December 9, 2011 marks the 25th birthday of the Musée d’Orsay, one of my favorite Paris museums. Just as the Louvre was transformed from palace to museum, the d’Orsay was transformed from a train station to a major museum. The d’Orsay train station was built in the heart of Paris for the World Expo of 1900. It is on the Seine on the bank opposite the Louvre and right next to the Musée de la Legion d’Honneur; in other words a train station built in this neighborhood had to be beautiful. Inside, it was just as stunning, with soaring spaces and every modern convenience, including elevators.
When the trains became longer and electrified, the d’Orsay station became redundant. After 1939, it was used as a mail sorting facility and film set, among other purposes. It sat empty from 1973 until 1985 when it was saved from demolition. Instead, it was reinvented as a repository for art from the period of 1848 (the beginning of the Second Republic) to 1914 (the start of the First World War). Today, it welcomes almost 3 million visitors a year. It has a wonderful collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. The size of the d’Orsay is much more manageable than the massive Louvre. When you need a break from drinking in all the art, the restaurant is top-notch and simply gorgeous, decorated with the original wood paneling. For the past couple of years, the d’Orsay has been in the midst of a major interior reorganization and renovation to make it an even better experience for millions of more visitors.
Today’s expression, mener grand train (menay grahn trahn) means to live a luxurious life. I’d love to be able to go back in time and see the d’Orsay train station on its opening day, with all the travelers decked out in their finest to attend the Expo. It would have been a grand sight. You can still capture some of that luxurious feeling in this beautiful, light bathed museum.