The Bois de Boulogne is a large public park located along the western edge of the 16th arrondissement of Paris, near the suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt and Neuilly-sur-Seine It was created between 1852 and 1858 during the reign of the Emperor Louis Napoleon.
It is the second-largest park in Paris, slightly smaller than the Bois de Vincennes on the eastern side of the city. It covers an area of 845 hectares (2090 acres) which is two and half times the size of Central Park in New York, and comparable in size to Richmond Park in London.
Within the boundaries of the Bois de Boulogne are an English landscape garden with several lakes and a cascade; two smaller botanical and landscape gardens, the Château de Bagatelle and the Pré-Catelan; a zoo and amusement park in the Jardin d’Acclimatation; The Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil, a complex of greenhouses holding a hundred thousand plants; two tracks for horse racing, the Hippodrome de Longchamp and the Auteuil Hippodrome; a tennis stadium where the French Open tennis tournament is held each year; and other attractions.
The Bois de Boulogne is a remnant of the ancient oak forest of Rouvray, which included the present-day forests of Montmorency, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Chaville and Meudon. Dagobert, the King of the Franks (629-639), hunted bears, deer and other game in the forest. His grandson, Childeric II, gave the forest to the monks of the Abbey of Saint-Denis, who founded several monastic communities there. Philip Augustus (1180–1223) bought back the main part of the forest from the monks to create a royal hunting reserve. In 1256, Isabelle de France, sister of Saint-Louis, founded the Abbey of Longchamp at the site of the present hippodrome.
The Bois received its present name from a chapel, Notre Dame de Boulogne la Petite, which was built in the forest at the command of Philip IV of France (1268–1314). In 1308 Philip made a pilgrimage to Boulogne-sur-Mer, on the French coast, to see a statue of the Virgin Mary which was reputed to inspire miracles. He decided to build a church with a copy of the statue in a village in the forest not far from Paris, in order to attract pilgrims. The chapel was built after Philip’s death between 1319 and 1330, in what is now Boulogne-Billancourt.
During the Hundred Years’ War, the forest became a sanctuary for robbers and sometimes a battleground. In 1416-17 the soldiers of John the Fearless, the Duke of Burgundy, burned part of the forest in their successful campaign to capture Paris. Under Louis XI, the trees were replanted and two roads were opened through the forest.
In 1526, King Francis I of France began a royal residence, the Château de Madrid in the forest in what is now Neuilly, and used it for hunting and festivities. It took its name because of a similar palace in Madrid, where Francis had been held prisoner for several months. The Chateau was rarely used by later monarchs, fell into ruins in the 18th century, and was demolished after the French Revolution.
Despite its royal status, the forest remained dangerous for travelers; the scientist and traveler Pierre Belon was murdered by thieves in the Bois de Boulogne in 1564.
During the reigns of Henry II and Henry III, the forest was enclosed within a wall with eight gates. Henry IV planted 15,000 mulberry trees, with the hope of beginning a local silk industry. When Henry annulled his marriage with his wife Marguerite de Valois, she came to live in the Château de la Muette, on the edge of the forest.
In the early 18th century, wealthy and important women often retired to the convent of the Abbey of Longchamp, located where the hippodrome now stands. A famous opera singer of the period, Madmoiselle Le Maure, retired there in 1727, but continued to give recitals inside the Abbey, even during Holy Week. These concerts drew large crowds, and irritated the Archibishop of Paris, who closed the Abbey to the public.
Louis XVI and his family used the forest as a hunting ground and pleasure garden. In 1777 the Comte d’Artois, Louis XVI’s brother, built a charming miniature palace, the Château de Bagatelle in the Bois in just sixty-four days, on a wager from his sister-in-law, Marie Antoinette. Louis XVI also opened the walled park to the public for the first time.
On November 21, 1783, Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes took off from the Chateau de la Muette in a hot air balloon made by the Montgolfier brothers. Previous flights had carried animals or had been tethered to the ground; this was the first manned free flight in history. The balloon rose to a height of 910 meters, (3000 feet), was in the air for twenty-five minutes, and covered nine kilometers.
Following the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1814, forty thousand soldiers of the British and Russian armies had their encampment in the forest. Thousands of trees were cut down to build shelters and for fireweood. From 1815 until the French Second Republic, the Bois was largely empty, an assortment of bleak ruined meadows and tree stumps where the British and Russians had camped and dismal stagnant ponds.
The design of the park
The Bois de Boulogne was the idea of Napoleon III, shortly after he staged a coup d’état and elevated himself from the President of the French Republic to Emperor of the French in 1852. When Napoleon III became Emperor, Paris had only four public parks; the Tuileries Gardens, the Luxembourg Gardens, the Palais Royale, and the Jardin des Plantes, all in the center of the city. There were no public parks in the rapidly growing east and west of the city. During his exile in London, he had been particularly impressed by Hyde Park, by its lakes and streams and its popularity with Londoners of all social classes. He decided to build two large public parks on the eastern and western edges of the city where both the rich and ordinary people could enjoy themselves.
These parks became an important part of the plan for the reconstruction of Paris drawn up by Napoleon III and his new Prefect of the Seine, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann. The Haussmann plan called for improving the city’s traffic circulation by building new boulevards; improving the city’s health by building a new water distribution system and sewers; and creating green spaces and recreation for the rapidly growing population of Paris. In 1852 Napoleon donated the land for the Bois de Boulogne and for the Bois de Vincennes, which both belonged officially to him. Additional land in the plain of Longchamp, the site of the Chateau de Madrid and the Chateau de Bagatelle and its gardens were purchased and attached to the proposed park, so it could extend all the way to the Seine. Construction was funded out of the state budget, supplemented by selling building lots along the north end of the Bois, in Neuilly,
Napoleon III was personally involved in planning the new parks. He insisted that the Bois de Boulogne should have a stream and lakes like Hyde Park in London. “We must have a stream here, as in Hyde Park,” he observed while driving through the Bois, “to give life to this arid promenade”.
The first plan for the Bois de Boulogne was drawn up by the architect Jacques Hittorff, who, under King Louis Philippe, had designed the Place de la Concorde, and the landscape architect Louis-Sulpice Varé, who had designed French landscape gardens at several famous châteaux. Their plan called for long straight alleys in patterns crisscrossing the park, and, as the Emperor had asked, lakes and a long stream similar to the Serpentine in Hyde Park. Unfortunately, Varé bungled the assignment. He failed to take into account the difference in elevation between the beginning of the stream and the end; if his plan had been followed, the upper part of the stream would have been empty, and the lower portion flooded. When Haussmann saw the partially finished stream, he saw the problem immediately and had the elevations measured. He dismissed the unfortunate Varé and Hittorff, and designed the solution himself; an upper lake and a lower lake, divided by an elevated road, which serves as a dam; and a cascade which allows the water to flow between the lakes. This is the design still seen today.
In 1853 Haussmann hired an experienced engineer from the corps of Bridges and Highways, Jean-Charles Alphand, whom he had worked with in his previous assignment in Bordeaux, and made him the head of a new Service of Promenades and Plantations, in charge of all the parks in Paris. Alphand was charged to make a new plan for the Bois de Boulogne. Alphand’s plan was radically different from the Hittorff-Varé plan. it still had two long straight boulevards, the Allée Reine Marguerite and the Avenue Longchamp, but all the other paths and alleys curved and meandered. The flat Bois de Boulogne was to be turned into an undulating landscape of lakes, hills, islands, groves, lawns and grassy slopes, not a reproduction of but an idealization of nature. It became the prototype for the other city parks of Paris, and then for city parks around the world.