La Gare Saint-Lazare
The fabled Gare Saint-Larzare, "Saint Lazarus," was the first Parisian railway station. Located in the central northern portion of Paris in the VIII ème arrondissement, the original station was built in 1837 next to la Place d'Europe, a little further to the North of the current station. Its single track ran from Paris to Saint-Germain-en-Laye.
Rebuilt by Alfred Armand between 1841-1843, it was later extended by Eugène Flachat (1851-1853), notably through the addition of five metal structure covered halls, the largest having a span of 40 metres. Trains leaving here will take one to Normandie and to Grand Bretagne, via Dieppe.
The present building, designed by Juste Lisch and built between 1885-1889 surrounds the older structures and presents a XVII ème siecle Beaux-Arts style façade. A hôtel-terminus was built to accommodate travellers coming to the Universal Exhibition of 1889 and is the first important example of an association between these two functions.
La Gare St-Lazare is an unlikely tourist destination. However, pilgrims on the trail of “The Da Vinci Code” hero Robert Langdon seem to think it’s worth a detour, to paraphrase the Michelin guides. They now flock to it, to see where the errant “symbologist” pretended to take a train. But long before Dan Brown came along, the station and surrounding “Europe” neighborhood drew countless admirers and inspired a roll call of sensitive souls, from comic-opera composer Jacques Offenbach, to poet Stéphane Mallarmé and scores of painters. Edouard Manet, Gustave Caillebotte and Claude Monet immortalized what were then novel glass-and-iron sheds, rails and viaducts, thereby shocking academic artists and "right-thinkers."
St-Lazare may be frayed nowadays. However, as Paris’ first and once its most celebrated railway terminus, it and the luxurious adjoining Hôtel Concorde Saint-Lazare still hide unexpected historical art and architectural treasures.
After the second expansion of the station, a mere decade passed before it received a third expansion, driven by the city’s demographic boom, as peasants and budding petits bourgeois rushed to Paris seeking the Industrial Revolution’s sooty dreams of wealth and freedom.
Little is left of the 1840s station. But the five airy, cathedral-like metallic sheds whose fretwork and sifted light captured the Impressionists’ imagination still stand. They were designed at the outset of the Second Empire, from 1851 to 1853, their now unsung architect the once eminent Eugène Flachat.
In Flachat’s heyday, la Gare St-Lazare represented the razor’s edge of modernity, an elegant nexus of steam, steel and speed, with the added allure of leisure travel. That was why in 1866, at the apogee of Napoléon III's Second Empire, composer Jacques Offenbach chose to set the first act of his rollicking La Vie Parisienne in the station’s forecourt. Here he posted rival rakes Raoul de Gardefeu and Jean-Louis Bobinet, both awaiting the lovely démi-monde Métella, about to arrive from fashionable Trouville. Admittedly, as you face the Beaux-Arts façade of St-Lazare today, it is a challenge to hear in your mind’s ear Offenbach’s tinkling overture. For decades, though, the opéra’s music and ridiculous plot symbolized the frivolous, raffish, exquisitely paradoxical “Gay Paris” of the latter half of le XIX ème siecle , when le quartier Saint-Lazare area was as chic as is today’s Marais.
In the 1870s, Monet lived at Seine-side Argenteuil, a village served by trains from Gare St-Lazare. It was amid the sinuous rails under the station sheds that he set up his easel in 1877 to paint his series of eleven canvases, somewhat unsurprisingly titled La Gare Saint-Lazare. One of them hangs in le Musée d’Orsay. Some Orsay curators term Monet’s an “almost playful vision of industrialization.” The clouds of eye-stinging steam and cinders seem not only benign but beautiful as they swirl and puff in pink-and-blue harmony inside the man-made air space under the sparkling shed. A slit of sky reminds us of Nature. All else is artifice, the result of what was then termed “progress,” which Monet indeed portrayed with forward-looking optimism. At the 1877 Salon, where the picture was first exhibited, Émile Zola noted, “You can hear the trains rumbling in, see the smoke billow up under the huge roofs... That’s where painting stands today... Our artists must find the poetry of train stations, the same way their forefathers found the poetry of woods and rivers.”
Saint-Lazare was man-made poetry, “a cathedral of the modern age,” as le XIX ème siecle commentators expressed it. The station may seem prosaic today. But walk out a hundred yards or so onto platform 21 or 22 and you will find the approximate spot where Monet worked. Squint to step back in time. Crop out the overhead electric wires, the parasitic constructions applied to walls like tree mushrooms, and especially the skyscape-blocking fiberglass panels of recent decades. On the horizon above the railway cutting, the triangular Second Empire-period corner building that Monet painted is there.
It was from a fenced-in garden near the triangular building that, almost four years before Monet, in 1874, the provocative Edouard Manet painted his Chemin de Fer. This early plein-air canvas shows a young woman with a puppy and an open book in her lap, seated on a stone wall with an iron fence at her back. Beside her stands a child in a blue dress. The child grips the fence’s bars and stares at a train passing below, on its way to the station. The seated woman is oblivious to the speeding train but, as critic Peter Gay has pointed out, the steam is the painting’s “modern hero.” In the composition, what most observers think is the rear of the station is actually a pier of le Pont de l’Europe viaduct.
The ironwork Europe viaduct and the view of the tracks into Saint-Lazare were also the subject of Gustave Caillebotte’s renowned pictures of 1876-1877, both titled Le Pont de l’Europe. Though the viaduct was rebuilt in 1930, if you stand on it today, like Caillebotte’s striding or meditative figures, you will see the same buildings at the eastern end of the viaduct’s span, and the station’s sheds and shelters. It may sound cliché but little has changed.
The best perspective of Saint-Lazare is from the rear, specifically the rue de Rome near rue de Stockholm. The view embraces the station’s ironwork and glass superstructures, and a curious stair-tower on the main shed’s western edge.
With the 1889 Universal Exposition in mind, from 1885 to 1889 the front of Saint-Lazare was wrapped with an imposing Beaux-Arts-style façade designed by Juste Lisch. The faux mullioned windows, bulls’ eyes and dormers on mansard roofs suggest a château. On the Batignolles side, mount the stone staircase to the ticketing hall and you will pass two fine bas-relief decorations. Look up and you will see elegant ironwork foliage and flowers overhead. The hall was once known as la salle des pas perdus, literally "the hall of lost steps," because travelers would pace its seemingly endless length while awaiting their trains. Crisscrossed with iron rods supporting a steeply raked skylight, the hall’s perspective is startling, and similar to what you might find in one of Paris’ historic covered galleries, such as le Passage des Panoramas near la Bourse, the stock exchange.
An aerial covered passageway links the station to l' Hôtel Concorde Saint-Lazare, also designed by Lisch. It was once nearly as famous as la tour Eiffel. From the top of his tower on le 7 mai 1889, Gustave Eiffel himself announced the birth of what he dubbed the “Grande Dame” of tourist hotels. The handsome lobby, a registered landmark, has double columns, faux loggias, glazed terracotta decorations on the walls, and jellyfish-like crystal chandeliers. Along the corridor leading to the men’s room vintage photographs show the station and hotel under construction, and the flood of 1910. They are small treasures, perhaps, but seem all the more satisfying because they are so unexpected.
For more about these wonderful le XIX ème siecle gares de chemins-fer, see also Gare de Lyon and Le Train Bleu.
Manet's Contemplation at the Gare Saint-Lazare