Viollet-le-Duc, The Hôtel Dieu, and the Vincentians: The Transformation of the Parvis of Notre-Dame

by Simone Zurawski, appearing in Volume 38

The Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris in 1864, showing the southern flank and the new treasury and sacristy built by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, and his spire. Image: DePaul University Archives and Special Collections

​Much thought—including many articles in the special Notre-Dame issue of Sacred Architecture—went into the complexities of rebuilding the collapsed Medieval roof of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame and replacing the nineteenth-century wooden spire (flèche) of Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc.

But other structures involving Notre-Dame have been lost, as well—whose fantômes are hiding in plain sight. Viollet-le-Duc, in fact, built the first of them: the treasury and sacristy that is still attached to the flank of the cathedral.

The other buildings were more ancient, however, and had once been connected to the emplacement of the square, or Parvis. This group included the Hôtel-Dieu, or the City’s General Hospital, plus its principal foundlings residence, the Hospice des Enfants-Trouvés, which was run by the Vincentian Daughters of Charity until the Revolution.

The Treasury and Sacristy

Viollet-le-Duc’s flèche closely replicated the Gothic original that had been removed in 1786. Equal in significance, moreover, was his construction of the neo-Gothic treasury and sacristy. These two conjoined spaces make up the large, but tightly controlled, rectilinear extension from the choir at the southeast. It so harmoniously blends in with the lancet windows and tracery of the apse that most visitors fail to realize it is not the “real thing.”

Viollet, in essence, fused the treasury to the sacristy. He removed the contents of the unremarkable old treasury in the interior of the cathedral, and created a smart new structure for it as the showy element projecting from the flank of his large new sacristy, which was raised at great expenditures of funds and labor to replace the one built by Jacques-Germain Soufflot in 1758.

The previous sacristy had not fallen victim to the usual ravages of time and weather, but to rioters in July 1830, who then came back to plunder and entirely destroy it in February. Even all the stained-glass windows got smashed. The large old Archiepiscopal Palace on site was brought down with it.

These catastrophes, in other words, occurred during and following the July Revolution of 1830—the second French Revolution—which ended the Bourbon Restoration and swept in the July Monarchy of King Louis-Philippe, who headed the Orléanist branch of the Bourbon line.

In fact, Victor Hugo published his Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) in 1831, which set in motion the dynamics that led to renovating the cathedral, in the wake of this Revolution, not the first one! So, too, did Eugène Delacroix paint his iconic Lady Liberty Leading the People to the Barricades in 1830, which proudly uses the cathedral to anchor the background at the right—as the Tricolore flies high from the south tower.

Viollet-le-Duc’s expensive, conspicuous, and semi-autonomous treasury and sacristy was therefore like a counterpart to his flèche—but with the distinction of evoking more timely political undertones associated with the Orléanist Crown (before it, too, ended in 1848). Viollet invented an ornate neo-Gothic system and wrote a manifesto, which together served his aesthetic vision in theory and in practice. These high-minded pursuits were aligned with the tastes of the fashionable crowd that patronized Le Style Troubadour, or Troubadour Style, in Academic painting, which reimagined the good old days in French history, as well as the artisans who were selling the look, “à la cathédrale,” in luxurious interior décor for pious aristocratic households.

Indeed, Viollet brought this posh neo-Gothic mode to a precious vessel that he designed in 1862 toward the end of his work on the treasury and sacristy, as an authoritative embellishment. This is the reliquary in gilded bronze for the Crown of Thorns, the most supreme relic in the treasury. Viollet modeled it on the original one donated by Saint Louis to the Sainte-Chapelle, in 1248, that was melted down in the Revolution. (The relic arrived in Paris in 1238, and was first kept in Saint-Denis.)

In thus honoring the new “national style,” Viollet corrected the first modern replacement, which Jean-Charles Cahier had fabricated in a Neoclassical vein, in 1806, for Napoléon. But! We are more familiar with the crystal wreath of the late nineteenth-century, which reveals the Crown of Thorns cradled within it—especially because it was rescued in April 2018 by the firefighters of Paris and their valiant chaplain, Father Jean-Marc Fournier.


Remains of the Archbishop’s Palace, Cathedral of Notre-Dame, 1831, a sketch by John Scarlett Davis. Image: Tate Gallery

“The Île de la Cité Transformed by Haussmann,” superimposed over Robert de Vaugondy’s 1771 Plan de Paris. It shows the Great Works of Baron Haussmsann, notably, “La Croisée de Paris,” or new streets across the Cité, and site of the Nouvel Hôtel-Dieu. Image:

The Trashed Palace

The trashed archbishop’s residence, too, now assumes its rightful place alongside those more famous narratives. Alas, the scanty pictorial records of this austere palace, which (to repeat) had long covered the grounds of Viollet’s future treasury and sacristy, include John Scarlett Davis’s graphite drawing on paper, of 1831, that reveals the exterior walls in ruins. And in the historical archives of the Archdiocese of Paris, I came across the display of a beaten-up wooden door that was salvaged from the mess.

