On Tuesday October 9, 1860, a fantastic French and English formal garden opens, under the aegis of Napoleon III and Emperess Eugénie. Set at the entrance of the bois de Boulogne, the Jardin d'Acclimatation quickly becomes the place to go for a walk and discoveries, for Parisians who come to be amazed by the marvelous gardens and the many exotic animals brought from all around the world.
It has already been a decade, since 1852, that the Bois de Boulogne is undergoing major transformations, as wanted by Emperor Napoleon III, to wisely use and remodel this huge “green lung” at the outskirts of the capital city to lay out a landscaped park inspired by English gardens.
Therefore, on March 26, 1858, the Société Impériale Zoologique d’Acclimatation gets from the City of Paris the leasing of a fifteen-hectare area by the northern part of the Bois de Boulogne to set up a “planted garden displaying animals found worldwide”.
Founded on February 10, 1854 by zoologist Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and a few friends, this academic association aims at helping the introduction, acclimatization and domestication of exotic animals and vegetal species brought from faraway civilizations by artificially recreating their natural environments.
From July 1859, the landscaping projects are entrusted to the trendiest designers of the Second Empire: architect Gabriel Davioud, landscaper Jean-Pierre Barillet-Deschamps and engineer Jean-Charles Alphand, under the sponsorship of the famous Baron Georges Eugène Haussmann.
After fifteen months of work during which the Société d’Acclimatation gets from Napoleon III an extra four-hectare leasing, the Jardin d’Acclimatation is inaugurated on October 6, 1890 by Napoleon III and Emperess Eugenie, alongside Alexandre Dumas, Prosper Mérimée, Théophile Gautier and Hector Berlioz.
As soon as it opens to the public on October 9, 1860, this huge green space with a scientific, entertaining and educative calling gets the favors of all Parisians, no matter their social backgrounds. The Paris people flock there to discover animals not a lot have seen already.
In the paths of the garden, curious people can be blown away by giraffes, zebras, kangaroos, cheetahs, antelopes, camels, bears, as well as by exotic plants such as banana trees and bamboos. In October 1861, the Aquarium opens, and in 1866, the Jardin d’Aclimatation counts up to over 110,000 animals.
But the French-Prussian war in 1870 is about to slow the expansion of the marvelous garden down. Besieged by the enemies from September 20, 1870 to January 28, 1871, Paris is cut off from the rest of the country and experiences a very harsh and cold winter and a terrible famine.
Warned by the pending arrival of the German troops in the city, Paris makes the decision to evacuate some animals of the park to zoos outside the city. The remaining animals are sent to the Jardin des Plantes and replaced in the pens of the Jardin d’Acclimatation by thousands of beefs and sheep kept to feed the people of Paris.
But despite the instated rationing and because they lack usual ingredients, the last animals are sacrificed to feed the people. This is who, while the working class was only to do with rats for dishes for months, the upper Parisian classes enjoyed extravagant dishes such as elephant consommé, stewed kangaroo, roasted rib of bears, and antelope terrine! By the end of the Siege of Paris, there is only one last animal standing in the Jardin d’Acclimatation.
Refurbished and spruced up, the Jardin d’Acclimatation reopens to the public in 1872 and slowly gets back on its feet thanks to donations, especially two elephants given by the King of Italy. But the fauna is more classic than at the beginning with a few giraffes, zebras and camels alongside farm animals, and birds.
Many improvements are made at the Jardin d’Acclimatation, as well as the creation of new rides to entertain visitors. An extra sheep pen opens, so do stables, a new silkworm farm, as well as a duck farming park, a wide kennel and a gymnasium for children to enjoy rides on zebras, camels, goats and ostriches.
But in 1878, the park buys the Petit Train, a clever train system invented by industrial Paul Decauville. At the origin, the line leaves from Etoile, goes through the Bois de Boulogne, but the path is quickly altered and the Porte Maillot becomes the departure station. The little train is the first narrow-lined train to carry travelers in France!
Therefore, the Jardin d’Acclimatation bounds back with its scientific and educative ambitions and offers families cycles of scientific conferences – about hygiene, travels, medicine, acclimatization – weekly concerts on the large pitch, sporting competitions, open-air movie screenings, while a Sport and Hunting Museum is also inaugurated and the first child-friendly rides are set up, giving a glimpse of the garden’s future.
But the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century are also marked by an unhealthy obsession for exoticism, travels and ethnology, in a colonial expansion context. Between 1877 and 1931, the Jardin d’Acclimatation becomes a high place of anthropology with about 22 exhibitions of human beings from faraway lands.
Held in 1877 by Albert Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire – the site director – the first ethnic exhibition opens with the display of a group of Nubians delivered by German zoologist Carl Hagenbeck and set in front of the stables, between the lama pavilion and the mammal pavilion. Facing such as success, the Jardin d’Acclimatation does it again with the exhibition of African, Indian, Lapp and Cossack peoples.
But these “wild exhibitions” already spark major societal debates because men and women displayed are confined like animals in cages, and the Société d’Acclimatation sharply disagrees with the sensationalism of these events despite the increasing visits of the garden, close to one million visitors.
In 1931, the Jardin d’Acclimatation houses the last ethnic exhibition not without exhibiting for the past couple of years peoples selected in diverse lands of the French colonial empire, from Senegal to North Africa to New-Caledonia.
In the early 20th century, faced with decreasing visits, the Jardin d’Acclimatation leaves its educative mission behind to progressively focus on entertainment. Therefore, to make families come back – as they now are more into new theme parks such as the Luna Park set since 1909 at the Porte Maillot or the Magic City set in 1911 by the Seine – the garden draws inspiration from Tivoli theme park in Copenhagen and gets modern merry-go-rounds and multiplies movie screening sessions and circus shows.
But another war stops the beautiful improvement of the Jardin d’Acclimatation. As more novelties are considered by the team, such as the construction of a swimming pool and a stadium, the Second World War stops the site and the Jardin d’Acclimatation has had to wait for the 50’s to resume.
Big cats disappear, the fun fair is cut short, a puppet show opens to children, so does a small farm with ponies, goats, and young donkeys. Now gone, the Musée en Herbe is built so does the National Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions in lieu of the Palmarium, a masterpiece made of glass and steel destroyed on the occasion. But it does not work anymore.
After years of downward slide, the leasing of the garden is given to the LVMH group in 1995 and they start major renovations to give more place for greenery and flowered paths. Inspired by the middle East in the 2000’s, the site chooses in 2017 steampunk aesthetic and starts major modernization and renovation works for the building built during Napoleon III and purchases new rides for families.
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Now you know more about the history of the Jardin d’Acclimatation, you shall go on site and discover the oldest leisure park in France!
75116 Paris 16
En-tête : Grande serre du jardin d'acclimatation, Jean Best
Le Bois de Boulogne à vol d'oiseau, avec le tracé du nouveau jardin d'acclimatation, Anonyme
Vue générale du jardin d'acclimatation, Th. Muller
Menu du 25 décembre 1870, au Café Voisin
Les Achantis - Le Repas, Julien Damoy
Jardin d'acclimatation, Alfred Delauney