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The fragrance of vanished streets

I am tempted to start this new story with a glimpse of fantasy. It is 2015, and I am on the nameless street between the National Museum of Unification and the Coronation Cathedral, in the centre of a quarter formed by Fortress’ Square, Tricolor Square, Unirii and Mihai Viteazul Streets. Thanks to the collection of photos shot by the ingenious archaeologist and photographer Adalbert Cserni, I am now able to see again the urban landscape of 1900, from a point located on Pavillon utcza (Pavilion Street), in the centre of a quarter marked by József főherczeg utcza (Archduke Joseph Street). On the west another nameless street, at 1943 topographical number, Erzsébet utcza (Elisabeth Street) and Ferencz József utcza (Francis Joseph Street).

From this turn-of-the-century perspective, most of the streets are dirt roads. Here and there, for example in Károly Tér (Charles Street), one may see cobblestones or, more often, paved sidewalks and drains made of river stone. In 1900, Alba Iulia did not yet have sett paving. The streets opened into wide spaces referred to – sometimes with a degree of pretention – as squares or parks, although the photos show that the municipality did not care much about their tidiness. On the streets one can see a mixture of military uniforms, priestly costumes, elegant dresses and worn-out peasant clothes. It looks like the city lived with the sense of ease of a lasting peace, an illusion spread throughout Europe during la Belle Époque from the end of the Franco-Prussian war in 1871 to 1914, when the thunder of the First World War’s cannons shattered the seemingly endless peacefulness of Alba Iulia fortress and the whole world. Although an unprecedented cataclysm, the war provoked transformations that a decade earlier would have been deemed utopian. On 1 December 1918, in the former Tiszti Casino (Officers’ Casino), the Great National Assembly of Alba Iulia took place, and adopted a resolution for the unification of Transylvania with Romania. Four years later, on 15 October 1922, an event of fundamental importance both for internal politics and international relations in a constitutional monarchy took place in Alba Iulia: Ferdinand I was crowned King of Great Romania. All aspects and stages of the event were loaded with intensely symbolic meaning. A coronation church had to be erected in Aba Iulia, inspired by the idea of reconstructing the church built here by Michael the Brave at the end of sixteenth century.

The case for building a cathedral was accepted, but when it came to the details things were no longer so clear. Two important historians were members of the commission for organization of coronation ceremony. One of them, Transylvania-born Alexandru Lapedatu, took a moderate position, seeking to avoid creating any competition between the Romanian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, represented by the Bishopric of Alba Iulia. He proposed to build the new cathedral in the southeastern part of the fortress, on the location of the demolished mint. In this way, Lapedatu argued, the monument would be visible for tens of kilometres from the roads and Romanian villages located across Mureș River. Moreover, such a location would spare the new cathedral from overt competition with the Roman Catholic Cathedral, a massive and impressive seven-centuries-old building.

The other historian, Nicolae Iorga, won by supporting what Lapedatu sought to avoid. Iorga’s option required the demolition of several buildings over an area of almost one hectare and the blasting of an important segment of the western walls of the fortress. Liberal Prime Minister Ion I. C. Brătianu and King Ferdinand accepted this project. It was perhaps too early for them to see Alba Iulia fortress as an inherited historical patrimony and not a symbol of the military might of the enemy of the previous war.

The most interesting cases were those of Mikó Street and the Square of the Fortress Headquarters. To the south, Mikó Street bordered a small park and opened onto Franz Joseph Street, in the area of St. Michael’s Square, located in front of the Roman Catholic Cathedral. To the north, it opened into Elisabeth Street near the gate of the Military Hospital.

The most impressive edifice of Mikó Street was a storeyed building on its southern side, belonging to the Fortress Headquarters complex. From the thickness of its walls, the shape of the windows and its three buttresses it looks like a military building, and indeed, it was designed to withstand cannon strikes. Some primary sources mention Mikó House, connected to Imre Mikó of Hidvég, Governor of Transylvania in 1860-61, a man who was intensively involved in political and cultural activity.

