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From the Field

The Paris of Yesteryear: A Photographic Inventory

The Commission du Vieux Paris has kept meticulous records of urban transformations, with its own perception of what constitutes heritage. Since 2022, some 11,000 geolocated photographs from its collection have been made available online, enabling a virtual historic visit of urban renewal projects.

In Paris, a municipal committee called the Commission du Vieux Paris (Old Paris Commission) was created in 1897 to advise the prefecture (covering the former Seine département), and later the city council, on heritage conservation. [1] The Commission’s experts ensured the “conservation of aspects,” [2] either by advocating the preservation of Parisian buildings, or by taking charge of conservation through images. From the outset, the Commission recognized that, while it was imperative to preserve certain heritage elements, it was also necessary for certain parts of the city to be able to evolve; the important thing was to preserve the trace of a state that was destined to change, or even disappear.

In 2022, the Commission du Vieux Paris (CVP) put some of its 11,000 photographs online, the fruit of the work of this consultative commission. It issues resolutions recommending either the protection or conservation of public and private buildings, and examines projects, sometimes requesting their partial revision to better preserve heritage. Recently, as part of the review of "Réinventer Paris" projects, its recommendation that the Institut George-Eastman, a private dental care foundation built in the 1930s by architect Édouard Crevel, be protected as a historic monument, was accepted. For the forthcoming revision of the local urban-planning scheme (PLU; plan local d’urbanisme), she played the same role of adviser on the increase in the number of buildings to be protected under the future urban planning regulations. Its opinions on urban planning applications are forwarded to the mayor of Paris by the urban planning department, which signs off on the permits, so that the decision can be informed by a heritage opinion. This is a Parisian specificity, the history of which has yet to be retraced. The creation of this municipal commission was inspired by learned societies at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries (Fiori 2012). Some cities, such as Lyon, may have set up similar structures in the 1900s, but none of them has been entrusted with this official advisory role. In its current form, therefore, it is a unique structure.

The Casier photographs

At the request of the Prefect of the Seine département, who historically chaired the plenary sessions, its mission was extended in 1916 with the creation of the Casier Artistique et Archéologique de la Ville (Bassières 2020), constituting an inventory “by arrondissement and neighborhood, for every building of any partial or total, historical, or artistic interest.” [3] Standardized records of the addresses concerned are kept in boxes, giving the “Casier” its familiar name. It was agreed that this was “the most satisfactory and dignified way, for the City of Paris, to respond to the wishes of the legislator,” in article 2 of the French law of December 31, 1913 on historic monuments, which instituted a “supplementary inventory of all buildings or parts of public or private buildings which, without justifying a request for immediate classification, [presented] however a sufficient archaeological interest to make its conservation desirable.” [4] The CVP’s Casier thus fed into the supplementary list of historic monuments in the 1910-1920 years. The Casier was closed in the 1960s, but the work of documenting, listing, defending and even protecting buildings worthy of interest for their age, authenticity and quality, is continued by the Commission, thus complementing the missions of the inventory services entrusted to the regions since 2004.

The institution inaugurated an innovative partnership between Louis Bonnier (1856-1946) (Marrey 1988), an architect and highways officer by training and the Inspector-General of the Departments of Architecture and Aesthetics of the City of Paris, and Marcel Poëte (1866-1950) (Calabi 1997), chartist and curator of the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris (City of Paris Historic Library). The former gave the Casier its administrative and regulatory attributes, aiming to exclude buildings of historical or aesthetic interest from alignment work and other demolitions in the public interest; the latter gave it a scientific content, enriching the files with in-depth historical studies.

The roots of the concept of “urban heritage”

While the Malraux law of 1962, which made possible the creation of the Secteurs sauvegardés, is read as the birth of a heritage consciousness on an urban scale (Tomas 2004), the Casier artistique et archéologique de la Ville de Paris demonstrates that this consciousness was very real in the 1910s (Bassières 2016), stimulated by legislation on historic monuments and their surroundings. In this respect, the map of photographs taken by the Commission du Vieux Paris is a first-rate testimony to this notion of urban heritage, the invention of which has been attributed to Gustavo Giovannoni in a work published in 1931 and translated into French in 1998 (Giovannoni 1998 [1931]). Photographs commissioned between 1916 and the end of the 1930s from photographer Charles Lansiaux (1855-1939) and his successor Édouard Desprez, marked on the map of Paris, make it easy to grasp this phenomenon. They include, for example, a major photographic report on the Bercy wine cellars (Figure 1), a shot of the Petite-Roquette prison (Figure 2), pictures of industrial sites on the banks of the Seine (Figure 3), and photographs of Parisian squares including some views from high points in the French capital (Figure 4). All of these images show architectures that were always placed in their urban context, and that were only considered heritage objects much later, when they were the subject of major development and demolition projects in the 1970s and 1980s, or even more recently. Such is the case of the Roquette park and district, the subject of an urban planning competition in the 1970s, or Bercy Village and its park, opened in the late 1980s. In the suburbs, the Casier is mainly made up of “picturesque” architectural objects (façades or parts of buildings), in the sense of those that deserve to be the subject of paintings, a terminology linked to landscapes, much used at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, and which was perfectly suited to the mission set by the Commission.

