11 December 2013

Gare des Brotteaux

A perfectly restored Haussmannian building with an ornate sandstone facade, huge bay windows, a curved roof and a large, central clock stands on Boulevard Jules Favre in Lyon's swanky 6th arrondissement. This is the former Gare des Brotteaux. 
The building's resemblance to the Gare d'Orsay in Paris is no coincidence, because the two were built in the same era. But this wasn't the first railway station on the site.
The original station: Gare de Genève, opened in 1859

Although the idea for a station in Brotteaux was first proposed in 1837, it wasn't until 20 years later, in 1858, that the company Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée (PLM) built the terminus of their railway line from Lyon to Geneva on what had until recently been the inner perimeter of the Fort des Brotteaux, which was in any case restricting Lyon's eastward expansion. 

The station was named 'Gare de Genève'.

One particularly interesting feature of the original station was its construction: this being a time of war, it was built not of stone, but of wood and plaster so that it could be dismantled at short notice should the need arise.

However, no sooner was it up than it was already a problem: because of its north-south orientation and precise location, the station and the railway line blocked traffic between Lyon and the eastern suburbs. Unfortunately, the negotiations between the municipal authorities and PLM about how to resolve the matter dragged on for 15 years. Finally, in 1904, it was decided to raise part of the line so that traffic could pass underneath and move the station slightly further to the southeast. 

This is where the station's wooden construction came in handy.

1908 postcard of the new Gare des Brotteaux,
showing the steel-and-glass canopy, dismantled in 1985
The splendid new five-storey Gare des Brotteaux, which you can still admire in all its glory today, was designed for PLM by the Parisian architect Paul d'Arbaut, built by the engineer Victor-Louis Rascol and completed in 1908.

The former entrance to the consigne:
the left luggage office
The central avant-corps, which is shown in the picture at the very top, is 46m long and four floors high, topping out at 21m. Together with the two asymmetrical wings, the entire station is 153m long. The superstructure is made of iron, while the facades are carved freestone from quarries in the nearby département of Isère. The dome-shaped roof is tiled in grey slate and elaborately decorated with wrought iron.

Five massive bow windows flood the avant-corps with light. A further 22 illuminate the interiors of the side wings. The doors at the base of each of these are decorated with beautiful floral mosaics and covered by iron-and-glass canopies.

The façade is intricately carved, particularly above the bow windows. Atop columns at either end of the avant-corps, there are two women's heads, one wearing a bonnet, the other a star, symbolising Marseilles and Paris respectively, with the relevant city's coat of arms in large on the roof above. Between the heads, in four groups of five, there are smaller crests of the towns and cities through which PLM's trains passed. 

Matronly Marseilles (complete with corset!)
and stellar Paris

The centre of the roof is dominated by a 2.5-metre high clock crested by the coat of arms of Lyon: a rampant lion and three fleurs de lys (symbolising both the Holy Trinity and the fact that Lyon was a "loyal" city in the Middle Ages) topped by a mural coronet bestowed by Napoleon in recognition of the city's fortifications in antiquity. Six fierce-looking lions' heads flank the clock, seemingly guarding the building from foes.

The massive clock showing the new station's
construction date: 1905-1908
The station's main hall was an impressive 180m long and 23m high, including a 10m dome. When the station was still in use, this hall covered three walkways and three platforms, while a fourth was sheltered by a glass canopy. The hall was made almost entirely of steel, with the exception of the cast iron rainwater pipes and reinforced glass ceiling.

The walls of the lavish restaurant were covered in wood pannelling, mirrors, paintings by, amongst other, Clovis Terreire and C. Gitrier, and endless references to the towns traversed by PLM; a typical 19th-century ornamental mishmash of Louis XVI, Louis XIII and Louis XIV motifs.

Detail of the floral mosaic
on the façade
But the pièce de la résistance is the 46m long and 12m wide first-class waiting room, referred to evocatively in French as the salle des pas perdus, or "room of lost pacing". The walls and ceiling of this were lavishly decorated with carvings, opulent stucco and paintings. As a result, it was a wealth of sea shells, leaves, pine cones, vases, flowers and fruits and painted escutcheons representing Geneva, Paris, Marseilles and other towns and cities. 

Two massive paintings in stuccoed frames hung on the north and south wall, both dating back to 1909. The former depicts a view of the port of Marseilles, by Charles Lacour, the latter, of Lake Geneva, was painted by Antoine Barbier.

Inside what is now an auction house:
the crest of the city of Geneva
For about 70 years, travellers could marvel at the splendours of this wonderful station on the way to catch their train. But the advent of high-speed TGV trains, the need for additional platforms and the problem of a lack of car parking spaces eventually led to Brotteaux's closure in favour of Gare Part-Dieu, 700 metres to the south, in June 1983.

Fortunately, the Gare des Brotteaux has been preserved. Sold by national railway operator SNCF in 1988, it was renovated extensively at a cost of more than €7 million between 2002 and 2006, and now houses the Aguttes auction house (in the avant-corps), an architectural  workshop and a Paul Bocuse restaurant: the Brasserie de l'Est.

Although the glass canopy and metal grand hall at the back were dismantled in 1985, the front facade, rooves and salle des pas perdus have been listed as historic monuments.

Locate the Gare des Brotteaux on Google Maps


  1. Excellent subject and great article. Do you have pictures of the two women's heads who represent Marseille and Paris?

    1. Glad you liked it, Tim! Unfortunately, I don't have a close-up of the heads. However, you can sort of see them on the top picture, although one of them is covered by the lamp-post! Perhaps I'll go out there one day with my "big" camera and zoom into them as an addendum to the article.

  2. Hello, I always thought that PLM was "Paris, Lyon, Marseille", rather than Paris, Lyon Méditerranée. Thank you for correcting my error.


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