A titanic building project

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

Rmn-Grand Palais

Alfred Picard (1844-1913), head curator of the 1900 Universal Exhibition. (1900) by Michel Berthoud (1845-1912)Rmn-Grand Palais

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 Champs-Élysées construction site for the 1900 Universal Exhibition. (1898) by © Photo BnfRmn-Grand Palais

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.

Monsieur et Madame Deglane (1893) by Georges Récipon (1860-1920)Original Source: Rmn-Grand Palais photo agency website

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.

Piles for the foundations of the Grand Palais des Champs-Élysées constructed for the 1900 Universal Exhibition. by © BnF, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image BnFOriginal Source: Rmn-Grand Palais photo agency website

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!

View of scaffolding and basement walls from the small side of the Great Nave. Around 1898 (1898) by © Rmn-GP-fonds EMOCRmn-Grand Palais

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

Construction of the Grand Palais, 1897-1900 (1900) by Henri LemoineOriginal Source: Rmn-Grand Palais photo agency website

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!

View of the lifting apparatus and the basement walls in the Great Nave. Around 1899 (Vers 1899) by Paul-Joseph-Albert Chevojon (1865-1925)Rmn-Grand Palais

Elevations

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.

View of the scaffolding erected to install the central dome of the Grand Palais, following construction of the nave. (Vers 1898) by A. Chevojon Photographer (1865-1925)Rmn-Grand Palais

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.

View of the metal framework for a portion of the great nave and the dome of the Grand Palais in 1899. (vers 1899) by Photographie de A. ChevojonRmn-Grand Palais

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.

View of the hipped roof and a section of the Great Nave with scaffolding (vers 1899) by A. Chevojon (1865-1925)Rmn-Grand Palais

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.

View of the scaffolding erected to install the central dome of the Grand Palais, following construction of the nave. (Vers 1898) by A. Chevojon Photographer (1865-1925)Rmn-Grand Palais

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 !

Detail of the framework and the lantern of the Grand Palais dome in (Vers 1898) by Paul-Joseph-Albert Chevojon (1865-1925), PhotographerRmn-Grand Palais

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.

The Grand Palais under construction (1900) by Henri LemoineRmn-Grand Palais

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.

Le Petit Parisien: article on "Striking foundation workers" during the construction of the 1900 Universal Exhibition. (1898-09-16) by Photo © BNFRmn-Grand Palais

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.

A sculptor at work, around 1899. Construction of the Grand Palais. (1899) by © Agence architecture du Grand Palais/EMOCRmn-Grand Palais

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.

Drawings for the History of the Arts through the Ages decorative frieze. France in the 17th and 18th centuries. (1899) by ©Photo BNFOriginal Source: Rmn-Grand Palais photo agency website

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, Grand Palais, 1900 (1900) by © Agence architecture du Grand Palais/EMOCRmn-Grand Palais

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.

View of the completed great nave, hipped roof side, with the Stairway of Honour under construction. (Vers 1898) by Paul-Joseph-Albert Chevojon (1865-1925), PhotographerRmn-Grand Palais

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.

Entrance to the Grand Palais in 1900 (1900) by AnonymousOriginal Source: Rmn-Grand Palais photo agency website

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.

Front of the Grand Palais in 1900 (1900) by AnonymousOriginal Source: Rmn-Grand Palais photo agency website

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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