Until 1921, on the western side of the street, there were two buildings. One of them, according to the photo, looked like a single-storey civilian house. Judging from the shape of the windows, whose arches are reminiscent of the architectural style of the Viennese Secession, it seems likely that the building was erected in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century.

The lower city is a late urban development. The neighbourhoods took shape only in eighteenth century. In the seventeenth century in this area, there were only a few inhabited spots. The lack of any coherent urbanization project gave the expansion process a certain degree of disorderliness. Only in the second half of the nineteenth century did the municipality succeed in partially implementing systematization plans. The last notable achievement was the Palace of Justice. On its inauguration in 1908, it was the most imposing building in the lower city. However, as far as urban architecture is concerned, each city has to make do with what it has and to value those elements that set it apart and give it historical legitimacy. Collections of buildings with environmental value illustrating the urban life of the past may compensate for a rarity or lack of heritage monuments.

After the creation of allotments resulting from the implementation of agrarian reforms in 1921, new buildings were erected on the peripheries and in the formerly protected area of the fortress. The old centre in the lower city saw very few changes until the Second World War. An aggressive and inadequate detachment from the past took place during the Communist regime, where the past itself was perceived as a hostile environment by the ideologues of the new powers. In the 1950s the rallying cry was “history begins with us,” and after 1965 the slogan became “history begins with me.” This change was reflected in the outlook of the capital and all cities in Romania. Apartment buildings became the urban residential prototype of the political regime. The squares and central streets of lower city of Alba Iulia suffered to varying degrees from this architectural transformation. Until the turn of the twentieth century, on the western side of Mihai Viteazul Square (the former Hunyadi tér, Hunyadi Square) were low-rise commercial buildings in various architectonic styles such as Eclectic, Neoclassical and Viennese Secession. At the southern end there was one exception to the rather jumbled and humble architectural offerings clustered along the rest of the parade, namely the Hungaria Hotel, which was renamed Dacia after 1918, an impressive two-storey building in Neoclassical style.

The eastern side of the square received more care. It had four storeyed buildings, although one of them, Gisella House, with tree storeys, also sported a decorative tower. The buildings hosted various businesses, including Izvorul Bank (from 1918). The east side of the square was also the location of the church and Convent of the Order of Saint Vincent and a girls’ school with a dormitory that the nuns administered.

The square had a busy and diverse life. On market days it filled with carts bringing merchandise from the countryside. Small piles of hay for the cart-horses remained scattered around the emptied square after the bustling market finished. Thursdays were a day off for servant girls, who clustered in groups to gossip in the square. On Sunday afternoons, the two sides of the square and their sidewalks became promenade routes, corso and anticorso in the parlance of the local inhabitants, for the youth of the city.

To the east, opened Novák Ferencz tér (Ferencz Novák Square), today known as Iuliu Maniu Square. Daily life in this square resembled that of Hunyadi tér, except that this was where commerce was carried out, albeit in terms of a 1900s city with 11,000 inhabitants. Probably, this is why it was called the Great Square. Similarly to Hunyadi tér, taller buildings alternated with single-storey edifices, with the difference that in this place the former were more numerous. The eastern wing of Gisella House faced the square. Right across from it was the City Hall, decorated in the Eclectic style, but dominated by Neoclassical features. The square was home to the same kind of commercial bustle and promenades, but without corso and anticorso.

Today only three buildings from this period are still standing. One of them is the church of the nuns of the Order of St. Vicent, now packed between two apartment buildings following the demolition of the school and dormitory. The others are Gisella House and the adjacent building where Nándor Fuchs ran his trade on large scale, known as “Roșu și Negru” (Red and Black) after the colours of the building – a name which was retained by a confectionery shop that existed there until recently.

Is it fair to use “vanished” to describe streets that are still extant? I would argue that in place of expressions of important local architectural styles, the apartment blocks have introduced ugliness to the urban landscape. Buildings that evoked historical events and important episodes in the lives of the local communities have left behind only some routes, which have since changed their names with perplexing frequency. (V.M.)