Following Napoleon Bonaparte and the temporary return to a monarchy, France established what was called the Second Republic (the First Republic was what resulted from the Revolution in the 1790s). Things changed when Louis Napoleon took power: he named himself Emperor and created the so-called Second Empire, which lasted from 1852 to 1870. Paris owes much of its present form to this epoch. The Opera Garnier, the famous home of Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera, dates back to this period, and was designed by Charles Garnier in a bizarre style that melded French neo-classicism of the Perrault mode with splashes of the Baroque. Baron Haussmann, an Alsatian, began his revamping of Paris in the 1860s, tearing down medieval neighborhoods and cutting across the terrain with great, tree-lined boulevards. The grid formation of Paris's Right Bank and parts of the Left are the creation of Haussmann, and his renovations inspired scores of cities across the world - most famously, New York City.
The Second Empire came to a crashing end in 1870 with the disastrous Franco-Prussian War. The boulevards of Paris had been built partly to facilitate the speedy movement of troops through the city; now, however, German troops occupied the capital, and the supposed glories of the Empire - an attempt, in part, to retrieve the national pride the first Napoleon had stirred up - lay, figuratively, in ruins. By the time Sartre wrote No Exit in the early 1940s, the Second Empire had long been a thing of the past. But its mark was felt all over France, and its heritage was particularly evident in Paris. Second Empire style had become representative of a certain type of late 19th-century aesthetic, a style that drew heavily on previous models. It was never, to put it bluntly, original; rather, it combined Renaissance, neo-classical, and Baroque modes to form a tasteful whole. Second Empire furniture was found all over Paris during Sartre's time (and still is), and many of the drawing rooms and hotels of the era remained in place in the 1940s (and still do).
Sartre and his fellow Left Bank intellectuals were vocally rebelling against the conservative tendency in French politics, philosophy, and aesthetics. It is not insignificant that Sartre picked the Second Empire style for his version of hell. Bourgeois to the hilt, the problematic implications of the Second Empire ran deeper than mere matters of taste; underneath a veneer of decorum and even luxury lay festering wounds, just as the Empire itself had run roughshod over the poor and even the freedom of the press for some time (Louis Napoleon temporarily introduced a gag rule), while presenting itself as a bastion of peace and prosperity. The illusions ended abruptly, and violently, in 1870. Perhaps Sartre was channeling the experiences of his own generation in his choice of a Second Empire drawing room. Again France had thought too highly of its own powers, again the nation had lavished more attention on pomp than on practical matters, and again she had fallen to the Germans. Indeed, the Second Empire style provides a troubling mirror to what Sartre may have perceived as France's failure - as well as that of the characters in the play. Underneath the glamour of Estelle and the "principles" of Garcin lie sordid deeds and, yes, cowardice. Inez is all too correct when she notes that everything in hell, down to the drawing room and its furniture, has been pre-planned.