At the time Louis XIII first came to hunt here and decided at the end of 1623 to build a hunting lodge, Versailles was a prosperous village. Further down the hillock on which the hunting lodge was built, the village lay on the route that livestock from Normandy followed on its way to the Parisian abattoirs. Successive enlargements of the lodge that became the Palace (especially the building of the Grand Commun, completed in 1684) and of the new town almost entirely wiped out the village. In its place grew a district, soon called "Old Versailles", in memory of it.
1671: the beginnings of the new town of Versailles
Following an order by the king signed 22 May 1671 in Dunkerque, it was today's Notre-Dame district, north-east of the Palace, that first began to take shape. The increasingly frequent sojourns of Louis XIV and his court at the Palace of Versailles, as well as festivities sometimes attended by thousands of people, called for lodgings and livery stables and so on, and the proper level of comfort, on a grand scale. Louis XIV encouraged this when he declared in May 1671 that he would "grant space to all persons wishing to build from the Pump of the aforesaid Versailles to Clagny farm (…) provided they respect the state and symmetry of the buildings". The town of Versailles thus spread out around the Palace along the three major avenues that converge toward it.
The district of Notre-Dame
Initially, the "New Town" to the north grew rapidly between the avenue leading to Saint-Cloud and Clagny pond. Destined to accommodate the growing numbers of people serving the Court and King, it was designed by architect Louis Le Vau and his associate, François d'Orbay. Place Hoche (formerly Place Dauphine) linked it to the Palace in 1674, based on a plan that later became a model for town planning. A few years on, in 1686, the architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart was commissioned to build the church of Notre Dame for the royal parish.
When Louis XIV decided in 1677 to make the Palace of Versailles his main residence and to establish his government there, the town saw a new surge of building work. The king put Mansart in charge of the necessary developments, including the Great Stables for horses, the Small Stables for coaches, and the Grand Commun for the royal kitchen staff, which contained cellars and kitchens for the Dauphin and others close to the King. The Royal Vegetable Garden was created by the agronomist Jean de La Quintinie, who developed new techniques to obtain the most succulent fruit and vegetables all year round.
The district of Saint-Louis
The number of officials in the service to the king continued to grow, and in 1685 Louis XIV commissioned Mansart to design another district on the site of the old village and Louis XIII's hunting reserve, the Deer Park. The district of Saint-Louis was laid out on a grid pattern and primarily developed in the 18th century after the return of Louis XV, now king, and his court.
In 1725 a church was constructed for the inhabitants of the new Saint-Louis district. It quickly proved to be too small and was replaced by the cathedral of Saint-Louis, built between 1742 and 1754 by Jacques Hardouin-Mansart de Sagonne, the grandson of Louis XIV's architect.
The extension continued in the 18th century, still respecting the town planning envisaged by Louis XIV
The town continued to grow during the 18th century to the North and South of the Palace, sometimes by order of the King. In 1725 the Notre-Dame market and in 1736 the Saint-Louis market were laid out in "squares", each devoted to specific foodstuffs. The Boulevard de la Reine (1733) became a major new route bordering the pond at Château de Clagny, which was drained at the end of the reign of Louis XV to make way for the construction of the Prés district. The buildings on this boulevard include Hotel Lambinet (1751), which has been a museum since 1932.
Louis XV also encouraged the construction of new administrative buildings. To centralise the numerous departments that had been dispersed throughout Paris, in 1760 Jean-Baptiste Berthier built the Ministry for War near the Palace, followed by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the Navy.
The Queens of France also contributed to embellishing the town of Versailles. Lycée Hoche (1772), by architect Richard Mique, is a former Augustinian convent founded by the wife of Louis XV, Marie Leszczy?ska, for the education of young girls, while Theatre Montansier (built in 1777) enjoyed the patronage of Marie-Antoinette, who often went to see shows there.
The French Revolution, however, which started in Versailles, put a sudden end to its reputation and development. The departure of the monarchy and the government plunged the town into economic recession: the population dwindled from 60,000 in 1789 to 25,000 at the start of the 19th century.
The proclamation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors and the Paris Commune in 1871 once again thrust Versailles brutally into the spotlight of the nation's history. The election of the Presidents of the Third and Fourth Republics, and the holding of the Congress to vote on revisions of the Constitution in the Palace, gave it another political role as it now became one of the focal points of the Republic.
New roles for Ancien Régime buildings
In recent decades buildings dating from the Ancien Régime have been given new leases on life. The Menus-Plaisirs building (1748), which housed administrative departments in charge of Court ceremonies and entertainment, and where the Estates General met in 1789, is now home to the Baroque Music Centre. Similarly, the House of Italian Musicians (1752), a former leisure residence reconstructed by Mansart de Sagonne, currently houses the headquarters and the museum of the Compagnons du Tour de France.
Last but not least, the old royal hospital in the heart of the town, built under Louis XVI by Charles-François d’Arnaudin, has recently been converted into a group of housing units and shops designed by architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte, called Espace Richaud.