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June 2005 - The Gare Saint-Lazare (Part 1)

Travelers to Paris who also have plans to visit the western seaside towns of Trouville or Deauville, or the Monet Foundation in Giverny, begin their journey at the Gare Saint-Lazare. In the late 19th century, the station was the gateway for artists of the Impressionist movement who traveled to Bougival, Argenteuil and other towns northwest of Paris. A number of these artists captured the image of the station in their paintings. Gare Saint-Lazare was also the railway entry point into Paris for travelers who sailed to France from North America during the "Golden Age" of ocean liners.

This monumental structure dates from 1885-1887. However, it was not the first station built on this site.

The first was built in 1835, a few hundred meters to the north at the place de l'Europe. Called an embarcadère, it was, at the time, the first train station in Paris, serving as the terminal of the Paris-Le Pecq line inaugurated in 1837. It, and a second embarcadère built on nearby rue de Stockholm, were intended to serve as provisional train stations while the railway company lobbied to build a permanent terminus on rue Tronchet, just north of the Madeleine church. The admirable intent of the railway company was to get its station as close to the center of Paris as possible for the greater convenience of its passengers. However, residents of the beau quartier around the Madeleine raised a great outcry against this intrusion, and the company had to settle for rue Saint-Lazare, the location that exists today.

The third station was built in 1841-1843. It was enlarged in 1851-1853, when several metallic canopies were constructed over the tracks to shelter the trains and the passengers. The largest of these was 40 meters wide. The fourth station, the one you see today, was an enlargement of the third.

The architect for the existing station was Jules Lisch, notable for at least three other railway projects: the Gare du Champ-du-Mars (built in 1878, now dismantled), the Gare des Invalides (built for the Universal Exposition of 1900, it still exists at its original location) and the Gare du Havre (built in 1888 in the town Le Havre, located on the west coast of France). Lisch was awarded membership in the Legion of Honor by French President Sadi Carnot during the inauguration of the new train station and the adjacent hotel.

The hotel is the large edifice located in front of the station. How disconcerted the newly-arrived traveler must feel to exit Saint-Lazare station and, instead of entering onto an open square with an inspiring vista, to find the view blocked by this great building. Indeed, when the station was completed in 1887, the square was unoccupied. Julien Lisch intended for it to remain that way, but the railway company decided to build a hotel there - the Hotel Terminus - to accommodate wealthy railway passengers arriving for the Universal Exposition of 1889.

Enter the Hotel Terminus (now named Hotel Concorde Saint-Lazare and operated by the Concorde Hotels Group) to view its magnificent lobby. Back in 1889, the Terminus was considered to be the height of the luxury and offered the latest innovations of the time - electricity and elevators. Today, it is still a luxury hotel with four-star status.

To the left of the hotel entrance lies a restaurant called the Café Terminus. The restaurant offers a fine dining experience at a reasonable price. As of this writing, the fixed-price menu of 48 € includes a champagne apéritif, a three-course meal and a half-bottle of wine or mineral water. Members of the Entrée to Black Paris staff have dined here on several occasions and have been quite pleased with the service and cuisine.

In 1894 a twenty-two year old anarchist named Emile Henry threw a bomb into the café, killing one person and injuring twenty others. Henry deliberately targeted civilians, who, in his mind, were not "innocent" because, according to his reasoning, they belonged to the bourgeois class. He was marched to the guillotine in that year, but not before writing a manifesto that can be found today on the Internet. Unrepentant to the end, his last words were "Courage, comrades! Long live anarchy!"

Exit the hotel and walk to the Cour du Rome (located to your right as you exit the hotel). From this square you can view (to the right) the passerelle (footbridge) that Lisch built to connect the hotel to the train station. The bridge has been closed for many years.

Standing in the Cour du Rome, you will note two curious sights. The first is a large translucent bubble that serves as a canopy over the entrance to a metro station. It is part of a recent modernization project that included the renovation of the Saint-Lazare metro stop (which incorporate lines 3, 12 and 13) and well as the construction of the new lines 14 and RER E. Enter here to experience Parisian architecture of the 21st century, a great contrast to that of the 19th century station surrounding it.

The second curious sight is a sculpture in the form of a stack of battered suitcases, entitled La Consigne à Vie (Checkroom for a Lifetime) by French-born artist Arman (Armand Fernandez). His sculptures are made of discarded materials, and you can see another of his works, L'Heure de Tous (Everyone's Hour), in the Cour du Havre (located on the right-hand side of the station). Another sculpture of his, entitled Fagot de Clarinettes (Bundle of Clarinets), can be viewed at the Centre Pompidou. Arman now works and lives in New York.

As mentioned above, Gare Saint-Lazare was often a subject for the Impressionist painters of the late 19th century. In the next article devoted to the Gare Saint-Lazare, we will talk about the train station itself and the numerous artists who found inspiration here.

Paris Panorama Newsletters for 2005