Every day, thousands of vehicles drive along Quai de Paludate and past Château Descas, which is simultaneously one of the most spectacular and one of the most mysterious buildings in central Bordeaux. I thought it might be interesting to investigate the subject!
Although the central section of the building currently lies empty, it is best known as having been the eponymous offices and wine cellar of the wine merchants Descas, whose founder Jean Descas (1834-1895), an Entre-Deux-Mers wine barrel manufacturer turned trader (and also the mayor of his hometown Camiran), first installed his then 20-year-old company here in 1881. The location was strategically close to Saint-Jean train station, giving him easy access to the burgeoning railway delivery network, and thus an extra edge over his counterparts who were traditionally positioned further north in the Chartrons district. This decision was also compounded by Descas’s focus on supplying affordable wine to customers in France, while the Chartrons players built their wealth on the high-end export market.
The property acquired at an auction by Jean Descas had, since 1661, been home to the city’s first general hospital, Hôpital de la Manufacture, the ancestor of today’s “CHU” (Centre Hospitalier Universitaire). For many years the establishment also provided a safe haven for abandoned children, with a peak of just under 900 being accommodated around the time of the French Revolution in 1789.
|The way it was: Hôpital de la Manufacture in an 1830 portrayal by the lithographer Légé; picture borrowed from http://bordeauxmaritime.free.fr, the website which was expertly curated by the late, great Hervé Guichoux.|
|Plenty to spot, from the lookout tower to Jean Descas's initials, and the face of a man who appears to be surrounded by a full year's supply of grapes.|
The company and its château warehouse continued to go from strength to strength for the best part of a century, until they were taken over by the Merlaut family in 1979. Descas’s assets were relocated to the right bank of the Garonne and a modern-day warehouse just off Quai de Brazza. This remains Descas’s head office and is where its director Denis Merlaut monitors the group’s many contemporary business interests, which range from wine production and trading to the ownership and rental of business units.
|Mercury and Vine.|
Then the château was turned into a short-lived disco known as le Rikiki Palace, which hosted DJs including Bob Sinclair. The following, final nocturnal incarnation was le Mystic, a “restaurant-club” described by observers as a “haunted venue” where little people manned the door and, even more bizarrely, a gigantic animated mask served as master of ceremonies. Business ceased in 2007.
And, ever since then, an ugly legal battle has been underway between Descas and Bordeaux city council over unauthorised structural work carried out inside the building (which included the complete gutting and removal of the third floor), as noted when the municipality’s lease expired in 2003. Descas are claiming damages of 6 million euros to get the premises back into shape, although the ongoing legal efforts have been undermined by the use of the building beyond 2003 to house Rikiki Palace and le Mystic.
Which brings us to the present day’s empty shell, albeit one which is flanked by two wings which are occupied by various companies, associations and even a bar, le Point Rouge, not to mention the swish old people’s residence which has gone up behind the château, sandwiching what GoogleEarth would suggest is a pleasantly symmetrical garden/square.
|The current view from GoogleEarth. The next time I go back I'll try heading round the back via rue... Jean Descas!|
|This aerial view from sometime between 1950 and 1965, as featured on the fantastic http://remonterletemps.ign.fr website, clearly shows the extensive warehouses behind the château.|
|Ground-floor trompe-l'oeils: Ceci n'est pas une fenêtre. Et ceci n'est plus un restaurant club.|
|A naughty look at the inside view where work appears to be in progress in between the marble columns.|
> Ce dossier est également disponible en français !