There are in fact a number twists to the story of the building, which goes back to 1747 when a Lazariste seminary (la Congrégation des prêtres du Clergé, founded in 1643) was transferred from premises behind Saint-Siméon to this property, acquired by the religious community in 1739. Previous structures on this spot had included a church (in the 12th century) and a hospital (from the 13th century onwards).
The place remained a seat of theological learning until 1791 (by which time it is thought the seminary was responsible for the training of 5,000 priests in all since its creation) when, post-Revolution, the building became State property. Known as “la Maison Nationale”, it served a number of short-lived stopgap functions, becoming a meeting place for revolutionaries, a prison for priests, a gun carriage factory, and then a hostel for colonists who had been deported from Saint-Domingue during the revolts led by Toussaint Louverture.
In 1800, the building was chosen to be the “Hôtel des Monnaies”, minting money and printing stamps. Throughout the 19th century, 125 million stamps were printed and 280 million 5-franc coins were minted there until the establishment was brought to its knees in 1888 by what became known as the “Delebecque Scandal”: it had emerged that Henri-Archange Delebecque, the director of the Hôtel des Monnaies, had carved out a suspiciously comfortable lifestyle for himself and his family. No less than four domestics tended to him, his wife and his four children.
In 1892, the building was redesigned and rebuilt to the designs of Parisian architect Jean Boussard, and became the “Hôtel des Postes” although most people referred to know it as the “Grand Poste”, in accordance with its standing as the city’s main post office. The building stood apart from the more traditional architecture of the surrounding buildings through its use of “exotic eclectism”; this included sculpted sphinxes and, bizarrely, a bas-relief of a Roman emperor in a horse-drawn carriage above the main entrance, all of which caused many a mystified look from passers-by. More was to follow with the addition of a massive metal cage-like structure on the roof onto which converged all the city’s telephone cables!
|Details from an old postcard: the curious horse-drawn carriage which used to feature above the main entrance... and a more conventional wall-mounted clock!|
|The building as it looks today and the way it was 100 years ago.|
Under the guidance of architect Justin Tussau, this was removed in 1924, replaced by the upper floor which can still be seen today. Some of the more exotic façade features were also dismantled, resulting in a more modest art deco feel. In 1926, the postal service-owned Radio Bordeaux-Lafayette station began broadcasting programmes from a studio in the basement of the building. The signal was initially sent out from a transmitter station in Croix d’Hins, to the west of Bordeaux (more of which in coming weeks) although an antenna was also installed on the roof of the Hôtel des Postes in 1927. In 1931, the transmission system was relocated to the “Carreire” district where Pellegrin hospital can now be seen, and the studio went on to move to Rue Ernest Renan, where the France Télévisions studios remain to this day.
For the remainder of the 20th century, the building cemented its status as the place to head for when in need of mail-related services. In 1988 the building was given another facelift ahead of the postal services moving to a more modern and functional facility in the Mériadeck quarter. All of which brings us up to the most recent developments: in 2004 the building was sold to a private consortium who converted it into luxury flats, ahead of the complex being listed as an historical monument in 2011.
- Find it: Rue du Palais-Gallien, Bordeaux
- As so often, this Invisible Bordeaux item barely scratches the surface of a subject which deserves its own book, and this building has just that: Du Grand séminaire à la Grande poste de Bordeaux, trois siècles d'histoires girondines by Jean-Claude Fauveau (published by Entre-deux-mers).