Department stores and shopping malls are so often banal and uninspired. But in Paris, there is a department store interior of such exquisite beauty that your first glimpse of it will be forever etched upon your memory. It’s a catch-your-breath moment that will rank with your very first view of the Eiffel Tower, the sails of the Sydney Opera House or the spires of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. And yes, we really are talking about a department store: the incomparable Galeries Lafayette Paris Haussmann – and most particularly its ornate glass domed ceiling or cupola.
History of the glass dome of Galeries Lafayette
From modest beginnings in 1893, by 1912 the building had been transformed into a sinuous and flowing Art Nouveau-influenced landmark, complete with an astonishing neo-Byzantine-infused polychrome glass cupola. It was created by master glassworker Jacques Grüber. In 1932, the building underwent a renovation that introduced some ‘modern’ angular and faceted Art Deco elements into its structure and decoration. Despite the blending of these different architectural styles, the inherent elegance of the building avoided jumbled pastiche.
With the outbreak of war with Germany in 1939, memories were revived of the catastrophic impact of explosive concussion on stained glass cathedral windows in northern France in the previous war, 1914-1918. Fearing the shattering of the glass cupola in this new conflict, in 1940 the coloured glass of the dome was painstakingly removed for safekeeping.
The mystery of Galeries Lafayette’s missing glass
While this precaution was understandable, it was to prove unnecessary. Paris came under bombardment neither during the German occupation in May 1940, nor during the withdrawal in August 1944. But ironically, some of the coloured glass was lost completely. After the war, nobody could recall where all of the cupola’s glass was hidden and its location remains a mystery to this day. With no colour photography for guidance, the cupola’s missing polychrome glass was replaced with largely clear glass. Essentially, the stained glass dome forms an immense flower comprised of 10 luminous sections stretching over a total of 1000m². It’s one of the most visited monuments in Paris.
The glass is regularly checked and underwent a restoration recently to ensure it remains in tip top condition. The glass panels are removed at night to be cleaned at a workshop in Paris. The panels are replaced with temporary panels so that visitors to the store don’t miss out.
The store’s unique profile is beloved by Parisians and visitors alike. Its physical scale and layout – being 70,000 square metres (750,000 square feet) accommodated over eight open levels – means that the experience of being in the Galeries Lafayette is impressive while nevertheless maintaining a sense of human intimacy and avoiding monumental intimidation.
And the spot where you will most likely experience that connection with the art and enduring warm spirit of Galleries Lafayette is in the middle of the ground floor, staring up into the dazzling glass cupola.
Galleries Lafayette is located at 40 Boulevard Haussmann in the 9th arrondisement of Paris.
By Brad Allan, writer and wine tasting host in Melbourne, Australia and frequent visitor to France…