It is the center of Paris and was the site of the largest known wholesale market of its time. Since the market has moved away in 1969, the site, having received an underground shopping mall and a subway station seeing close to 1 million passengers a day, has become arguably the biggest urban conundrum of Paris. We gonna study it a bit- This first post layout some general context (at a level allowing me to classified my notes on the topic, so a bit heavier than necessary on the level of historic detail)

The geographic context

The very center of Paris

Paris with its successive city walls. Les Halles are where the Montmartre road (blue line) meets the Paris "great cross" (red lines, the fine lines are the historic route, the thick ones have been layout circa 1850)

The centre of Paris is at the center of the “great cross”:

  • Historically, it was defined by rue St Honoré for the west branch, and rue St Denis (doubled by rus St Martin) for the North Branch.
  • Mostly to resolve traffic issue, This cross will be doubled by the rue de Rivoli (West branch), and Boulevard de Sébastopol (north branch) [8].
  • In 1900 the cross will be doubled by the subway: line 1 for the East West axis, while the line 4 will roughly follow the North-South axis – they are respectively the first and second most used subway lines of the network.
  • In 1977, the opening of the first lines, A and B, of the regional express subway (RER) will also follow this cross…

The Montmartre road is coming from of the Montmartre hill following the terrain topography. A historically important road, but not necessarily for commercial reason, at the difference of the great cross roads: the meeting of Montmartre road with the great cross defines Les Halles – historically a triangular shape (between W and NW roads), as most of the medevial square sitting at the crossing of roads, used to be. It is important to note that the Halles has developed exclusively in the NW quadrant of the “active” great cross, basically almost never impeding the traffic on it. It was not the case of Montmartre street, since outside the market activities blocking the street, it was also the site of various celebration, and the pillory was here too:

Left: Execution of Aymerigot Marcel, from Froissart's Chronical, Vol.IV, part 1, 1470 - Right: A "celebration" at the Halles by Philibert Louis Debucourt - It was to celebrate the birth of the French heir on January 21, 1782. The tower seen in the middle is the pillory

A short history

Detail of the Halles district and market across the age, 1300, 1600, 1790 and 1830 - red line refer to the W and N branches of the historic great cross (rue St Honore and St Denis), and the blue line to the Montmartre road- credit (16)

Thought a market was officially existing since Louis VI the fat, circa 1117 – which in fact was instituating a function already occurring on a necropolis site [5]– Les Halles history starts in 1183, when the King Philippe II Augustus decided to move a trade-fair on the site called the Champeaux. A history version suggests it was a Jew ghetto – Philippe II Augustus will have expelled them and seized their goods and houses in 1182 [2]-then build two covered market in 1183. They are thought to have been massive enough-100metres long and 10 height, with a vaulted ceiling, all in stones [5]– to have impressed their contemporaries: they will be called “Hala” (halles in french, the English term “hall” is poor translation, and we will keep the french term) and it is the beginning of the story.

Left: Halles Champeaux (circa 1183) - right: Halla interior

At first the market food trading is marginal. The market will start to flourish then will decline in the 14th and 15th centuries and the halles will fall in ruins. A Francis I reformation ordinance in 1543 will try to correct that. New halles will be erected to extend and replace the old ones circa 1551, that along market organization changes. The emergence of new trading usage (shop…) will make the market focusing increasingly on food trading. Soon enough it will be known as the largest market in Occident.

Halle a la saline

Halle a la saline – circa 1784

Lot of things will change around, except 2 landmarks which today are still structuring the site- St Eustache Church and the Innocents Fountain-marked with a “red target” on all the maps to help the reader to contextualize the site:

Les halles neighborhood, The halles today site and original site. St Eustache church and the Innocents Fountain landmarks highligted

St Eustache Church

It is a relatively unassuming Gothic style church, with an unfinished and at odd neoclassic frontage [9] – the kind of you can expect in many french cities. Its recognized best profile-highlighting its gothics features slighlty enhanced by some renaissance style details- is seen from its South East side, basically from the Innocents fountain.
It is the obvious landmark of the neighborhood. Most of the photographs and paintings of the district include it whenever possible: When you see St Eustache, you know where you are.

St Eustache church (in front the "Prouvaires" market): 24 barracks built between 1813-1818- circa 1850 (Photo Marville)

The Innocents fountain

Easy to find. On the way, more exactly on the historic Montmartre road axis- between the Halles and the “great cross” intersection- and dominating the middle of an unencumbered and well defined ~80mx60m square: a size big enough to accommodate a substantiate activity making a good hangout, but small enough to be able to recognize a person in it (see the notion of social field of vision in [7]): this unassuming structure is a landmark: it is “THE” meeting spot of the Halles.

