THE PASSAGE DU PONCEAU may not be the oldest, the largest or the most elegant of the nineteenth century passages couverts in Paris but at least it has survived. Of the one hundred and fifty original passages couverts built, only twenty now remain and I’ve been to all of them to record and archive their contemporary soundscapes for my Paris Soundscapes Archive.
Built as an extension to the neighbouring Passage du Caire in the 2nd arrondissement, the Passage du Ponceau was opened in 1826.
Entrance to the Passage du Ponceau in rue Saint-Denis
Originally intended to link rue Saint-Denis to rue du Ponceau, the length of the passage was reduced in 1854 to make way for the new boulevard Sébastopol.
Entrance to the Passage du Ponceau in boulevard Sébastopol
At ninety metres long and just two-and-a-half metres wide, the Passage du Ponceau is a narrow passage comprising two floors under a glass roof. Little remains of the original decoration save for the upper reaches of the façades and some of the mouldings.
We know that two of the original tenants to occupy the Passage du Ponceau were a wine merchant and a coal merchant but no evidence of their presence survives. Today, the passage is mainly occupied by clothing and media enterprises: it is after all in the heart of the multicultural textile and garment district, which has increasingly become home to many Internet start-up companies.
Sounds in the Passage du Ponceau:
The Passage du Ponceau fell into decline in the second half of the nineteenth century. As the railways became established, the nearby stagecoach terminus, always a ready source of custom, closed and this, together with the arrival of the new department stores heralding a retail revolution, meant that the days of the Parisian passages couverts were numbered. As the French writer and journalist, Alfred Delvau noted in 1867, “Life has withdrawn to go elsewhere on the boulevards.”
And yet, twenty of the original Parisian passages couverts, including the Passage du Ponceau, have survived – even though they may not now be, as the 1852 edition of the Illustrated Guide to Paris said, “ a world in miniature, in which customers will find everything they need.”
IT ALWAYS SEEMS to me, that the Passage du Bourg-l’Abbé suffers a little from standing in the shadow of its larger cousin, the Passage du Grand-Cerf, which is just across the Rue Saint-Denis.
The Passage du Bourg-l’Abbé was built in 1828 by Auguste Lusson and it was designed to continue the line of the Passage du Grand-Cerf to the Rue Saint-Martin by linking up with the open-air Passage de l’Ancre. Thanks to Baron Haussmann’s transformation of Paris in the Second Empire, the Passage du Bourg-l’Abbé lost its eastern end to make way for the Boulevard Sébastopol in 1854.
Sounds inside the Passage du Bourg-l’Abbé:
It was in 1879 that Henri Blondel, architect of the Bourse du Commerce, the French Stock Exchange, tidied up the amputated eastern end of the passage by building the Empire style entrance (shown above) with its two caryatides sculpted by Aimé Millet.
The arched glass roof is impressive as are the clock and the barometer at either end of the passage.
The Passage du Bourg-l’Abbé has had a chequered history. Thanks to Baron Haussmann it’s not as long as originally intended whereas its cousin, the Passage du Grand-Cerf, is the largest of all the Parisian passage couverts. Over many years, the Passage du Bourg-l’Abbé became run down and, not all that long ago, it was ravaged by fire. But today, it’s been restored and although still smaller than it’s cousin across the street it is equally as elegant and home to thriving niche businesses.
Passage du Bourg-l’Abbé:
120, rue Saint-Denis / 3, rue Palestro
I’VE SET MYSELF the task of recording the sounds inside each of the surviving passages couverts in Paris and I will feature a series of them on this blog in the weeks to come.
Altogether, one hundred and fifty of these covered arcades were built mainly in two bursts of activity – from 1823 to 1828 and from 1839 to 1847. Of these one hundred and fifty, just twenty remain today.
The passages couverts were concentrated on the right bank of la Seine, an area more associated with commerce than the left bank. The most glamorous and most fashionable such as the Galerie Vivienne (perhaps the most elegant of them all) were concentrated in the area around the Palais Royal, the Boulevard des Italiens and the Boulevard Montmartre. All these passages faced in a north-south direction.
By contrast, another cluster of passages couverts, all in an east-west configuration, sprang up in the area around Saint-Denis. These were much less glamorous (save for the Passage du Grand-Cerf perhaps) and far less fashionable.
Close to Porte Saint-Denis is the Passage Brady and one could be forgiven for thinking that this is not in Paris at all.
Inside the Passages Brady:
Opened on 15th April 1828, the Passage Brady today is an oriental delight. With its exotic smells and the atmosphere of an Indian bazaar, the chipped floors, ailing glass roof and peeling, graffiti-adorned walls somehow don’t seem to matter.
Indian immigrants first came here in the early 1970’s from Pondicherry, a former French territory in India and later, immigrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh joined them. The food, exotic spices, clothes, trinkets and even the hairdressers reflect this cultural mélange.
A shopkeeper and entrepreneur, perhaps not surprisingly called Brady, conceived the idea for the Passage Brady. His idea was to create one of the longest passage couverts in Paris comprising one hundred and thirteen shops with housing above. And he would have succeeded had it not been for Baron Haussmann’s city planning. Originally, the Passage Brady had a large glass dome at its centre before continuing further to the east as an uncovered passage. The main entrance was under the glass dome.
In 1854, the new Boulevard Sévastopol was under construction and the glass dome suffered as a consequence. This new road cut right through the Passage Brady taking the dome with it. Today, the covered Passage Brady lies to the west of the Boulevard Sévastopol with the uncovered part to the east.
The Passage Brady may not be the most elegant of les passages couverts, perhaps not elegant at all, but the smell of exotic spices and incense, the colours and the sounds seem to capture the essence of the original passages couverts.
To see more of les passage couverts take a look at this piece.