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It’s summertime and every available patch of grass in Paris seems to be colonized by picnickers and sunbathers. In the 7th arrondissement there is the Champs de Mars of course, but equally popular is the broad Esplanade des Invalides. But how many people among the crowds on the grass know that they are sitting on top of a railway that at one time numbered 12 platforms? On the eastern side they may know that the long building that edges the river was the Air France terminal, but not that it used to be a train station that once harbored ambitions to provide a through transatlantic service from New York to Paris.
Such was the Gare des Invalides, a train station that has had as checkered a history as the railway it once served. It closed in 2022 but already it’s being reconceived as a museum honoring the sculptor Alberto Giacometti, just one more incarnation in its long life.
The story of the railway is a tale of stops and starts over 60 years and caused constant problems for its parent company, the Compagnie des Chemins de Fer de l’Ouest (or CCFO). Starting as a commuter line between Versailles and the first Montparnasse Station, the CCFO had plans to join it up to the main line at Gare Saint Lazare in a network that spread into western France. A station at Versailles-Rive-Gauche opened but financial lawsuits and construction problems meant that only disconnected sections were built.
By the end of the 19th century, the CCFO had a major headache in managing the volume of rail traffic: the stations at Saint Lazare and Montparnasse were overcrowded and hemmed in by buildings and bridges which made it impossible to enlarge them. The Universal Exhibition of 1900 provided an opportunity to build two new lines south of Paris that would connect Versailles to the routes into Normandy and Brittany. They would bring thousands of visitors directly to the doors of the Exhibition via a brand new station next to the Esplanade des Invalides.
Alas, nothing seemed to go right for the CCFO. The plan was to build a terminus right on the riverside to provide easy access to the Exhibition pavilions that stood alongside the quais. However, when local residents complained loudly about the idea of a smoky, dirty railway terminating outside their smart apartments, the CCFO was forced to trench the line below ground. This is why, if you look closely, the level of the Esplanade reaches halfway up the station windows. And on the other side, the police commissariat of the 7th arrondissement is completely hidden from view in the same manner.
Worse, work on the new line to Versailles stopped completely when a tunnel being excavated at Meudon collapsed. This scotched the idea of bringing in visitors from the west of France and decanting them right outside the Exhibition. The terminus at Les Invalides did open – but struggled against the much more exciting attraction of a moving sidewalk that carried people to the Exhibition, plus the lack of Norman and Breton passengers and the fact that the railway at Les Invalides was effectively underground and out of sight from passersby.
On the other hand, as the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and the building of a 3km tunnel and an underground terminus made traditional steam locomotives impractical. To overcome this, the CCFO decided to introduce electric trains – a first for Paris and predating the equally new Métropolitain by several months. The “third rail” technology it used became the standard for underground railways. But it took a further two years before the engineering works were eventually completed and the line could run uninterrupted from Versailles to Les Invalides.
One of the long-term ambitions of the CCFO was to make the Gare des Invalides the Paris terminus of the transatlantic liner trade. Passengers would be able to embark in New York, sail to Le Havre and then take the train, enjoying a seamless journey from the USA to Paris. This had not been possible before since the limitations of the Gare Saint Lazare couldn’t cope with the tide and weather fluctuations that affected transatlantic sailing schedules. The grand station at Les Invalides would be a fittingly luxurious welcome to Paris for well-heeled American travelers.
Unfortunately, the glory years were short-lived. The CCFO was never turned a decent profit and was soon put under state administration. By the 1930s a brand new station at Montparnasse (the current one) opened. At the same time, luxury liners were starting to face competition from airlines, at least for the wealthiest people. In 1935 all long-distance and greater suburban traffic was moved to Montparnasse, leaving just the inner suburbs served by Les Invalides. Of the original 12 platforms, only six were kept in use and the much reduced number of passengers were dwarfed by the huge station building. The platforms, rails and buildings were handed over to the Ville de Paris, who remain the legal owners of the site.
After the Second World War, flying became the glamorous way to travel and in 1946 the Gare des Invalides entered its second incarnation – as the Aerogare des Invalides and the terminal for Air France. This is probably how most older visitors to Paris remember it. Paris’s main airport was still Le Bourget, but from the 1950s Orly was developed as a modernist replacement that epitomized the jetsetting lifestyle evoked by air travel in those days. The terminal at Les Invalides provided an equally luxurious service. It was a “one-stop shop” – passengers checked in, handed over their luggage, which was sent on ahead, and retired to comfortable first class lounges to leisurely sip their Scotch whiskies and gin and tonics, before boarding a coach that took them directly to the departure gate. The coaches departed from the underground space that previously accommodated the train platforms. In 1949 a restaurant, La Françoise, opened. It is still there, and for a long time has been the “staff restaurant” of the Foreign Ministry and National Assembly next door. Journalists wanting to know the latest political news know to beat a path there at certain times of day, or arrange off the record meetings there with deputies or ministers.
As air travel became cheaper and democratized, the terminal at Les Invalides lost its exclusivity. From 1961 onwards it was reduced to a coach station to Orly (and later Roissy-Charles de Gaulle) where check-in was now relocated. By 2016 even this limited service had ended and although there were still public counters in the old ticket hall, the huge building was largely relegated to its other use as Air France’s head office. A municipal garbage disposal depot now occupies the underground space of the former railway line.
In 2018 Air France announced it intended to move out but Covid sounded the real death knell for Les Invalides. The absence of any customers showed definitively that the building was now an expensive white elephant. Perhaps fortunately for Air France the owners, the Ville de Paris, had been eyeing it up for their own reasons and when the lease expired in 2022 Air France was happy to give the building back.
So now it sits, empty, awaiting its third incarnation. Originally, the Ville de Paris foresaw its conversion to a museum of French crafts and ambitious architectural plans were drawn up. In the end, though, the idea fell through and when the Giacometti Foundation came calling, the building was leased to them. The intention now is to turn the former train station into a museum celebrating the sculptor’s life and career. Work will begin after 2024’s Olympic Games. Meanwhile, it is still possible to glimpse inside the deserted ticket hall where affluent passengers once gathered, walk through the iron pillars that once separated the dozen platforms under the Esplanade, and conjure up the ghosts of travelers from another age.
Lead photo credit : The station designed by Juste Lisch, built in 1902. Public domain