The conversion of the former terminus of the Chemin de Fer de Paris a Orleans on the left bank of the River Seine into an art gallery is acknowledged to be one of the outstanding examples in Europe of the adaptation of an industrial building to an appropriate new use.
The building, in the Beaux-Arts style, was designed by the architects Lucien Magne (1849-1916), Emil Benard (1844-1929) and Victor Laloux (1850-1937) for the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900, and was opened in that year, combining a luxuriously-appointed hotel with railway platforms, approached through tunnels, at a lower level. The station was the first in Paris to be served by electric trains which made it possible to dispense with a traditional train shed and to combine ticket offices, shops and waiting rooms within one concourse, beneath a canopy provided by a graceful vault with ample skylights. Twin arched portals represented the separation of arriving and departing traffic. The Gare d’Orsay influenced the design of many subsequent 20th century railway stations. By the 1930s the platforms were too short, and main line services ceased to use the station in 1939, although some suburban services continued.
It was used as a mail sorting centre during the Second World War and was later occupied by a theatrical company. The hotel closed in 1973. The Gare d’Orsay was listed as an historic building in 1978, and subsequently adapted as a gallery for works of art of the period 1848-1914, particularly those of the great French Impressionists, many of the works having been displayed previously at the Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume. The conversion was overseen by ACT Architecture, and the interior design was by Gae Aulenti.
A programme of restoration during 2007 was designed to bring to light more of the architectural features of the original building.