The Marais quarter
The Marais district is one of the oldest quarters in Paris. The word “marais” means a marsh or swamp. Before the Seine River was confined by the high stone quais it has today, Paris was surrounded by a belt of marshes. Raised streets - among them the Saint-Antoine street - were build during Roman times in order to cross these marshes. In 879, Charles the Bold gave these marshes to the Sainte Opportune Abbey, and the monks drained them to transform them into fields for agriculture. At the end of the Middle Ages, most of these fields were covered by fruit trees.
When King Philippe Auguste was about to leave for a crusade in the 12th century, he decided to build a high wall around Paris in order to protect the city from Viking raiders in his absence. The Marais district was outside this enclosure but fortified gates were created to allow access from the city to the surrounding agricultural fields. Rue des Francs Bourgeois, a principal street of the Marais, ran along the outside perimeter of the city wall.
Around 1360, Charles V decided to build a new city wall protecting a wider territory, so the Marais became part of the city of Paris, and became famous when Charles V decided to move his court to a royal palace, named the Hotel Saint-Paul, built by his predecessor Jean le Bon in the Marais. Near this royal palace was a square used for jousting tournaments, where, in 1559, King Henri II was killed while jousting. His widow, Marie di Medicis, razed the royal palace of the period and left the Marais for her new Palais de Luxembourg. The site of the razed palace became the “Place Royale”.
Under the reign of Henri IV in 1609, the “Place Royale” or Royal Square (later renamed “Place des Vosges” by Napoleon to honor the first region of France to pay its taxes to his new government) was built into an elegant square of architecturally unified mansions, all connected by a covered arcade. This square became the center of the Marais, and for most of 17th century, the Marais was the cultural center of the western world. Every Prince and Ambassador visiting Paris started the visit at the “Place des Vosges”. Wealthy noblemen, courtiers, bankers and merchants built their private mansions, called “Hotels Particuliers”, around the Place Royale, or in the surrounding streets of the Marais. These mansions were built and decorated by the best craftsmen of the 17th century, the “Grand Century” of French art and architecture, and were known for their sober street facades, which hid elegant courtyards, gardens and palatial living quarters inside.
By the end of the 17th century, the Royal Square had begun to lose some of its appeal, as newer, more fashionable streets were developed for the wealthy along the Seine to the west in the direction of Versailles, where Louis XIV had relocated his court from Paris. The Boulevard Saint-Germain and the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, became trendy, and the Marais began a long period of decline.
The storming of the Bastille, which started the French Revolution, marked a radical change in the fortunes of the Marais. The hotels were abandoned, sold or confiscated. Their noble owners left France or retreated to their country estates if they were lucky enough to escape jail or beheading.
The once elegant buildings were subdivided into multiple apartments or converted to factories and storehouses and nobody took care of them. By the beginning of the 20th century the Marais had become a sprawling slum, with much of its former grandeur destroyed or obscured by grime and neglect. The commission of the « Old Paris », that was created in 1897, to review the decaying architecture of the Marais and to advise the City on which buildings should be preserved. The city of Paris, with the help of the French Government, bought some of the nicest buildings in order to renovate them and give them a new life. In 1962, the government and the City voted to enact a preservation law written by André Malraux, funding the renovation of the historic buildings of the Marais. This transformation generated a huge social change in this area. Factories disappeared from the old mansions and were replaced by museums, government agencies, elegant shops and restaurants, and an increasingly wealthy population of private residents who admired the district for its historic charm, cultural diversity, and urban chic. Today, the Marais is again one of Paris’ most desirable and fashionable places to live.