Construction began in 1753 with expropriations, demolitions, then construction of the façades. The entirety of the project was financed by the city. Two successive loans amounting to a total of 400,000 pounds were necessary to complete the work. This program was part of a larger royal desire to modernize and beautify the French road network between Paris and the surrounding provinces. The future main street of Orléans, located on the royal road, was therefore simply christened La Rue Royale, or “the Royal Road.”
In order to lengthen the bridge of the same name, it was necessary to raze, fill in, and raise the height of the entire unconstructed southern part, located between the old market, the Châtelet, and the quays. Only one road of this area, profoundly modified, was preserved: moreover it passed under the royal road, giving you an idea of the height of the former quay. We can also observe that the Dauphine Avenue on the south bank of the Loire, conceived with a view towards the royal road and the royal bridge, was also built on a gently sloping embankment climbing towards the bridge. It is of course a matter of architectural mise-en-scène. From the south (the countryside), one ascends towards the city; it was necessary to pass by two toll houses joined together by gates, cross the bridge (the only site in Orléans where you can see the entire city), and then take the royal road to the Place du Martroi.
The path was 1.6 km of ascending perspective from the south bank, enhanced by the increasing size of the Rue Royale’s building – the buildings became taller at each crossroad. Through an optical illusion, if you position yourself at the bottom of the road, it would seem wide and the Place Du Martroi, in the heart of the city, would seem to be within your reach. Conversely, from the top of the royal road, the long and receding view ends in gold and silver reflections from the Loire. It is exactly the same illusion that is sought in French-style parks, and the idea comes from Orléans. It consists of trimming the trees into hedges of varying heights in a manner to draw attention towards the castle and to make it appear larger. Nevertheless, the idea of using this technique in a city, not with trees but with stone, makes the Rue Royale a unique specimen.
In order for an intention to be effective, it is necessary that the architecture be immediately understandable. Sobriety, monumentality, and classicism best describe the design of 18th century architect and engineer Jean Hupeau, to whom we owe the façades. The archways exhibit the commercial purpose of the street (they were not openwork at the time). Above the archways, we find the bel étage topped off with an attic and free-flowing molding. This same model (or module) is repeated throughout the road with variations in height, as we have seen. Simple, flat trumeaus separate the spans. As for the small buildings at the ends, they are adorned with pilasters with Ionic capitals between each span. The main corner buildings are capped with pediments. The straight lines and symmetry of this layout could not be more classical. On the other hand, the choice of ironworks was left to building owners, resulting in variety.
The façades built in this fashion were split sales, on the condition that the buyers built behind them. The construction was completed in 1756. The paving of the roadway was carried out after the end of the work; the royal bridge and the royal road enjoyed a superb pavement of red porphyry that together with the golden tint of the stone, recalled the colors of Orléans: red and gold.
With features such as red and gold (representing Orléans), archways (for a merchant street), a theatrical perspective (a display of the city’s power and prestige), in-fashion architecture (for a modern city, a product of its time), functionality and rationality (spirit of the Enlightenment) the message of this prestigious project was clear: Orléans was a powerful, modern, and prosperous city. Which mayor today would not dream of such a message of confidence in the future for his city? And all of this in only 8 years!
Over the centuries, this elegant street was met with several modifications.
- The Chancellery building still did not have its symmetrical copy in 1754. It was erected in 1863.
- A row of houses in a half-moon shape existed from the East pavilion on the quay, in the style of the crescents of Bath and London. They were destroyed during the opening of Jean-Hupeau Street to facilitate access to the market from the quay.
- Allied bombardments in June 1940 got the better of nearly all the buildings of this downtown street, which was later reconstructed to be identical. This allowed for the extension of Rue Jeanne-d’Arc above the royal road, and also to push back storefronts in order to create “galleries” set behind the arches. Subsequently, the street became the north/south axis of a cross-shaped plan in the heart of Orléans, which was not part of the initial project. Moreover, creating covered passages under the arches made it possible to widen roads in the face of growing automobile traffic. The opening of Rue du Cheval Rouge relieved the historic street which had become a permanent traffic jam.
- Then came the drop in status: a national highway bypassed the city center, and the Rue Royale was also transformed into a “mixed” roadway, with some stretches being pedestrian-only, shared, one way, bidirectional, dead ends, with or without parking! Therefore no pedestrian dares to use it. People try, but not entirely.
- This royal path in the heart of the city, which became an entrance for deliveries and locals, has readily adapted to the times: today it is outfitted with a tram, and it will be no more than a dozen years until it is adapted for pedestrians. Yet, overhead lines have made the view considerably less attractive.
The current city council have even decked out columns with flowers, two years in a row. Do they want to give a laughable air to this noble street with begonias, asparagus, some ivy and impatiens? Whether from disregard or ignorance, it is an outrage.
Do tramways and other installments detract from a historic area’s character, or do they demonstrate a space’s ability to adapt?
Original article, originally published in French, here.
Credits: Images and data linked to sources.