During the violence of July 1830, and also of 1831, the inhabitant of the palace was Archbishop Hyacinthe-Louis de Quélen, who became the object of slander and mockery because of his loyalty to the fallen Charles X, and equally stubborn refusal to recognize Louis-Philippe. Indeed, this official archiepiscopal residence, which had been spared in 1793, evidently got hit to humiliate the archbishop. He had to flee—twice—and became homeless.

However, from some time in 1832 until his death in 1839, he blithely and shamelessly exploited his friendship with Madame Madeleine-Sophie Barat, the future saint, by moving into her motherhouse convent of the Société du Sacré-Coeur, or Ladies of the Sacred Heart. He then took over the whole place during her absences. (This property, the former Hôtel Biron, is now the Rodin Museum.) Mme Barat’s only non-confrontational solution was to relocate her motherhouse elsewhere, to Rue Monsieur—which, of course, only left the archbishop free to continue his glorified squatting in her beautiful Hôtel Biron!

Yet one more Quélen story that begs to be retold involves the reliquary casket, or châsse, of Saint Vincent de Paul. This magnificent vessel, fabricated by the Odiot firm from 130 kilos of solid silver, was mounted in New Saint-Lazare, motherhouse of the Vincentian community (the Congregation of the Mission), in April 1830, just before the next Revolution exploded in July. However, the châsse had yet to be paid for in full. Odiot feared a huge financial loss and demanded payment from Archbishop Quélen, who had ordered the vessel, but was moved to let others foot the bill.

When the archbishop did not pay up, Odiot sued him, and the transcripts from the trial are perfectly delicious! The silversmith even threatened to melt down the châsse to recover the precious metal. A fundraiser saved the day, and the faithful contributed so much money that the Daughters of Charity used the surplus to treat victims of the cholera pandemic of 1832 to 1837.

A stereograph vintage postcard shows the Parvis prior to the full completion of Viollet-le-Duc’s spire, and also prior to Haussmann’s demolitions of the Hôpital des Enfants-Trouvés (to the left), which Germain Boffrand built between 1744 and 1751, and (to the right) the Medieval General Hospital, or the Hôtel-Dieu. Image: DePaul University Archives and Special Collections

The Vincentian Past in the Parvis

When Viollet’s spire was being raised, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann became the Préfect de la Seine, or chief administrator of the Paris region. This mayoral-like appointment was made in 1853 by Emperor Napoléon III (Louis-Philippe’s successor), who called for modernizing the city in a staggering slate of great works, most visible in the wide new boulevards that slashed across, and transformed, the map of Paris.

And the Emperor’s top billing was launched, in 1854, in the beating heart of Paris on the Île de la Cité, or simply the Cité, with the great axis, “La Croisée de Paris,” to form new crossroads.

Hundreds of dilapidated structures came down. In concert with reinvigorating the neighborhood, Haussmann took sharp aim at Notre-Dame —to enhance it by way of demolition. To maximize the drama of Viollet’s anticipated renovations, which featured the majestic coronation of his flèche, all the old buildings were cleared away. Haussmann thereby struck down an extensive precinct that once played a singular role in dispensing medical care to the poor.

Its fabriques included the municipal General Hospital, or Hôtel-Dieu. Haussmann himself had initiated an official agenda of historic preservation in the Commission des travaux historiques, or Commission of Historic Works. This means his wholesale destruction of “Le Vieux Paris” (Old Paris) was implemented side-by-side with new institutions for keeping the perished heritage alive.

First, on the Hôtel-Dieu: it was the city’s oldest hospital, and dated back to the ninth century. In the seventeenth century, working in the wards were the Dames de la Charité de l’Hôtel-Dieu, a group of wealthy noblewomen who dedicated themselves to aiding the sick poor. The most special occasion for meeting with their superior, Père Vincent de Paul, was the annual election of officers, which took place inside Notre-Dame.

The Foundlings’ Home

Located near the western portal of Notre-Dame was the Maison de la Couche, which the Cathedral Chapter had built to shelter the abandoned infants of Paris. At times, some of them were housed in the cathedral itself. But once the future saint realized the Maison de la Couche had become a house of horrors, he galvanized the Ladies of the Hôtel-Dieu into rescuing the enfants-trouvés, or “found children,” as they were euphemistically called.

From that moment in 1638 forward, the foundlings mission grew into a renowned, and massive, Vincentian enterprise whereby the Ladies provided financial support and the Daughters of Charity, who also were highly skilled nurses, served as caregivers. A charming “Romantic” souvenir was painted retrospectively in 1824 by Paul Delaroche, which features Vincent preaching on behalf of the foundlings in the nave of Notre-Dame. Although his canvas was lost, its composition was reproduced in a large and beautiful print.

The next step called for building a boarding school to house, educate, and train les enfants-trouvés in a trade until the age of sixteen (or so). This happened in 1644 and 1645, when Vincent de Paul and his partner, the future Saint Louise de Marillac (1591-1660), sponsored the construction of Les Treize Maisons. This compound of thirteen joined structures was located across the road from his motherhouse of Saint-Lazare, near the outer limits of Paris, but it was shut down barely a generation later, in 1670, when the Mission was ceded to the Hôtel-Dieu, right in the middle of town. In other words, back to where it had started, in the Parvis of Notre-Dame!

