacles, dinner shows. In 1946, Joseph and Louis Clerico bought it from Volterra and completely transformed it into the Cabaret Lido. It went from strength to strength until finally in 1977 it was moved from the Arcades des Champs Elysées to larger premises just up the road where it remains today.
For those of you who are perhaps not familiar with the Cabaret Lido, it’s probably best known as home to the famous dancing troupe, the Bluebell Girls.
You can find the Arcades des Champs Elysées at:
76 – 78 Avenue des Champs Elysées and the nearest Métro station is: Georges V on Line 1
You can find more of my Passages Couverts collection by clicking here.