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Albi in the first half of the 19th century

Cité épiscopale d’Albi

During the 19th and early 20th centuries Albi experienced great economic development accompanied by a boom in population with a subsequent spread of the agglomeration.

Numerous town plans were drawn up in the wake of this new growth but, as in the past, the citizens of Albi adroitly avoided those which could disfigure their patrimony and the plans chosen were those which best suited the historical centre and enhanced the “heart of the heart of Albi” – the Cathedral and Berbie palace and their immediate surroundings.

A period of stagnation

In the wake of the troubled revolutionary era and subsequent Empire, Albi experienced a period of torpor in which the town appeared to slumber. The city was of modest size with only 10,000 to 13,000 inhabitants and very few large projects were undertaken. Between 1818 and 1822 the Pont-vieux was widened and around 1830 navigation on the river Tarn between Albi and Gaillac was improved.

Contemporary records illustrate the town of Albi as having two public faces. On the one side were the attractive promenades of the wards, the beautifully laid-out Jardin National (once known as the Jardin Choiseul) and the neat alignment of the new quarters springing up to the east as a result of the 18th century urbanisation which gave the town “the look of a small capital city”.

The other face showed the mediaeval city with its narrow, winding, often uneven streets, badly lit by night and littered with garbage through which animals roamed freely.

In 1813 only around thirty oil-fired street-lamps existed in the town and in 1842 the mayor decreed that “they should be lit only four months of the year... the rest of the time will be decided in function of the economy”. Several architects proposed plans to improve this situation.

Hausmannien town-planning is judiciously avoided

The surveyor Berbigié, previously Head of Works, was charged with proposing a general “Aligning and Embellishing plan” for Albi after 1807. He was conscious of the improvements that needed to be made; “the streets are not aligned and the houses constructed in a ridiculous fashion” he wrote. Most of his propositions were, in fact, never implemented including one which would have disfigured the Cathedral.

Berbigié proposed the demolition of the houses which encumbered the space surrounding Sainte-Cécile and crowded beside the apse, however he suggested the cleared space be used as the site for a covered market hall close beside the Cathedral. This project was suggested on a number of occasions without ever coming to fruition.

In the 1820s another project was formulated by the Tarn prefect, Joseph-Léonard Decazes (brother to Elie Decazes, a minister to the King Louis XVIII) who would later become the deputy of the region. In order to link place de la Pile with the Castelviel, he envisaged the demolition of Porte Dominique de Florence and the creation of a street along the length of the Cathedral, beneath the pillars of the baldaquin, joining up with the rue du Castelviel. This project was never pursued.

Throughout the 19th century various projects were tabled suggesting the remodelling of the central nucleus in towns with streets in a grid layout. Many included the demolition of whole districts often not sparing picturesque or historic monuments

Between 1820 and 1839 the engineer Jean-François Mariès elaborated the furthest reaching town plan yet seen in Albi. Mariès (1758-1851) was an engineer trained at the National School of Roads and Bridges (France’s oldest school of civil engineering) and by Laroche. Mariès distinguished himself in Albi during the Revolution by writing to the minister Roland to save the choir and Cathedral.

After a brilliant career Mariès returned to Albi in his retirement where he suggested a grandiose town plan on which he continued to work minutely on a voluntary basis for the next twenty years. Mariès was however an “Albi Haussmann”, preceding Haussmann himself, and his predilection was for rectilinear streets drawn with a ruler and T-square. He suggested that picturesque houses, ancient quarters and historic monuments be sacrificed in the realisation of order and he proposed that the east wing of the Berbie palace be dismantled. He favoured a grid layout for Castelviel, wished to install a hall facing Saint-Salvi and also suggested destructive openings be made through ancient buildings. Although he was prolific in his suggestions, very few were ever followed through.

The rue Mariès was created, uniting in a single line the porch of the Cathedral with the gates of the prefecture, the junction of the rue Sainte-Cécile and the rue de Verdusse not to mention the future rue Émile-Grand. Skill and discernment were exercised in the employment of Mariès’ plans, while the Mayor recognised his “zeal and talent (...) so well known to all”, the most excessive and damaging projects were discarded.

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