Beacon of French heritage reopens after 12 years

One of the architectural jewels of late 19th century Paris—the enormous steel and glass exhibition hall known as the Grand Palais—opens to the public on Saturday for the first time in 12 years following a monumental face-lift.

Closed for safety reasons in 1993 after a metal bolt fell from the ceiling, the fin-de-siêcle masterpiece has been renovated at a cost to the state of more than €70-million ($85-million) and is now poised to take back its place as one of the French capital’s prime cultural attractions.

Tens of thousands of tourists and Parisians are expected to visit the vast domed palace on the right bank of the river Seine for an initial two-week opening, after which it will gradually revert to its original function as a space for artistic and trade shows.

Visitors over the fortnight will also be able to get a rare view of two massive 17th century globes which were commissioned by the Sun King Louis XIV and have been put on public display only once in the last century.

Commissioned for the World Fair in 1900, where it housed the exhibition of fine arts, the Grand Palais formed part of a major redevelopment of the area next to the Champs-Elysees. The neighbouring Petit Palais and the magnificent Alexandre III bridge were built at the same time.

Measuring about 200m in length and 60m at its highest point, lit by tens of thousands of panes of glass and enlivened by an elaborate art deco interior, the palace served as a hospital in World War I and in the next war was used as a lorry-park by the occupying Germans.

Over the decades it was used for a variety of international exhibitions—it even served as horse race-track—but the accident in 1993 revealed that the structure had become dangerously unstable.

Its 8 500 tonnes were supported on a foundation of oak pillars, but these had begun to rot and as a result parts of the palace were beginning to subside—causing the frame to twist out of line. At the same time much of the metalwork was showing signs of decay.
Over four years workers have injected 10 000 tonnes of cement into the foundations, changed 15 000 rivets, replaced 16 000 square metres of glass and used 60 tonnes of paint—returning the building’s interior to its original pale green.

Further renovation of the exterior and sculptures will take place over the next two years, and the inside will be entirely redesigned and equipped from 2008 until 2010. The cost will eventually hit more than €100-million.

Speaking at a press viewing earlier this month, Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres affirmed the palace’s “cultural vocation and international reputation… It is a beacon of our cultural heritage and I am eager for the French to use the opening to reclaim the Grand Palais.”

Planned events over the coming months include contemporary art and music salons, fashion parades and television broadcasts.

Saturday’s opening takes place on France’s National Heritage Day when thousands of monuments and government buildings are made available to the public. Access—which is free—will end on October 1 after the “Nuit Blanche,” an annual all-night cultural festival in Paris.

The so-called Coronelli globes measure nearly five metres in diameter and weigh two tonnes each. Built of wood and plaster in the 1680s, they depict the known earth and the stars and at the time of construction were the biggest in the world. - Sapa-AFP