Figure 1. Bercy wine warehouses, Avenue du Petit-Château, 12th arrondissement. Offices of Maison Henri Gouin, February 22, 1921. Photographed by Charles Lansiaux

DHAAP/CVP – © Charles Lansiaux/City of Paris.

Figure 2. Petite-Roquette prison, Rue Duranti, 11th arrondissement. View of prison site with external walls in the foreground, September 1, 1921. Photographed by Charles Lansiaux

DHAAP/CVP – © Charles Lansiaux/City of Paris.

Figure 3. Magasins Généraux warehouses, 22–24 Quai d’Austerlitz, 13th arrondissement. Riverside façade with barges on the Seine in the foreground, October 5, 1920. Photographed by Charles Lansiaux

DHAAP/CVP – © Charles Lansiaux/City of Paris.

Figure 4. Place de l’Hôtel de Ville and Avenue Victoria, 4th arrondissement. Panoramic view from the bell tower of City Hall (Hôtel de Ville) looking toward the River Seine, Paris Commercial Court (Tribunal de Commerce) and the city’s main law courts (Palais de Justice), May 7, 1919. Photographed by Charles Lansiaux

DHAAP/CVP – © Charles Lansiaux/City of Paris.

Old urban and industrial heritage is therefore represented, but so is contemporary heritage. Among the Casier files is Saint-Antoine-des-Quinze-Vingts church (57 Rue Traversière, 12th arrondissement) (Figure 5), built by Émile Vaudremer in 1902, some 20 years before it was listed in the Casier. While religious architecture, monumental by nature, might suffice to explain this craze, the presence of the social housing block built by the Assistance Publique in 1911, at the corner of Rue Gerbier and Rue Félix Voisin (11th arrondissement) (Figure 6), proves that Parisian heritage at the time took on a multitude of challenges, well identified by the Commission. Buildings were selected both for the attention paid to their architecture and for the evidence they provided of the evolution of the city’s urban fabric and society.

Figure 5. Saint-Antoine-des-Quinze-Vingts church, 66 Avenue Ledru-Rollin, 12th arrondissement. Street-side façade, July 30, 1921. Photographed by Charles Lansiaux

DHAAP/CVP – © Charles Lansiaux/City of Paris.

Figure 6. Façades of apartment buildings at the corner of 6 Rue Gerbier and 2 Rue Félix Voisin, 11th arrondissement, September 1, 1920. Photographed by Charles Lansiaux

DHAAP/CVP – © Charles Lansiaux/City of Paris.

The Commission’s pre-demolition photographic reports

From 1965 onwards, as demolition requests were regulated in the 1900s and 1940s [5] - in connection with laws on historic monuments and their surroundings - and then in the 1940s - this time in connection with the monitoring of housing supply, which had been in crisis since the 1930s - the Commission embarked on a campaign of photographic surveys prior to demolition. This work is still being carried out today by the DHAAP. This second corpus offers an admirable and plethoric testimony to a Paris that has disappeared, and invites us to consider the effects of reforms in urban planning regulations. The before-and-after mapping tool - which allows you to switch from the 1890s cadastral survey to the immersive aerial views of Google Maps in just a few clicks - is a playful exercise in judging height changes and alignments, but also, once again, the sociological evolution of neighborhoods. While this may seem obvious in the case of Paris’s suburbs, which were extensively redeveloped during the “Trente Glorieuses,” France’s three “glorious” decades of postwar boom (Figure 7), it is less so in the case of the area around the Champs-Élysées, where urban renewal has been quieter, more sporadic, but just as obvious (Figure 8). Here, the last little houses will be replaced by luxury apartment blocks designed by renowned architects to house shops and luxury homes. Of even greater interest are the many photographs taken in the Halles district (Figure 9), a former slum that would be largely demolished.

