Deauville (history of)

In the 19th century, the popularity of coastal areas spread throughout Europe and North America, and property developers saw an opportunity to make money by creating new resort towns. Deauville was one such town, created in the second half of the 19th century as a more bourgeois alternative to the previous aristocratic seaside developments.

La Plage de Deauville, by Eugène Boudin, 1864, oil on canvas, 46 x 37 cm (coll. The Cleveland Museum of Art)

A private real estate development

The Deauville seaside resort town was built out of nothing on marshland by private developers, the doctor Joseph Olliffe and the banker Pierre-Armand Donon. With the support of the Duke of Morny, they established the resort in 1859 to compete with the nearby Trouville resort.

Dr Olliffe, who was the physician to the British Embassy and well-connected in Parisian political and financial circles, was rumoured to be the personal physician of the Duke of Morny, who was the president of the legislative body and half-brother of Emperor Napoleon III. Olliffe had an extensive fortune through his marriage and owned a villa and the Hôtel de Paris in Trouville, where he was a regular visitor since the 1840s.

Olliffe, along with Pierre-Armand Donon, who had already participated in projects led by the Duke of Morny during the Second Empire and whose influence continued to grow, and the Duke of Morny himself (although he did not appear explicitly in the property deal, as was his usual practice), formed a partnership to acquire the marshland surrounding the small rural village of Deauville in August 1859. At the time, Deauville had about 100 residents living on the northeast side of Mont Casiny, and the village had recently been recognised as the rightful owner of the marshland by a ruling from the Court of Cassation a few months earlier.

The creation of Deauville took place at a time when the division and sale of public land in France was intensifying in the mid-19th century, which led to strong disputes over who was the rightful owner of the land (Vivier, 1998). Deauville is a typical example of tourism development in French coastal areas by private actors who were able to purchase land that had previously been publicly owned.

The initial objective of the property deal was to create a marina out of the marshland to expand the port of Trouville and compete with English ports. However, the idea of creating a town focused on both commerce and leisure soon emerged. Designed as a rival to the tourist destination of Baden-Baden, Deauville was intended to be both a port and a seaside resort town. The developers employed the services of the architect Desle-François Breney, who was the mayor of Deauville from 1861 to 1876, and two public works contractors, the brothers-in-law Mauger and Castor, who specialised in drainage operations.

Map of Deauville and Trouville by Georges Peltier, 1924 (coll. BNF)

The master plan of Deauville in 1859 presented a town designed around two areas: the first, intended for seaside life and leisure, was built on a grid layout along the seafront between the promenade dike (called the “Terrasse”) and the main avenue; the second, devoted to economic and commercial activities, was organised on the banks of the Touques, with a fore-port, two marinas, and spaces for future railway equipment. In the end, only one marina was built, between 1862 and 1866. The Trouville train station, inaugurated in 1863, enabled travellers to reach the new seaside resort town.

“You who are looking for a good investment, based on solid foundations, with the certainty of not losing your capital, I am going to show you a unique opportunity […]. There is a flat area between Pont-l’Evêque, Trouville, and old Deauville, which is 16 kilometres long, 4 kilometres wide, perfectly located between two hills, a little marshy, irrigated by a small river, the Touques, which the tide often causes to overflow and part of which is filled with sand, with the Western railway running all the way through it […]. The location is admirable.”

Guide to Trouville-Deauville and the surrounding area, 1866

Developers supported by the Second Empire

The resort town aimed to attract influential people from Paris, and many facilities were built to achieve this goal. In 1864, a horse racetrack, a casino, and beach changing huts were constructed. The history of the town is closely tied to the development of equestrian sports, of which the Duke of Morny was a promoter in France. The racetrack alone covered 65 of the 357 hectares that made up the city.  A Deauville Racing Society, headed by the Duke of Morny, was created at the time of the inauguration of the racetrack. The town became the commercial outlet for the horse breeding industry (which was thriving in Pays d’Auge) with sales taking place in August; however, regular transactions did not occur until 1887. The Cercle de Deauville was created in 1873 to accommodate racehorse stable owners and provide them with the amenities and comforts they enjoyed in Parisian circles.

Deauville racetrack, finish of a race by the Rol Agency, 1919 (coll. BNF)

The various participants in the real estate development invested personally in the purchase of land and the construction of villas. The Duke of Morny purchased the Sergeevna villa and two large plots of land at the back. Charles Laffitte, the main shareholder of the Compagnie des Chemins de Fer de l’Ouest, which worked to extend the railway line from Lisieux to Trouville, purchased land near the casino. The Prefect of Police of Paris, Symphor Boittelle, bought and later sold villas for profit, while Breney, Mauger, and Castor purchased villas as well.

During the early years of Deauville’s existence, almost all property owners belonged to the group of financiers close to the Duke of Morny or to the entrepreneurs and developers of the project. A joint-stock company for the land, docks, and embellishment of Deauville, controlled by the founding group, was established in December 1863 to sell the 340,000 m² of land that had not been sold.

The death of the Duke of Morny in 1865 led to the loss of political support, and the government’s plan to enlarge the marina did not materialise. The various companies were liquidated in 1867 and 1872, and the developers then took back most of the unsold land. With the end of the Second Empire, the resort town of Deauville fell out of favour.

A complex relationship with its neighbour and rival Trouville

In 1895, the casino in Deauville was demolished, and the local authorities decided to share the profits from the Trouville casino with their neighbouring rival town, just across the Touques river. This caused Deauville to be overshadowed by Trouville, which was nicknamed the “Queen of Beaches”.

“Who will galvanise this elegant corpse and give it life? Is Deauville waiting for a second Morny, and, like Sleeping Beauty, will it awaken at his call?”