Notice the today square’s name, place Joachim du Bellay, is virtually unknown, overwhelmed it is by the “Innocents” fountain name everyone know.

St Innocent fountain, and market. Notice the umbrellas in the forefront, they will play an important role in the Halles history- Photo Marville circa 1855

A bit of historic background for the Innocents fountain

Innocents cemetery during the Middle ages

The fountain- thought have been existing since 1274 [5][10]– has been a bit peripatetic. Originally this site was a cemetery, the St Innocents cemetery, and the fountain was sitting at the NE corner of it. A cenotaph was sitting in the middle of the cemetery.


The cemetery- an “overflowing” mass grave-the level was 2meters above natural level [5]– surrounded by an ossuary, has been closed circa 1785 under hygienist concern of the time and pressure of the neighborhood complaining about its “mephitic” odours [6] (the cemetery has been transferred into the catacombs) . The fountain has then replaced the cenotaph. Though merchants was conducting business in the cemetery before its closure, it became the regular market we see in the photo above in 1789-as planned by a 1750s plan.

Project of conversion of the "Innocents" cemetery in a new market dated 1747 or 1767 (notice North is downward)

before be surrounded by shelter for merchant, circa 1811-1813 [2], the Innocent market will receive 400 red parasols in 1800 [5], an anecdote which will eventually have a huge influence on the future of the site. The Innocents market will last up to 1858 when it will be relocated in the Halles Baltard, and give room partially to a park, an opportunity to relocate the fountain for the last time so far.

"Innocents" market by Thomas Naudet circa 1800: 400 parasol had been installed to shelter the merchants (credit wikigallery)

Some other building of interests

The Halle au Blé

The Halle au blé with the Médicis Column as it looks today from the Halles (credit wikipedia)

In its today form, this building could have eventually been a landmark in a provincial city, but in the Parisian landscape, it looks like another official Parisian building… Its circular and repetitive from makes it a poor orientation helper. The lately added main entrance on its west side, make the building turning its back to the Halles site.

A bit of history

It was a building to trade grain and flour. It has been built by Nicolas Le Camus de Mézières between 1763 and 1767, and was part of a larger neighborhood development following a circus layout. This building has been considerably altered in its history to the point it bears little relationship with its original design:

  • Jacques-Guillaume Legrand and Jacques Molinos added a wooden framed dome in 1782, it will be destroyed by a fire in 1802
  • François-Joseph_Bélanger will rebuilt the dome with an iron frame and copper surfacing in 1806-1811
  • After another fire in 1854, the building will be closed in 1873, and radically transformed by Henri Blondel in 1885, to give its today appearance, and to host a commodity trade market.
  • Nowadays, it is used by the Paris Chamber of commerce

Original Halle au blé, as designed by Le Camus de Mézières (top). it will receive a wooden roof by Jacques Molinos and Legrand (middle) and will get a dramatic transformation by Blondel giving its today appearance(bottom)

The surrounding buildings have followed a similar track.

rue de Viarmes, circa 1885, left (photo Godefroy)- and now, right (credit wikipedia)

The Médicis column

It is the column seen next to the Halle au blé building. Commissioned by Catherine de’ Medici in 1574, it predates the building itself, but has always stand still there a bit at odd. Blondel was planning to demolish it in the context of its renovation work: Jean Charles Alphand, to whose Paris owns most of its most celebrated parks, will have intervened against such a fate.

The Halle au Draps

We mention this building because it was probably the traditional shape of the non food related Halles, and it relates to what have once been one of the most important and flagship trade activities of the medieval halles of Paris: drapery.
The illustrated Halles, a 50x400foot building, has been built by Legrand and Molinos in 1786, it will lost its vaulted, wooden framed roof in a fire in 1855. following that, the then almost moribund drapery market, will be transferred to the Halle au ble. The building will be demolished in 1868. The advent of the department stores surrounding the halles, like Le Bon Marché, Samaritaine, the BHV or the Grands magasins du Louvre, will make them the place of choice to buy drapery

The "halle aux draps" by Nicolle Victor Jean (circa 1830)- Probably a very traditional shape for the non-food "mortar" built Halle, it has been demolished in 1868

The market in 1850’s

The Halles, for the food related market, are largely very medieval in their typology, and the last addition like the Prouvaires market built by Jean-Jacques-Marie Huvé between 1813-1818 (see photo above) or the halles for the fish and butter market, built in 1822 by Hubert Rohault de Fleury, don’t revisit this style, thought they are almost contemporary of the Covent garden market in London.

