History of covered hidden passages in Paris, as the main example of the 18th century Paris culture, architecture and lifestyle

You may have visited or considered take some vacations in Paris. Yet, you may not have heard about “covered passages” in the heart of the French capital. These historical spaces represent 18th century Paris daily lifestyle. This show the will of wealth appearance of French architecture and culture. Let’s give an insight of one the most typical architectural Parisian style, and remind of their history.

At the end of the 18th century, former nobility and ecclesiastical domains were expropriated during the French Revolution (1789-1799), leading to an important real estate speculative bubble. The bourgeoisie bought a large number of mansions, buildings, and had organised Paris urbanization.
The most cost-effective type of construction were covered passages.

Credit : Naotake Murayama (Flickr)

Paris covered passages are a furnished lanes maze amid buildings, topped by glass canopy and sheltering shopping facilities. These are also shortcuts allowing you to move from one street to another one, being sheltered. This type of development allows speculators to make their bought fields the best profitable, at a lower cost than creating a new street.
Immune to the wind, the rain, the cold or the sun, new commercial grid was created.

At this time, streets are congested public spaces, badly illuminated, the pavement is narrow, water running off in the middle, without the sidewalk. Carriages and carts tried to find a way in this crowded environment, pedestrians are not covered from their splashes. Covered passages were created for luxury customers. These passages are not a simple commercial street, but a whole commercial centre with shops, cafés, restaurants, and show venues.

To remain attractive, covered passages localisation were primordial, close to superb locations (theaters, train station, etc …) and must have a traverse function (shortcut street).

Moreover, in this romantic period (early 19th century), loitering is trendy and covered passages became a privileged strolling zone. They became a “rendez-vous” location, where couples went to a restaurant after going to the theater, and then could take a walk due to the fact that at night time, these singular streets were lightened by gas since 1816.
This lifestyle corresponds to the privileged class: bourgeoisie. The new bourgeoisie, from finance and trading. The context was also peaceful, the end of Napoleonic wars brought back economic prosperity.

  • Covered passages architectural inspiration:

1/ Covered marketplace: in France, food retail had been organised in a vast space, covered by a roof or pillars frame or oriental souks.

2/ Bridges layout to commerce. Luxury shops installation on bridges: Rialto in Venise, Pont Notre-Dame or Pont au Change in Paris, therefore on a required passage.

Credit : Galerie Vivienne – Kathleen Conklin (Flickr)
  • Covered passages architecture

They’re covered by glass canopy offering a zenith lighting giving it a singular light. It’s formed as an indoor street, were shops on ground floor, with housing on the upper floors of the building framing the passage.

The facade decor is a neoclassic style: ledges molding. The decoration varies along the passage location. Sophistication relates to the will of appeal luxury commerce: plaster sculpture, bas-relief, a marouflaged canvas which brighten the whole. Colour effects are particularly appealing (EX Galerie Véro-Dorat).

Plenty of shops cares about their storefront look, reaching a wealth appearance. These storefronts are often composed of precious metals. For example, Véro-Dorat passage with elegant brass baguettes, and sophisticated painted roofs.
Luxury appearance was being sought: fake marble, fake wood, trompe l’oeil as a theatrical decoration.

Credit : Naotake Murayama (Flickr)

Covered passages were really fashionable in the 1st third of the 19th century, but after the July 1830 revolution, frequent riots made the city less safe. Epidemics as the plague (1832) made also the city insalubrious. From 1840, it was wanted to reorganise the city and giving it more transparency. This resulted under the Second Empire to a new conception of Paris urban environment. Baron Haussmann instituted a development project: large avenues, demolition, new topography, new department stores which short-circuited covered passages. These ones became disused and abandoned because insalubrious.

During the 20th century, these passages remained disuse and confronted to Parisians, tourists and state organisation ignorance. Only in the 1970s, following Pavillons de Baltard destruction (1972) the State became aware of the glass and cast-iron construction architectural and urban interest.

Aware of patrimony frailty, these passages are, for the most part, protected on the behalf of the French historic monuments organisation (ISMH).
This registration helps to limit abusive restorations or demolitions of these privates spaces. The Paris City act since 2004 to protect these areas.

Source credit: Ms. Vercier, Paris tourism expert, which provided essential knowledge about the covered passages history. Lecturer certified by the Minister of tourism specialised in Art History.
Responsible for lessons organisation at ENSAD (National school for Decorative Arts).

You can discover her favorite spots here.


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