Every day, thousands of vehicles drive along Quai de Paludate and past Château Descas, which is simultaneously one of the most spectacul...

Château Descas: the wine merchant’s warehouse turned nightclub... which is now an empty shell

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.
Jean Descas called on the architect Alphonse Ricard to transform the place into a grandiose celebration of Descas’s nouveau riche wealth and success, resulting in the fascinating exterior which can still be admired today. Features include countless mascarons, sculpted figures that represent Mercury and vines, dragon-shaped bas-reliefs, Jean Descas’s initials above the main entrance, chimneys that are as aesthetically pleasing as they are functional, a number of tiny balconies and, topping off the edifice in style, a vertigo-inducing lookout tower.

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.
During the wine trading years, the building was reportedly as impressive inside as it was from the outside. Throughout the 10,000-square-metre warehouse, which was accessed from behind the building via the former hospital courtyard, Descas could store up to 1.5 million bottles. A then-ultramodern system of elevators and wagons made it easy to handle and manoeuvre stocks whenever necessary, something which had been a constant challenge for Chartrons-district counterparts in their more conventional facilities.

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.
Château Descas still belongs to them (the actual storage warehouse was demolished in 1984), but to many it is now synonymous with fading memories of Bordelais night-life! For, in 2001, the château was transformed into a cabaret-nightclub, le Caesar’s, newly evicted from a quayside warehouse that was about to be demolished. Le Caesar’s wanted to become a direct tenant but Denis Merlaut didn’t believe this to be a viable option. Instead, the city council - who were keeping a close eye on le Caesar’s predicament, possibly because the manager was a close friend of several councillors - came to the rescue and rented the building, subletting it on to the nightclub throughout the duration of a two-year lease.

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.
Back in front, to add to the haunted nature of the building, a long-disused “restaurant club” sign still hangs above the main entrance, and many of the “windows” (across the whole of the first floor and much of the ground floor) are actually wooden panels that have been painted to look like panes of glass; they are in fact convincing “trompe-l’oeils”!

Ground-floor trompe-l'oeils: Ceci n'est pas une fenêtre. Et ceci n'est plus un restaurant club.
But perhaps everything is not lost: peering through one of the (real) ground floor windows, lights were on, and low-key renovation or maintenance work was in progress. It will be interesting to keep track of what happens to the building; perhaps the legal wrangling will soon be in the past and, once again, Château Descas will come back to life.

A naughty look at the inside view where work appears to be in progress in between the marble columns.
> Find it on the Invisible Bordeaux map: Château Descas, quai de Paludate, Bordeaux
> When I went to view Château Descas (on what happened to be the coldest morning of 2016), I was accompanied by the delightful Noémie and Sarah, students at the IJBA school of journalism in Bordeaux. Thank you both for coming along and for filming a report about Invisible Bordeaux, which went something like this:
> Finally, Château Descas is a subject that was suggested to me by a number of readers, including Byron Sharp and Karen Ransom, both of whom are based in Australia. I hope you have enjoyed the read, Byron and Karen!  
> Ce dossier est également disponible en français !

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