First conceived in 1908, opened in 1910 and dedicated in 1912, the Parc Pommery was designed by the House of Pommery with the sole aim of providing access to sport for all. The park was then gifted to the city of Rheims and renamed the Parc de Champagne.
The 22hectares Park was planned on the landing site of the World’s first cross-country flight, which was made by Henri Farman in 1908. The objective was a sports ground in a well-placed location close to the centre of Rheims and therefore easily accessible to local residents.
The work was entirely financed by the House of POMMERY, starting in 1909 under the direction of Rheims landscape architect Edouard Redont. After being cleared of stones, the chalky soil was dug out and levelled then spread with topsoil that was sourced from all over France.
Gardeners, tree specialists, builders, carpenters and decorators did the rest. Two years later the Parc Pommery was ready to operate, comprising:
Tree-lined and entirely conceived and funded by private interests, the park was the only one of its kind in France. Statues depicting the ancient "Gods of the Stadium" dotted its grounds, in a reference to the Olympic tradition.
The park was opened in 1910 to local schools and the staff of the House of Pommery and rapidly became a huge success. Exhibition events were held to demonstrate the joys of sport to all, with experienced coaches available to help beginners.
On 23 July 1912, 23,000 Rheims spectators cheered the return of 27 athletes from the Stockholm Olympics. The press turned out in force to cover the event, which was known as the "Rheims Olympic Games" and marked the official opening of the Parc Pommery. The first major sporting event held in the park, it earned its promoter, the Marquis Melchior de Polignac, a great personal friend of Pierre de Coubertin, the title of "France’s foremost sports sponsor".
An accomplished sportsman himself, the head of the House of Pommery had just fulfilled a long-held dream. Work had begun several years earlier on a huge stretch of land comprising 22 hectares of stony, barren ground at the exit to Rheims on the route to Châlons-en-Champagne. The plans had been drawn up by gifted landscape architect and Rheims native Édouard Redont, who envisioned a sports facility with all the charm of a pleasure garden and ultimately produced a landscape masterpiece. His design required shifting 492,000m3 of chalk and sourcing 278,000m3 of topsoil. Originally intended for the staff of Pommery Champagne House the park soon became France’s foremost and finest sports ground — a supremacy it retained for many years.
The Hébert Method
Within a year of the great sporting event of 23 July 1912 Pommery had fulfilled another ambition by establishing a College of Athletics within the Park. Its director was French Navy officer Georges Hébert, who would make the College a centre for the teaching of his “Natural Method” (also known as Hébertism): an approach to physical education based on walking, running, jumping, climbing, lifting, swimming and self-defence. With all of the necessary facilities already provided, Pommery was well prepared to receive the College — but not perhaps the controversy it provoked. Certain intellectuals were shocked that the word "college" should be attached to the word "athlete". Others described the college as a bodybuilding shop (boutique à muscles) or a "Bac crammer for Olympic hopefuls".
But the new method attracted many young people who were discouraged by the rigid physical education taught at school. Once again, Champagne challenged preconceived ideas, showing its openness to a new approach that would brighten the lives of the men and women who broke with convention. A six month construction programme saw the building of an oval running track, a covered, 40m by 20m gymnasium, and an open-air swimming pool, plus boxing rings and fencing halls. A revival in national athleticism had arrived.
To understand this sudden enthusiasm, you have to put it into context: at the beginning of the 20th Century sport still ranked as a minor activity, only suitable for a few brutes "devoid of intelligence and sufficiently uncouth to prance about half naked in public". That’s what made the idea of a park specially designed for outdoor sports so revolutionary. It took all the enthusiasm of the House of Pommery to embark on the venture and complete it within just a few years, undeterred by the project’s many critics.
The reward came in 1913 when France’s then president Raymond Poincaré, came to Rheims to open new museum rooms and the Hôtel de la Mutualité (gifted to the city by the House of Roederer). He then surprised everyone, and not least the press, by deciding to visit the athletics college. As one journalist put it, never before had a president of the Republic "ventured" into a sporting event. The mayor of Rheims himself, the much-loved Dr Langlet, was not at all keen to show Raymond Poincaré around the Park, sport being very much of an afterthought at the time and certainly not considered essential to personal development
But Président Poincaré pronounced himself delighted with what he saw: a gymnastic lesson, followed by swimming plus a four-legged race that he found particularly amusing, expressing his admiration for "the shapely muscles and supple, flexible bodies" of the contestants. The Press saw his approval as giving the official blessing to physical education in France. As L’Opinion commented: "It is a privilege to be part of such a historic day ... We are delighted that physical education should have received its official blessing in Rheims, the traditional place where kings were crowned."
In Rheims, Hébert’s "Natural Method" would revolutionise the teaching of physical education at school. Hébert himself taught at a girls school twice a week, shaking up a dull gymnastic routine that was entirely based on a rigid succession of arm and leg movements: one, two, three, arms up, arms down ... Instead his pupils now discovered a thrilling new method that allowed them to run in the lycée gardens, climb ropes and play leapfrog. From that point onwards the gymnastics hour became one of the most popular items in the secondary-education timetable.
Sadly the days of the college were numbered. In 1914, on the day of general call-up, the athletes departed, many of them never to return. By 1918 the Parc Pommery, located on the front, was itself reduced to ruins. However it rose from the ashes in 1922 and resumed its role as a premier venue for sporting displays and great events. Most notably, this was the place where the famous Rheims Stadium team would train in its glory days.
Having being gifted to the city of Rheims by its generous proprietor (LVMH), in 2004 the Parc de Champagne was redesigned and is now reserved for country shows and events.