In former time and in addition to Les Halles, Parisian houses in commercial districts had an open ground floor, where market activities was held. this form used to be called “Piliers” (from the building foundation pillars)-they form a 4meters wide gallery on the east side, and a 2meters wide one elsewhere [5], but in fact the market was sprawling in all the surrounding area. The Giuseppe Canella’s canvas below illustrates it:

"les halles" circa 1830 and the Tonnellerie's "Piliers" - notice the roof shape of the covered market

the market is the largest known central market of its time and live mostly at night: people, including 7162 counted sellers, start to come around 11pm, to serve an estimated 40,000+ customers, and are supposed by bylaw to have freed the street by 9am or 10am (in winter).
The market roughly occupies 3.6 hectares -2.2hectares for flower, fruit and vegetable only- partitioned as following:

  • 1 hectares of Halles (covered market)
  • 0.6 hectares on open space
  • 2 hectares on public street

Traffic is a huge issue- there are counted 4,000 carts occupying an additional 2 hectares. handcart, basket storage, and livestock occupy an additional 0.5 hectares (number above from [11], [12] provides similar numbers, 5.5 hectares for the whole market).

The area is a fertile ground for endemic prostitution and other activities associated with more or less shady nightlife [15]. The retail market is functioning all the day, making the area active 24hr a day.
Adding to the picture the smell of the rotten food (odours have always been a strong marker of the site [15]), it doesn’t necessarily make a desirable place to live, and in fact the neighborhood, “unhealthy, badly built and crowded, is of a repulsive appearance” [14]: It is the “worst” slump of Paris where the living population density level has been reported at up to 100,000 people/km2 [1][15]. Diseases are widespread and the neighborood will be a nest of the 1832 cholera pandemic [13]

Thought there were many men, for packing work- called fort des halles– many of the merchants were women, and the market was associated with a high level of gossiping and obscene language by the moral bourgeoisie of the time [13]. Eventually due to the market sprawl and ensuing disorganization, the government had little control on its activities, market stall allocation, tax collection..etc…. The government will try to get better control on it… It will be the object of another post:

In this Marville photo (circa 1855), all the structuring edifices mentioned in this post are appearing. but what is the focus of the photo is the Halles Baltard: it will deserves a post of its own

[1]The autumn of Central Paris, Anthony Sutcliffe, mc Gill Quueens Univeristy Press, 1970

[2] Mémoires de la Société de l’histoire de Paris et de l’Île-de-France, Volume 3, Paris, 1876

[3]it was kind of an European tradition when the government was in need of money. We refers to the June 24, 1182 expelling ordinance. It was called la “Juiverie des Champeaux”. This version doesn’t appear- neither is dismissed- in the recent literature (like [5]), but up to recently the literature was frequently referring to [2] to support this version.

[4] Paris, ses organes, ses fonctions et sa vie dans la seconde moitie du XIXe siecle, Paris, 1874 (as translated in [13])

[5] Les halles de Paris et leur quartier (1137-1969), Anne Lombard Jourdan, 2010

[6] Histoire physique, civile et morale de Paris, Vol.6, Jacques Antoine Dulaure, 1837

[7] Cities for people, Jan Gehl, 2010

[8] The Rue de Rivoli (street) has been opened in different stage between 1806 and 1835, for the Western part, and the last section completed in 1855 [1].

[9] It used to be chapel, St Agnès, built in the 13th century. The construction of the current church began in 1532, the work not being finally completed until 1637. Jean Hardouin-Mansart de Jouy has started to had a new neoclassic style frontage in 1754. The work will be continued but not finished by Pierre-Louis Moreau-Desproux up to 1772.

[10] The original fountain with only 3 exposed faces- has been redone in its current style by Jean Goujon (sculptor) and Pierre Lescot (design)- 1546-1549. The fourth face has been added by Auguste pajou in 1788, when the fountain has been relocated in the middle of the place.

[11] La politique Nouvelle, Juin, Juillet Aout 1851, Paris

[12] Revue générale de l’architecture et des travaux publics: Volume 8, edited by César Daly, 1849, Paris

[13] Urban Renovation, Moral Regeneration: Domesticating the Halles in Second-Empire Paris, Victoria E. Thompson, French Historical Studies, Vol. 20, No. 1, 1997.

[14] “Question du déplacement de Paris,” Lanquetin, Prefecture de la Seine, Commission de Halles, April 1840 (as cited by [13].

[15] Les Halles: images d’un quartier, Jean-Louis Robert,Martine Tabeaud, 2004