This statue of Charles-Michel Lespée, or Abbé de l’Épée, and his supporting cast of young girls are looking out over the grand main entr...

Castéja: the former school for the deaf with an uncertain future

This statue of Charles-Michel Lespée, or Abbé de l’Épée, and his supporting cast of young girls are looking out over the grand main entrance of a building known as “Castéja” and named, like a neighbouring road, after Pierre Castéja, mayor of Bordeaux between 1860 and 1863.

At the time of writing, Castéja is a massive empty shell and set to become a residential complex led by Gironde Habitat, comprising 180 apartments, an underground car park and a pre-schoo maternelle. The building’s glory years as "L'Institution nationale des sourdes-muettes", an educational institute for deaf and dumb girls from all over France, are therefore long gone.
Castéja was designed by the Bordeaux architect Adolphe Thiac and built between 1862 and 1870. Thiac actually died aged 65 in 1865 and so never got to see the finished product, the purpose of which was to welcome pupils of the Bordeaux school for the deaf, founded in 1786 and a girls-only establishment from 1859 onwards.

The building’s vital statistics are mind-boggling: It is 138 metres long and 58 metres wide, and if you include its various annexes, the complex represents a total surface area of 12,000 square metres.

The Abbé de l’Épée statue is doubly significant. Firstly, this 18th-century man was the first to conceive a unified system of sign language in France and initiated free education for the deaf; he therefore was - and still is - an emblematic figure for the deaf community. Secondly, the founder of the Bordeaux deaf school, Jérôme-Marie Champion de Cicé, Archbishop of Bordeaux, sent the school’s first director, Roch-Ambroise de Cucurro (or Abbé Sicard), to receive learning from Abbé de l’Épée in person.

The statue was the work of Bordeaux sculptor Louis Coëffard de Mazerolles, who is also responsible for other features on the façade, most notably the sign language shapes for 24 of the 26 letters of the alphabet. 

The 100-or-so pupils at the school would usually follow courses over an eight-year period, although a maximum age of 21 was set by the authorities, suggesting some stayed there much longer! As well as traditional core subjects, pupils attended potentially vocational courses in drawing, decorative painting, photography, hairdressing and sewing. Some of the tuition was provided by nuns.

Photos of dormitories and classrooms as presented
during 2012 heritage day exhibition.

The institution was regarded as an exemplary establishment and twice welcomed presidents of the French Republic: Félix Faure in 1895 and Émile Loubet in 1905. Arguably the most challenging periods were during the First World War, when the building was used as a military hospital, and during the Second World War when it was entirely occupied by the Germans.

Soon after the War, in 1949, a decree was passed attributing the building to France’s Interior Ministry, and part of it became the main police station of Bordeaux. Although operating in separate wings, it did mean the police were cohabiting with the students and staff of the deaf school which was still very much present, remaining there until 1958 when it moved to Gradignan in the suburbs of Bordeaux (where it remains in its current incarnation, Institut National de Jeunes Sourds, providing tuition to 160 pupils). In 2003 the police force moved to other quarters in the Mériadeck district and, for a number of years, Castéja housed various State departments until it was put up for sale in 2010.

Initially, there was every chance the building might be demolished in its entirety. Aware of this prospect, an association* was set up as early as 2004 with a view to preserving the edifice. This was achieved in 2010 when the structure was registered on France’s list of protected historic monuments. Over the coming years the façade will therefore remain the same. But the empty rooms, hallways and corridors will be overhauled by Gironde Habitat and should soon have new owners and tenants.

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