On 4 January 1905, the foundations were laid for a new triumphal arch in the Cinquantenaire Park. The project was almost exactly 25 years behind schedule. Slow, even for Brussels.
The arch was planned for the 1880 Brussels Exhibition. Held to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Belgian independence, the exhibition was seen by King Leopold II as an opportunity to promote his country.
Two huge halls were completed for the exhibition, but then the money ran out. The architect of the arch, Gédéon Bordiau, had to change his plans and construct a temporary arch out of wood and stucco.
The fake arch was still standing 17 years later when Leopold organised another exhibition aimed at promoting the products of the Congo. Leopold was furious. ‘I am the king of a small country of small-minded people,’ he complained.
Leopold eventually got his arch in 1905. Bordiau had died the year before, but Leopold called upon the French architect Charles Girault, who built a spectacular arch surmounted by a chariot with figures at the base representing the Belgian provinces. The rooftop can be visited from the Army Museum.
The arch was inaugurated by Leopold II on 27 September 1905, just in time to mark the seventy-fifty anniversary of Belgian independence. Better late than never, you might want to say.
Derek Blyth’s hidden secret of the day: Derek Blyth is the author of the bestselling “The 500 Hidden Secrets of Belgium”. He picks out one of his favourite hidden secrets for The Brussels Times every day.