IS THERE not something astounding about a city building itself out of its own foundations? That is what Paris has done. Except where there were formerly marshes, she is built over the very quarries from which for 1800 years, she has hewed the stone needed for the houses she has lived in, for her palaces and churches, and even for the statues with which she has ornamented her public places.
The stone the Romans used to build their Baths (Thermes) on the boulevard St Michel was quarried, in the 3rd century, close at hand, in the quarters of the town called St Victor and St Marcel. The Roman Arena on the rue Monge was built over an open-air quarry.
Notre-Dame was built from stone taken out on the Left Bank; and so were the other medieval churches of Paris, as well as the Louvre, the Luxembourg, and the mansions of the. 17th and the 18th centuries. This free-stone, whose two best qualities, aside from its creamy color, is that it is easy to work with and that it hardens in the air, has a name all to itself: cliquart.
Cliquart is to be found from the point where the Seine enters the Paris basin, to that where it leaves; and in the city limits of today so much has been taken out that nearly the whole Left Bank is over a labyrinth of quarry galleries and hollowed-out chambers some of them more than twenty-five feet high which have never been completely charted, although they have been examined again and again since the 17th century, when several houses fell into one of them.
When the church of Sacré-Coeur was built in 1876, it was found necessary to sink the foundations very deep in a hill, little more than a honeycomb of quarries. They had to go down to the stratum on a level with the boulevards. More than eighty pits were sunk and filled with cement, at a cost which had not been included in the original estimate of three million five hundred thousand francs.
Close by, when they were building the station of the Metropolitan underground road, they had to go down one hundred feet at the rue des Abbesses, and it was necessary to make the bases of their supporting columns of solid masonry ten feet thick.
Those abbesses, who had a street named for them, were very practical; their convent ‘enriched itself upon the famous “plaster of Paris,” which was discovered early in the Middle Ages on this hill of Montmartre and was, be-cause of its quality, in demand all over the world. As late as 1850 there were practically no gardens and no trees on this hill; they had all been killed by the fine white powder.
The lime-kilns themselves were havens of refuge to tramps; as they were warm in winter they were always crowded. All the quarries have their legends of smuggling and doubtful romance. But the most astounding of them is true : in those quarries which cover an underground surface of eleven thousand square meters on the Left Bank, are to be seen the bones of seven million persons, put down here just before the Revolution, when the cemeteries of the town menaced its health. The entrance to these Catacombs is in a square today named after a military hero, Denfert-Rochereau, but formerly named much more fittingly, Hell Square (Place d’Enfer).
That Paris is not built, like London, of bricks is due solely to the fact that the sea of that delightful and re-mote period known as “secondary” seems to have favored France. It reached, originally, from the center of England to the center of France; and, up to a certain point, the “Cliffs of Albion” and the “Paris Basin” have a common foundation. Then the sea, withdrawing from England, did not as in the case of Paris continue to surge in and out, leaving behind it fresh levels of chalk and lime-stone. There were, for the Paris Basin, say the learned, three periods of marine deposits and three of river and lake.
So that the Romans, when they began their building here, found not only the stone they needed but the cement and mortar. Education owes a great deal to the lowest layers, for the chalk used in schoolrooms comes from there. The flint found occasionally was in great demand for “making the spark” when muskets were invented; today it is used on sandpaper and in paving.
There was, besides, all sorts of clay excellent for bricks, tile, and faïence. Just outside of town today, to the west, they take up sand, gravel, and clay, where in the time of Louis X IV his brother the Duke of Orléans used to spend his nights in the quarries trying quite literally to “raise the devil.” For, we are told, that although he mocked at all belief in God, he sincerely believed in the devil.
Paris was built on a rock, the source of her strength and beauty, an element in her daily life which perhaps explains the persistence of many of her oldest industries, as well as the continuing existence of her churches, pal-aces, and private houses. You cannot talk of modern Paris except in terms of the past.