The Parc de Buttes de Chaumont has to be the most theatrical park in Paris with rocky cliffs, romantic temples and grottos. Built in the 1860’s on an old gypsum quarry, the designers Jean-Pierre Barillet-Deschamps and Jean-Charles Alphand manipulated the huge changes in level using the natural rock to great dramatic effect.
Commissioned by Napoleon III in 1864, the work to transform the quarry into a public park took three years and used an army of workers, horses and carts to dig out a lake, carve out a grotto, build belvederes, streams and waterfalls and to remodel the landform into something usable as a public park (200,000 m3 of soil was brought into the site). It was built to showcase the best of French engineering and landscaping expertise and was inaugurated in April 1867 to coincide with the Universal Exhibition on the Champ de Mars.
The Buttes-Chaumont was a departure from the traditional formal French park and aimed to imitate a picturesque natural landscapes inspired by English and Chinese landscape traditions.
The Temple de la Sibylle, inspired by the Temple of Vesta in Tivoli, Italy, perches on top of the outcrop of rock left when the quarry was abandoned.
Mature specimen evergreen trees are shown to advantage during the winter and early spring. When the park was built the fashion was to showcase specimen trees, especially those brought from China or the Americas. It is admirable that they were planted in a public park in one of Paris’s poorer neighbourhoods for the enjoyment of many and not just in the private grounds of a wealthy family.
The desire to create a natural park also included early use of reinforced concrete, moulded to imitate wood. These elements give the park a theme-park feel and create a rather kitsch Second Empire/Victorian charm.
Each piece is sculpted by hand to look like wood. The technique, called ‘Rusticage’, became very popular and can be seen in other parks designed by the Alphand- Barillet-Deschamps team such as the Parc Monceau and Parc Montsouris. This relatively new technique of reinforced cement was also used to create the false rocks around the streams and waterfalls in the park.
On an old postcard rack at the marché de Puces at St Ouen I found several cards showing the park shortly after the opening. It was easy to find the same viewpoints and they show how little the park has changed in the last 150 years.
This is the same balustrade today on the path leading to the Pont Fatal. The park is currently undergoing restoration and although this section of ‘rusticage’ is in bad shape, in other areas they are being slowly brought back to its original state.
Le Pont Fatal (The Fatal Bridge ….or maybe we would call it ‘Lover’s Leap’) adds to the drama and links the temple to the other, higher side of the park. The card says “I will take the express tomorrow at 9.20, kisses to you all…”
This small bridge takes one wide promenade over another and is also beautifully made. Both bridges are perfectly of their era adding to the Second Empire style of the park. This bridge rather reminds me of the bridges in New York’s Central Park which was built around the same time (1857-1873).
Amazingly this park remains totally of its period. No modern structures have been added that jar with the style of the time. It is a museum of a public park where even the planting remains within the period with mature specimen trees, carpet bedding and masses of evergreen shrubs. The park today is hugely popular and remains, as was originally intended, an important green space in this densely populated, working-class neighbourhood of Paris.
The Parc des Buttes Chaumont is in the 19th arrondissement of Paris and is on métro line 7bis, stations Bozaris or Buttes Chaumont. More information on opening hours can be found here.
There is a very popular bar, modelled on an old-fashioned ‘guingette’, in the park called the ‘Rosa Bonheur’. It is open after the park closes but access is carefully supervised. It can be a lively spot for a drink outdoors on a summer evening.