1897 - 1900

A titanic building project

Rmn-Grand Palais

The colossal Grand Palais construction site was both a technical and human challenge. Despite many difficulties, construction was completed in just three years.

A site under the spotlight
Alfred Picard, head curator of the Universal Exhibition, said that: "the construction of the Grand Palais is one of the most audacious projects (...) undertaken in Paris during the 19th century".
The foundations
Problems began with the initial earthworks. On the Seine side, excavations revealed a layer of clay sand that was much greater than expected. The ground would need to be reinforced.

Henri Deglane (the architect in charge of the main body of the building and the nave) and his team were forced to use the ancient technique of setting piles in the ground. Construction was delayed by eight months.

Day and night, 3,400 oak piles 10 metres in length and 30 centimetres in diameter were driven into the ground by steam hammers. This required 300 to 400 strikes for each pile.
The vibrations shook the whole neighbourhood!

Over three years, the Grand Palais became an icon for a city that would soon play host to the whole world.

The press monitored construction progress closely. The story would soon become a true epic, one that told of technical feats, delays due to poor weather conditions, salary disputes and official visits.

The construction site attracts the curious. From 1898, horse-drawn trams were allowed to run on the Cours-la-Reine on Sundays: they were a sell-out whatever the weather!

It was clear that lost time needed to be made up. As a result, the walls were erected at the same time as the steel framework. The masonry walls were constructed in two sections: the exterior in cut stone from all over France; the interior side from bricks and quarried stone.
Ultra-modern techniques
The construction was symbolic of the era in its modernity, using mobile cranes, electric winches, oscillating saws and more. The manpower involved was also impressive: more than 1,500 men were employed for the foundations alone. The steel framework was cast in factories and brought to site on barges. Unloaded at the base of the site, they would then be transported to their assembly position on wagons.

The steel framework was cast in factories and brought to site on barges. Unloaded at the base of the site, they would then be transported to their assembly position on wagons.

Three steam powered mobile cranes (on rails and rotating platforms) were also used. With its 10 metre counterweight arm, the tallest (28 metres) could lift up to 6 tonnes.

A crane would lift the heaviest parts, with lighter components carried on men's backs to the top of the scaffolding. They would then be assembled with rivets: around 200,000 were used in construction.

À 50 mètres de haut, les ouvriers fixent un par un les milliers de rivets à côté d'un brasero : un apprenti chauffe le rivet à blanc puis un riveteur l’enfonce dans la perforation d’un coup de maillet et un troisième ouvrier écrase aussitôt l’autre extrémité. C'est un gigantesque jeu de Meccano !

Three construction companies took part in the works: Daydé et Pillé; la Société des Ponts et Travaux en Fer; and Moissant, Laurent, Savey et Compagnie.

At the same time, the masonry work was falling behind schedule. A solution was found in traditional, animal-powered form: horses were used to tow enormous blocks of carved stone from the Seine.

The great autumn strike
16 September 1898. The workmen went on strike. Originating mostly from outside the capital or neighbouring countries (Belgium, Italy), they demanded a better salary to make up for the cost of living in Paris, overtime regulations and a less hectic work schedule.

Convinced that the workmen would yield, the entrepreneurs were late to react. More radical positions were taken. The army was called in to protect the site. By 16 October 1898, negotiations at the Trade union office finally achieved a result: daily salary would rise and overtime would be paid.

The sculptures
The building is abundantly decorated with sculptures of all sizes, in both high relief and low relief. There are said to be over 1,000 works and hundreds of metres of friezes. They were created on site by some of the greatest sculptors of the day. They largely consist of allegories on the theme of art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Music and Drawing among them.

The façades facing out onto the avenues are decorated with mosaics. From archaeology to the present day, all eras and artistic movements are represented. They are a giant, colourful picture book on a classical façade.

Stairway of Honour
The Stairway of Honour leads to the room of the same name. Its dimensions match the imposing proportions of the nave. The symmetrical structure recalls classical staircases, but the ironwork is worthy of a baroque palace! The decoration forms fantastical bouquets beneath the porphyry columns.
A cathedral of glass and steel
The Grand Palais is proof that industrial architecture can take its place in the capital. The nave is magnified by the light! The first time you enter, you feel so awed that you forget the weight of glass and steel contained in what is still the largest glass roof in Europe, with the exterior cupola reaching 60 metres! For reference, the first floor of the Eiffel Tower is 57 metres in height.
A Parisian building
The exterior of the Grand Palais is dressed in stone to blend in with the style of the capital. On the main façade, the entrance and its classical columns are capped by a modern pediment that gives an indication of the metal architecture within.

The colonnade is inspired by the Louvre and punctuated by allegorical statues depicting the arts.

Credits: Story

We would like to thank all the people who have contributed to the construction of this journey through the Grand Palais and those who have given us valuable time and information as well as permission to reproduce their documentation.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions (listed below) who have supplied the content.
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