When I walked into Galerie Colbert after walking into both Galerie Vivienne and Passage Choiseul, I was extremely surprised with what I found. After observing the other two passages, full of shops, restaurants, and cafés, I found a long hallway that looked completely empty. A guard stood at the entrance, and he checked my bag before I could enter. I began to walk through the passage, and I found myself in what seemed like a museum. There was a beautiful dome ceiling made of glass that the sunlight shined through in a similar manner the sun shines through the Galeries Lafayette dome. Walking across the red and white marble floors, I remember feeling bewildered. Where was I? Why is this so different from the other passages? Why is it so quiet and empty? I needed to know more, so I continued to explore. There were circular lamp posts and beautiful marble pillars lining the entire hall, making me feel as if I was standing on regal ground. I looked to my left, and I saw the only restaurant in the entire building, which is extremely untypical of passages. I walked a little further and looked to my right, and I saw what looked like a classroom. After seeing this, I was beyond confused, but it captivated me to do some research, and I am writing this story to show you what I found.
The origin of Galeries Colbert begins in the seventeenth century when Louis le Vau, a French architect, created a mansion that came to be known as l’hôtel Bautru. In 1665, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the man responsible for managing King Louis XIV’s finances, acquired the mansion, and the name of the location switched from l’hôtel Bautru to l’hôtel Colbert. Between 1665 and 1823, the French State bought the mansion and turned it into la Caisse de la dette publique, or the public debt commission. In 1825, Galerie Vivienne, a covered passage with restaurants and shops, opened and immediately attracted a lot of attention. It was this moment that sparked the creation of Galerie Colbert; An enterprise titled Adam and Company noticed the success of Galerie Vivienne and wanted to create some competition. Thus, the company bought the location from the State and commenced the transformation of Galerie Colbert under the designs of the architect Jacques Billaud. In 1827, Galerie Colbert opened to the public, and although there were worries that the galerie would not be able to compete with Galerie Vivienne’s success, the majestic architecture of Colbert attracted many eager customers (soundlandscapes).
The original Galerie Colbert was lined with many boutiques, largely differing from what Colbert contains today. The glass ceiling, in addition to the glass dome, allowed for natural sunlight to make the galerie a bright, uplifiting place. The glass dome, I learned, was and still is referred to as the rotunda, and during its creation, the architect knew it was going to be the center of his masterpiece. In the middle of the rotunda stood Cocotier Lumineux, or a luminous coconut tree, that many people, under the July Monarchy, would visit for a romantic rendezvous. According to old records, the boutiques that lined the walls of Galerie Colbert included: bookstores, shoemakers, gunsmiths, umbrella makers, and oddly enough, a belt supplier that was placed in the galerie to prevent children from masturbating. Other reports state that there were hairdressers, seamstresses, as well as a pharmacy that provided all kinds of herbal remedies. In the 1830s, a shop called Au Grand Colbert opened, later to become a well-known restaurant known as Le Grand Colbert, which is, to this day, the only restaurant in the passage. The galerie thrived for a period of time, but by the 1860s, during the climax of haussmannization, less people began visiting the passages because, as we know, it was at this time that boulevard culture skyrocketed. People did not want to be indoors, including underneath the roofs of the covered passages, and instead wanted to freely roam the streets of Paris. The creation of the department store, like Bon Marché and Galeries Lafayette, only worsened the attraction to the passages (soundlandscapes).
By 1890, the creation of the department store and the strong boulevard culture of Paris, resulting from haussmannization, left Galerie Colbert nearly empty. For years, the passages remained obsolete to the culture of Paris. But, by the mid 20th century, many people began to visit passages again, as they were very interested in their charming history. In 1974, Paris designated Galerie Colbert as a historic monument, and in the 1980s, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France bought Colbert to begin its reinstatement. Architects worked hard to ensure that the passage was properly restored (soundlandscapes). In 1996, Institut Nationale d’Histoire de l’Art, which is “an Academic, Cultural and Professional Public Establishment under the supervision of the ministers of Higher Education, Research, and Culture” moved into Galerie Colbert (Institut national d’histoire de l’art). When this large transformation was completed, the tenants that once filled the entirety of the passage no longer existed. All of this space is now used for meeting rooms where schools and universities can meet to do research and attend classes (soundlandscapes).
As you can see, Galerie Colbert has gone through multiple extreme transformations. From serving as a hotel to a typical passage with boutiques, all the way to becoming a museum and academic establishment, Colbert has a richer history than many of the passages of Paris. Today, the spot where the luminous coconut tree stood, right in the middle of the rotunda, is instead embellished with a statue created by Charles Francçois Leboeuf, titled Eurydice mourante, displaying Eurydice, a Greek nymph, dying (soundlandscapes). The noteworthy statue represents the history of Galerie Colbert; A significant piece of art displaying a women dying, located in the most famous spot of the entire passage, sends the message that although the old Galerie Colbert has died, it now lives to be an area impressively dedicated to art and learning. The passage, although wavering in its purpose throughout its existence, has come to be one of the most beautiful and historically rich locations in Paris. We wanted to include this sight in our tour to display just how different Galerie Colbert is compared to the other three passages that we chose to include, as well as compared to the entirety of passages in Paris. We believe it is a prime example of one of the many unique ways in which Paris’s abundantly rich history can be demonstrated.