Originally, the Châtelet was a fortified castle, which later became the seat of the Paris viscountcy’s civil and criminal jurisdiction.
In 1802, all the buildings were demolished with the exception of the watch turret.
Under Napoleon I the square was levelled and enlarged.
In 1851 the Châtelet district like most of Paris was redesigned by Haussmann and its architecture radically altered. As a result large thoroughfares cut across the city with imposing buildings erected along them.
In 1860, architect Gabriel Davioud , under a commission by Baron Haussmann, built two similarly styled theatre houses on both sides of the Châtelet square and the Palm tree column.
Davioud also designed the former Trocadéro building; the present Trocadéro premises’ left wing houses the Théâtre de Chaillot.
In 1862, one of theatres on the Châtelet square was renamed Théâtre Lyrique, as it replaced its namesake on the Boulevard du Temple when the latter was razed to the ground according to Haussman’s planning. The house is situated on the former Rue de la Vieille Lanterne. This is where the poet Gérard de Nerval hanged himself in 1855 right above a manhole grid which was to be the exact spot of the theatre’s former prompt-box.
The building was burnt down during the Paris Commune (in 1871) and was rebuilt in 1874 under the aegis of the Paris city council. It was named the Théâtre Historique in 1875 and then the Théâtre des Nations in 1879. The Opéra Comique Company settled there in 1887.
In December 1898, Sarah Bernhardt, the illustrious tragedienne, began heading the theatre, which she was to conduct with panache for 25 years. She gave her name to the theater.
During the war, the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt was named Théâtre de la Cité ; Charles Dullin is the director. In 1943, Jean-Paul Sartre's first play, Les Mouches, was created there.
After the war, it was once again named Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt, A.M. Julien was the new director, and welcomed from 1947 to 1957 the Théâtre des Nations wich hosted successively Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble, L. Visconti, The Bejing Opera, Giorgio Strehler and the Piccolo Teatro di Milano and many others.
By the end of the 1960’s, the building was in need of radical restoration. The inside was completely hollowed out and only walls, roof and façade were kept. The new amphitheatre-shaped auditorium was intended to meet the requirements of contemporary scenography. Architect Jean Perrotet interior decorators Fabre and Tribel, together with scenographer René Allio (who was later to complete many cultural venues –the Théâtre National de Chaillot in Paris, among others) designed a thousand seat auditorium in tiers. Those tiers were built in a single flight without any pillar support, above the foyer. The design was to be frequently imitated worldwide.
The Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt became the Théâtre de la Ville in December 1968 when it reopened.
Gabriel Davioud’s façade was listed as a Heritage Monument in 1990.