The museum building was originally a railway station, Gare d'Orsay, constructed for theChemin de Fer de Paris à Orléans and finished in time for the 1900 Exposition Universelleto the design of three architects: Lucien Magne, Émile Bénard and Victor Laloux. It was the terminus for the railways of southwestern France until 1939.
By 1939 the station's short platforms had become unsuitable for the longer trains that had come to be used for mainline services. After 1939 it was used for suburban services and part of it became a mailing centre during World War II. It was then used as a set for several films, such as Kafka's The Trial adapted by Orson Welles, and as a haven for theRenaud-Barrault Theatre Company and for auctioneers, while the Hôtel Drouot was being rebuilt. The station's hotel closed on 1 January 1973.
In 1977 the French Government decided to convert the station to a museum. ACT Architecture (Renaud Bardon, Pierre Colboc and Jean-Paul Philippon) were the designers and the construction work was carried by Bouygues.
The Italian architect Gae Aulenti oversaw the design of the conversion from 1980 to 1986.
The work involved creating 20,000 sq. m. of new floorspace on four floors. The new museum was opened by President François Mitterrand on 1 December 1986.
The square of the museum displays six bronze allegorical sculptural groups in a row, originally produced for the Exposition Universelle (1878)''