Should the Zinc Rooftops of Paris Get UNESCO Recognition?

   2947    2
Should the Zinc Rooftops of Paris Get UNESCO Recognition?
Almost everything we love and hold dear about the City of Light today, we owe to the singular brilliance of Georges Eugène “Baron” Haussmann. In 1853, when he began the renovation of Paris for Emperor Napoleon III, he was unaware of the cultural impact his reconfiguration of the city would have. As a former architect, I find his vision inspiring. Not only was he prescient about humanizing the scale of the city, but he also knew instinctively that in a grand, large-scale design, rhythm and harmony of materials were essential. Today, the beautiful, iconic zinc rooftops of Paris (the same ones Haussmann specified) — and the workers who create them — are being considered for UNESCO’s list of French Intangible Cultural Heritage. The use of zinc for Paris roofs can be traced back to the work of the cleric, Jean-Jacques Dony (1759-1819) of Liège. In the early 19th century Liège was part of France (today it is part of Belgium). More than religion, chemistry fascinated Dony. By his early 20s he had his own laboratory. He spent 25 years researching the smelting of zinc. Zinc is present in the earth, air and water. It is distinctly non-toxic, a trace element that is indispensable for all living organisms, a fundamental part of the metabolic processes of plants, animals and humans. In the human body, over 300 enzymes require zinc for proper functioning. George Eugène “Baron” Haussmann. © Wikipedia, Public Domain Although zinc compounds had been used for at least 2,500 years in the production of brass, zinc wasn’t recognized as a distinct element until 1668, when a Flemish metallurgist, P. Moras de Respour, pioneered the extraction of metallic zinc from zinc oxide. As far as Europe was concerned, however, zinc was discovered by the German chemist Andreas Marggraf in 1746, who was the first to distinguish it as a new metal. While chemists tried to handle zinc (formerly known as Indian Tin) it was Dony who discovered and patented a procedure for processing and refining what is today the fourth most commonly used metal. In 1805, Emperor Napoléon granted him a monopoly for the exploitation of the zinc mines of Moresnet, 50 kilometers east of Liège, on condition that he pay an annual royalty of 40,500 francs (approximately €15,000 today). Soon he was supervising the extraction of the rich zinc ore deposits at Vieille Montagne (old mountain) near Aix-la-Chapelle. Dony showed his gratitude to Napoleon by presenting him with a zinc-lined bath. Napoleon was so thrilled by its light weight and utility that he took it on his subsequent campaigns, including his invasion of Russia in 1812. The bath can still be seen at the Maison de la Metallurgie et de l’Industrie in Liège. Statue of Charlemagne in the centre of Liège. © Wikipedia, Public Domain

Lead photo credit : Parisian zinc roofs. © Flickr

More in design, rooftops in Paris, science, Zinc

Previous Article Seine Swim: Arthur Germain’s Epic Challenge
Next Article Paul Paradis: A Life Immersed in Beauty and History

Sue Aran lives in the Gers department of southwest France. She is the owner of French Country Adventures, which provides private, personally-guided, small-group food & wine adventures into Gascony, the Pays Basque and Provence. She writes a monthly blog about her life in France and is a contributor to Bonjour Paris and France Today magazines.


  • Miriam C Sutermeister
    2021-03-12 02:48:04
    Miriam C Sutermeister
    I am a retired architect historian. Hadn't considered your rooftops. Thanks for alerting me. Hope for the designation. MCS HH 5-P Seattle, WA USA