Figure 7. Nos. 31–35 Rue du Repos, 20th arrondissement. Façades and view along street, November 17, 1964. Anonymous photographer

DHAAP/CVP – © City of Paris.

Figure 8. Nos. 45–47 Avenue de la Grande Armée, 16th arrondissement. Street-side façade, April 19, 1967. Anonymous photographer

DHAAP/CVP – © City of Paris.

Figure 9. Nos. 123–133 Rue Saint-Martin, 4th arrondissement. Street-side façades, April 1, 1968. anonymous photographer

DHAAP/CVP – © City of Paris.

From photographs to plenary sessions of the Old Paris Commission

For a better understanding of the old photographs available online, it is possible to refer to the minutes of the sessions of the Commission du Vieux Paris, available for the years 1898 to 1931 on the BnF (French National Library) digital library, Gallica. [6] Thanks to these minutes, we can identify the richness of the photographic holdings and understand the reasons behind the photographs taken. In line with this approach, the DHAAP and the city’s IT department have put another perfectly complementary digital tool online: the cartography of addresses examined by the Commission du Vieux Paris from the 1960s to the present day. [7] Although the latter is not yet exhaustive, it does make available a large number of session reports, which enable us to follow the evolution of the capital and the notion of heritage, as well as the consequences of revisions to urban planning regulations. Preceded by historical presentations made available to the members of the Commission du Vieux Paris to enrich their debate, the projects studied over time reveal a not inconsiderable number of heritage and urban issues that are either specific to the capital, or transposable to other cities.

As Paris prepares to revise its PLU, it seemed more than appropriate to highlight the wealth of collections resulting from the missions of this institution, which this year celebrates 125 years of heritage debates. These invite us to reflect on the evolution of cities and heritage, whose temporalities are rarely compatible. For example, what will be part of our heritage in a few decades’ time is not necessarily identified today, which is why losses may be regrettable later on. In addition to the monuments to be protected, the urban landscape, which bears witness to the changing uses of the city and the society that supports it, also deserves to be surveyed. The banks of the Seine, once devoted to industry, then to the automobile and today to leisure, are a fine illustration of this need for landscape history. Similarly, the loss would have been immense if no photographs had been taken of the Halles district, whether before or after the demolition of the old market pavilions, designed by Baltard, in 1971, the development of the Forum inaugurated in 1979, or the creation of the Canopée delivered in 2016. Finally, the small scale is fundamental: Paris being the sum of an infinite addition, it is made up of a multitude of architectures, monumental or ordinary, public or private, utilitarian or recreational, all of which contribute to Paris’s urban heritage. Haussmannism being the unchanging tree that conceals the forest of Parisian typologies, the collections of the Commission du Vieux Paris offer a fairly exhaustive account, over a very long period of time, of everything that has made, is making and will make the heritage of yesterday, today and tomorrow.


  • Bassières, L. 2020. “Qui connaît le Casier archéologique et artistique (1916-1928) ?”, In Situ, no. 42.
  • Bassières, L. 2016. “Prémisses d’un urbanisme patrimonial – l’épisode du Casier archéologique et artistique de Paris et du département de la Seine, 1916-1928”, in Inventer le Grand Paris. Relectures des travaux de la Commission d’extension de Paris. Rapport et concours 1911-1919. Actes du colloque des 5 et 6 décembre 2013, Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, Paris, Bordeaux: Éditions Bière, pp. 164–191.
  • Calabi, D. 1997. Marcel Poëte et le Paris des années vingt : aux origines de « l’histoire des villes », translated by P. Sany, Paris: L’Harmattan.
  • Fiori, R. 2012. L’Invention du Vieux Paris. Naissance d’une conscience patrimoniale dans la capitale, Wavre: Mardaga.
  • Giovannoni, G. 1998. L’Urbanisme face aux villes anciennes, Paris: Seuil. Translated from the Italian by J.‑M. Mandosio, A. Petita and C. Tandille. Édition originale : Vecchie cittá ed edilizia nuova, 1931.
  • Marrey, B. 1988. Louis Bonnier : 1856-1946, Brussels: Mardaga–Institut Français d’Architecture, “Architectes” series.
  • Tomas, F. 2004. “Les temporalités du patrimoine et de l’aménagement urbain”, Géocarrefour, vol. 79, no. 3, pp. 197–212.

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To cite this article:

Pauline Rossi & translated by Oliver Waine, “The Paris of Yesteryear: A Photographic Inventory”, Metropolitics, 14 May 2024. URL :

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