Once upon a time, when the gates of Paris were at a level marked by the Orangery in the Tuileries Gardens and the rue Royale, three villages were to be found in the
countryside to the west, the village of Chaillot, le Bas-Roule and la Ville l’Evèque. These were joined to the city between 1659 and 1722 to develop during the XIXth century into a new district
which became one of the most luxurious of Paris…
In 1664, Colbert ordered Le Nôtre to design a garden fit for the Tuileries Palace (which does not exist anymore). Le Nôtre had become supervisor of the
King’s Gardens, after designing for Fouquet the very famous park of Vaux-le-Vicomte. When he planned the Tuileries Gardens, he also extended the central walkeway through the bushy and in some
parts cultivated ground beyond Louis XIII’s boundary (1670), and planted on each side a double row of elms, up to the present day Rond-Point. Thus was born the Grand Cours which in 1709 was to be
called Champs-Elysées and to become the famous avenue with its extraordinary perspective, pride of Parisians.
In 1710, the Duc d’Antin lengthened the avenue up to Chaillot hill, where the Arc de triomphe now stands. The hill was a steep climb from Paris to the terrace,
l’Etoile, so the decision was made in 1774 by Royal decree to cutaway the hill whilst at the same time continuing the avenue as far as Neuilly, and the extra earth thrown aside formed the steep
slope of the rue Balzac.
The avenue began to come alive as its northern side was bordered by the gardens of several handsome mansions built during the XVIIIth century on the rue du Faubourg
Saint-Honoré. In 1777, a colonel of the Swiss guard noted in his report : « Several private individuals graze their cows on the Champs-Elysées, in considerable number, and their presence
may hinder the promeneurs. He also noted the appearance of cabarets, cafés and booths. In November 1788, a guard notes in his report : “Arrested at about 8pm a priest, with a coloured woman,
who declared he was her confessor. Released with caution to Monsieur l’Abbé to renounce hearing confession under the trees, at night”.
Later, the revolution saw King Louis XVIth pass on his return from his flight to Varennes. Notice boards read : “He who acclaims the King will be beaten, he who
insults him will hang”. In 1810, the new Empress, Marie-Louise, entered Paris by the Champs-Elysées, and in 1814, she left by the same road. Two days later, the Tsar Alexander, Wilhelm of
Prussia and the Prince of Swartzemberg reviewed their allied troops. That evening, the Kossaks camped there, their encampment stretching to Porte Maillot. The English set up their tents there
from July 1815 to January 1816. It took two years to repare the damage but the Champs-Elysées had become the most cosmopolitan of places.
In 1800, there were only six houses of which the oldest was the Hotel de Massa (n° 52-60 – built in 1778) and it is only from 1828 onwards that the avenue will
become “the” place with real improvements such as pavements, fountains, wide asphalt alleys, and gas lighting with the installation of 1200 candelabras. During the Second Empire, the
Champs-Elysées lived its finest hours, when it was home to the elegant world, and acquired the glitter and brilliances it has never lost. Cavaliers, amazons, tilburys, barouches wove up and down
in a cloud of dust, the restaurants, cafés-concert, the Alcazar for instance, and circuses attracted an elegant crowd. On the avenue Montaigne, for a long time nicknamed Allée des Veuves (Widows
Alley) because of the number of solitary persons seeking to make the most of their charms, a rustic refreshment bar became the celebrated Bal Mabille , with its gardens, lawns and and groves lit
by 3000 gas lights. Witness of this era, the Marquise de Païva’s mansion at n°25 Champs-Elysées and that belonging to the Duc de Morny at n°15.
For the curious, the rue de Berri which is the continuation of rue de Chaillot (rue Quentin Bauchart) was a narrow alley called during the XVIIth century Ruelle de
Chaillot. At n°2 on the corner of the Champs-Elysées, stood the Hotel de Langeac built in 1780 by Chalgrin, where Thomas Jefferson lived between 1785 and 1789 when he was the United States
ambassador to Paris.
For a long time, the Champs-Elysées was France’s show place, a display of all that was best in quality and taste, of a way of life and a particular knowledge of
techniques. Unfortunately, the 70’s and 80’s came along and suddenly, “Les Champs” were nothing but fast food restaurants and airlines offices, cars in vast cold exhibition windows and lines
of people waiting to get into one of the many cinemas.
Today, the extensive renovation work undertaken to make the Champs-Elysées the world’s most beautiful avenue once again, have been completed. The side alleys
over-run by parked cars have given way to wide pavements where flowered café terrasses invite you to sit on a fine day. The single row of trees towards the top of the avenue have been doubled
just as Le Nôtre had planned centuries before. Public phones are out of the way inside traditional Morris columns, and newstands of the same green, have a new and elegant design.
If the Champs-Elysées are the traditional scene of a spectacular parade on the 14th July, if they are decorated
in the national colours of visiting monarchs or heads of government, they have also been the setting for more unusual events: they were once the landing strip for le Baron Noir (Black Baron), a
nocturnal aviator who disrupted the military systems of anti aircraft defense (The Presidents palace gardens gives onto the lower part of the avenue), they were transformed during the night
into a immense field of corn which the Parisians discovered in the morning and saw harvested the same evening. More recently, they were transformed into a stadium for a day, to support the
candidacy of Paris for the Olympics 2012.
The Champs-Elysées are once again a top address, and once again, famous international firms write it on their letterheads. Cartier, Hugo Boss, Nespresso
and moreover Louis Vuitton on the corner of Avenue George V. Once again it is pleasant to stroll along the Champs-Elysées or to sit at a café terrasse. It is said that if you sit there long
enough, you will see the whole world go by.