The residence of ca. 1670 is unrecorded—did the Sisters and children simply occupy the Hôtel-Dieu? This situation was temporary, anyway, in expectation of a building just for them, which was raised by the celebrated architect, Germain Boffrand.


A plate from the journal Le Monde Illustré in 1866 shows the clearing of the site for the New General Hospital, plus the completed spire of the cathedral; a rare view from behind the Hôpital des Enfants-Trouvés, especially the peaked roof of the chapel; and the Neoclassical portico façade of the Old Hôtel-Dieu that was built under Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte. Image: DePaul University Archives and Special Collections

The Hôpital and the Chapel

The assertive placement of this Vincentian foundlings hospice is evident on Jean Delagrive’s Plan de Paris (1754), which exposes both a connection to, and independence from, the sprawling General Hospital across the street from Rue Neuve Notre-Dame. Germain Boffrand built the residence first, between 1744 and 1751, then raised the soaring light-filled chapel between 1746 and 1750.

Its décor from Charles Natoire, a stellar member of the Académie de peinture et de sculpture (The Royal Academy), and also from the Brunetti, père et fils, was immortalized in Étienne Fessard’s reproductive engravings—since these paintings disappeared, along with their buildings, in Haussmann’s demolitions. One wonderful detail shows Natoire’s life-size figure of Saint Vincent de Paul frescoed on the wall, who stands like a heroic “action figure” to watch over the children and their Sister-nurses!

Did Boffrand’s hospice meet the needs in years to come? This question, and its answer, pricked a nerve among the city’s worst social realities because the rising tide of les enfants-trouvés, many of whom slept in hallways, had horrified even the most blasé Parisians. To relieve over-crowding, Charles-François Viel added a wing and two pavillions in 1782, but even they barely stayed ahead of the game.

In sum, 5,912 inmates were registered in 1787, in astounding contrast to the 312 who had been listed in 1670, the inaugural year of operation in the Parvis. For at the tail end of the Ancien Régime, those grim figures referred to admissions that no longer were restricted to abandoned illegitimate infants, but tallied also older children, poor legitimate children, and natural children with given names—such as the five progeny of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Emergency measures included the Crown’s push for adoption (a near-alien concept in France), and the founding of the Société de Charité Maternelle, or Society for Maternal Charity, on site, in the Hôpital des Enfants-Trouvés, to encourage families to remain intact, and was sponsored ex-officio by Queen Marie-Antoinette. That is, until the Revolution of 1789.

A detail of the Île de la Cité from Jean Delagrive’s engraved Plan de Paris, 1754. Image: DePaul University Archives and Special Collections

Finally, the Parvis

The Hôpital des Enfants-Trouvés was shut down in 1793, in the Terror, when the Daughters of Charity were expelled and their charges were taken, for instance, to the Maternity Hospital opened by the state in the former Jansenist convent of Port-Royal. The Boffrand-Viel compound was meanwhile repurposed several times by the Administration des hospices /Administration générale de l’Assistance publique de Paris, most notably, as the Central Municipal Pharmacy. It then became the main office block. This is the manifestation captured in the postcards from the Vincentiana Collection of DePaul University, which also provide glimpses of the last vestiges of the Hôtel-Dieu. The perceptive beholder will recognize that the façade is hardly Medieval, for the Neoclassical portico had lately been erected under Napoléon.

And in now returning to the jumpstart of my discussion, Haussmann had bulldozed everything by 1874, despite the unabated urgency for social services. The Nouvel Hôtel-Dieu was therefore built, quickly and nearby, on the opposite end of the Cité by the architect Jacques Gilbert. And offices for the ever-expanding bureacuracy of L’Assistance Publique were relocated.

As for the foundlings and Daughters of Charity: They were transferred to a new facility in 1814, in the first year of the Bourbon Restoration. This replacement to the Hôpital des Enfants-Trouvés, thereafter called the Hospice des Enfants-Assistés (which operated as such until 1942), was located far from the Parvis.

If the Emperor’s top objective in rebuilding Paris was to radically improve the health and well-being of its citizens, the obsolete facilities in the Parvis were meant to become debris. Quite literally, according to pictures of the frightful labyrinths that were created in the demolition zones!

But another consideration, which both worked in partnership with and transcended the primacy of public medical care may explain the totality of the annihilation. This was the opportunity, not to be missed, for clearing the space to spotlight the freshly-restored magnificence of Notre-Dame. For the first time in history, the west façade could preside like the true Queen of Paris over the panoramic Parvis, open and free without encroachment.

And this emplacement was Ground Zero in the transformation of Paris. Was it therefore not destined to be experienced, forever after, through the visionary genius of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, Baron Eugène Haussman, and Emperor Napoléon III, who together forged ahead as the nation’s champions of progress, modernity-and patriotism?


Saint Vincent de Paul Preaching before the Court of Louis XIII on Behalf of the Foundlings, reproductive engraving of a now-lost painting on canvas by Paul Delaroche, 1824. Image: DePaul University Archives and Special Collections