Bertall, Les Plages de France, 1880

At the end of the 19th century, Trouville faced a problem: the seafront was completely urbanised, and there was no more space to build new villas. Additionally, Deauville residents were unhappy with the competition from the Longchamp horse racetrack. In 1910, new regulations for the operation of the casino in Trouville, combined with local financial difficulties, caused discontent among the Deauville authorities. They deemed the agreement on the monopoly of gambling at the existing casino to be null and void. Count Le Marois, who owned a racing stable and was the president of the Deauville Racing Society, proposed a solution: to build a casino in Deauville, even though Trouville had just built one of the largest casinos in France at the time.

The casino of Deauville by the Rol Agency, 1912 (coll. BNF)

The revival of Deauville and the “Roaring Twenties” of seaside tourism

In 1912, Deauville inaugurated its white stone casino, designed by architect Georges Wybo in a style inspired by the Petit Trianon. Eugène Cornuché, the casino operator who had lost the concession for gambling in Trouville, was installed as the operator. He was well-connected in the world of gambling and the demi-monde and had the advantage of being known to the gamblers. Cornuché also helped promote the destination by inventing the name “Côte Fleurie”. The resort town became attractive once again, drawing in important figures including Henri Rothschild and Pierre d’Arenberg, thanks to the casino, and Coco Chanel, Yvonne Printemps, Pierre Fresnay and others, thanks to the presence of these rich personalities.

Services improved, with the construction of two luxury hotels, the Normandy (1912) and the Royal (1913).  The Terrasse was transformed from sandy land deposited by the sea in the 1870s to a large, flowered lawn, bordered by the coastal boulevard and three grand illuminated buildings: the two luxury hotels and the casino. A number of exclusive boutiques and a café, “La Potinière,” in a pastiche of Normandy style, were built nearby. A tennis court and an American-style saltwater swimming pool were built on the beach. The Comédie Française, the Opéra de Paris and the Ballets Russes were invited to perform in the town.

The neo-Norman architectural style became widespread. World War I slowed the frenzied pace of construction, but did not extinguish it entirely. The casino was requisitioned as a hospital at the beginning of the war, but it reopened, without gambling, for the 1917 and 1918 seasons.

With the Roaring Twenties, Deauville’s fame became international. A new bathhouse was built in 1921 to replace the old wooden huts. It was described as the “Pompeian Baths” and included shops, steam baths, a café-bar, and 250 changing huts featuring sleek concrete shapes combined with colourful mosaics. The boardwalks were also installed in 1923, stretching over 600 meters.

The Turkish Baths of Deauville by the Rol Agency, 1926 (coll. BNF)

Those who wanted to travel from Paris to Deauville in luxury could take the Train Bleu, which began operating in 1923. Four years later, the casino owner François André inaugurated a Pullmann-Deauville Express, consisting solely of lounges and restaurant cars. A seven-kilometre golf course, dominated by the imposing Hôtel du Golf, was laid out by the Englishman Simpson in the late 1920s. In 1930, an airfield and a marina designed to accommodate yachts were built to attract even more British visitors. The most luxurious yachts, such as the Crusader owned by the American Macombert and the Cutty Sark owned by the Duke of Westminster, struggled to navigate the marina due to their length.

Map of Deauville, published by the Tourist Office in 1929 (coll. BNF)

With the construction of a new racetrack in Clairefontaine, Deauville became the French capital of horse racing. Throughout the 1920s, records were continuously broken there for yearling sales. Families arrived around July 14th and departed the day after the Grand Prix of Deauville, traditionally run on the last Sunday of August. Everything was done to attract the most fashionable tourists.

The 1929 crash and the transformation of Deauville into a weekend getaway for rich Parisians

However, the 1929 economic crisis disrupted the resort town’s ambitions, and it was facing renewed competition from Trouville, revitalised by industrialist Fernand Moureaux (inventor of Suze). In 1932, the “Roaring Twenties” of seaside tourism came to an end, and Deauville became less vibrant. In 1947, the tourist guide Alix predicted a “sensational revival” for the year, but Deauville, which emerged from the war relatively unscathed, did not regain its momentum.

As in the fashionable neighbourhoods of Paris, the fragmentation of the real estate market led to a sociological diversification of the residents. One by one, villas dating from before World War I were bought by developers and converted into comfortable, luxury apartments. Deauville became a weekend city, to the point that it was often referred to as the 21st arrondissement of Paris (an expression attributed to Jean Cocteau).

Film festival and business tourism

When Michel d’Ornano became the mayor of Deauville in 1962, he set out to “revive” the resort town where his parents had spent their holidays. He took advantage of the increased road access provided by the motorways built after the war, and he was involved in the completion of the Normandy motorway (A13) and the construction of an interchange towards Deauville. The residentialisation of the seaside resort town accelerated, mirroring what was happening in other French coastal towns at the time (Talandier, 2015). However, the significant and continuous construction of second homes and holiday accommodations meant that the percentage of second homes remained high (around 70% of the housing stock in 2017).

American Film Festival in September 1991, photo session with Sharon Stone (Source: Roland Godefroy, Commons Wikimedia, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license)

In 1975, the American Film Festival was founded, and when Michel d’Ornano stepped down as mayor of Deauville to run for mayor of Paris in 1977, his wife Anne d’Ornano succeeded him. She oversaw the construction of the International Centre of Deauville, a convention centre located opposite the casino, which was inaugurated in 1992 during the 18th American Film Festival. These amenities enabled the town to develop business tourism and host other festivals (including the Asian Film Festival since 1999 and the Omnivore Food Festival since 2008).

Johan Vincent


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