Besançon – Kursaal Cirque

Are all few remaining circus buildings in France listed as a monument? One would think so, but unfortunately not. Such is the case with one of France’s most unique circus buildings. A circus with a unique architecture, a little stage and its original painted ceiling: the Kursaal Cirque in the historical heart of Besançon.


Towards the end of the 19th century thermal spas where very popular, especially in Switzerland and Germany. Where most thermal spas where warm a cold salt water source was discovered near Besançon. In 1891 the Compagnie des Bains-Salins de la Mouillière was created and the city was renamed Besançon-les-Bains.

This naturally attracted more visitors which in 1892 gave Madame Péllegrin the idea to create a circus that could also be used for other entertainments and an adjecent brasserie. She was the widow of the owner of the Café du Jardin in Granvelle, known as “Casino du Jardin”. She had the café demolished purchased the area of 2.200m² of which she was tenant and work on the new Kursaal Cirque started in 1893.

It is not clear when the building was exactly opened but evidence suggests it was toward the end of 1893 with the façade and the brasserie not yet finished. Actually , the façade was never finished which is why there are some large non decorated shields and cartouches visible.

Building plans mention two architects in charge of construction: Louis Garin from Besançon and Claude Porte from Lyon. The frescoes of the Kursaal were created by painter M. Bardey from Lyon they are signed and dated 1893. It boasts grotesques and antique motifs, mixed with circus characters and accessories. Some even say that an homage was made to the famous clown Medrano by including him on the ceiling as well.

The unique feature of the Kursaal was the removable floor. This enabled circuses to easily remove to install the circus ring and seating grand stands below the two balconies.

However, two years after its opening, Madame Péllegrin could no longer pay off the loans she had made for the construction of the building. She was forced to sell the building, this by the way to the relief of the surrounding café owners to whom the brasserie had proven to be major competition.

The city takes over

The city of Besançon did not own its own circus building (as many other cities did at the time) nor a building dedicated to variety and events. They did already have a theater which was directly next to the Kursaal. On the 14th of March 1895 they purchased the building and immediately closed the brasserie to honor the wished of the other cafés around the square.

They municipality converted the brasserie into the current Salle Proudhon to accommodate the local music school and school of fine arts.

For several decades (and between the two wars) there were balls, banquets, charity galas, sports evenings (gymnastics, boxing/wrestling matches – popular in the 1930s), theater, cinema, political meetings. In 1919, the name “KURSAAL” was transformed into “Salle des Variétés”.

Requisitioned by the Army in 1940, it regained its original name and its various activities after World War II.

Over the years, the building aged: in fact, the old removable parquet floor supports less and less repeated assembly/disassembly, the two balconies no longer supported any overload and had to be closed down. In 1970 the condition of the building was so bad that the city had no other choice than to close it.

Many plans where made, some of which involved a complete demolition of the building. Luckily in 1979, at the request of Mayor Robert Schwint, the City carried out a complete renovation of the building. This also involved the creation of a conference room in the basement, where the old stables once were. This space is nowadays called the Petit Kursaal. In September 1982, after being closed for 17 years and 3 years of renovation, the Kursaal was newly inaugurated. A particular effort was made to ensure that it retained its originality and its former character. Yet to this day the building is not listed as a monument, making it the only remaining circus building in France to not have this status.

In 2023 the city and team of the Kursaal celebrated the 130 year jubilee of the building. Circus Photographer Piet-Hein Out took advantage of the celebrations to create the pictures you see on this page.


2, Place du Théâtre

Pictures taken on:
3rd of December 2023