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Alba Iulia’s Main Street in the past and present

In olden times, every little town had a Main Street. For Alba Iulia in 1900, with its 11,000 inhabitants, Main Street was the popular name for segments of street which were renamed with each regime change. Let us compare the Main Street of Alba Iulia in the past and today. Are we biased towards the image of the past when, as the old photos show, this broadway was more animated? Although it is still a commercial street, it exhibits nothing like the vibrancy it displayed around 1900. So what do we mean when we say the Main Street of Alba Iulia?

Guided by their nationalist leanings, the city authorities have attempted to preserve the memory of personalities and historical events in street names. Until 1918, the segment of Main Street stretching from the Hungaria Hotel (later Dacia Hotel) to the Palace of Justice was called Ferenc Deák Street (1803-1860). A moderate liberal, during the 1848 revolution Ferenc Deák became one of the political leaders, earning fame as the “wise man of the Magyar nation”. Count István Széchenyi (1791-1860), a liberal dignitary, historian, economist, and politician, is remembered as the founder of modern Hungary. He lent his name to the segment of Main Street from the Palace of Justice to the southern gate of the city. The first military unit of the Kingdom of Romania to enter Alba Iulia on 19 December 1918, the Fifth Alpine Hunters Regiment, inspired a new name for the street. This name was kept until 1948, when, understandably, the street was renamed Republic Street. The wheel of history quite often turns in the most unexpected directions. Today, called Main Street by no one anymore, the street perpetuates through its names the memories of two personalities that have been rehabilitated: King Ferdinand and the famous liberal leader, Ion I. C. Brătianu.

Returning to the changes of the nineteenth century, we notice that Main Street represented an extension southwards of the economic and public center of the city. The western façade of Deák Ferencz Street consisted exclusively of commercial spaces. The most important were two large buildings which opened onto the street in galleries with arches supported by massive pillars, not as impressive as those of the markets of Sibiu or the famous “Sub Gălete” in Bistriţa, though having the same function. Peasants and city dwellers bustled in front of them among carts and stands, some of them busy selling and others buying.

A bit further on, in Széchenyi Square, in front of the place where the Palace of Justice was to be constructed not long afterwards, was a strange building. It had one story and was the shape of a hexagon with uneven sides. It was built in an eclectic style displaying, however, a certain Central European charm. This building contained a shop on the ground floor. The furniture factory of Arnold Baumann was at the exit from the square. On the same side of the street, about 100 meters away, was a building that still exists nowadays, but which was in much better shape erstwhile. It had only two stories. However, it is the only building in Alba Iulia boasting a small loggia, from which the owner could look up and down the street. It was inaugurated in 1906 and became the headquarters of an enterprise connected to a glorious name, both in economic as well as scientific fields: “Carl F. Jickeli S. A., Hardware, agricultural machines, luxury cars, and trucks, Alba Iulia branch”. The shop functioned as an outlet for the Ford Motor Company having a depot of cars and tractors. The owner was a Saxon from Sibiu, the eponymous Carl F. Jickeli (1850-1925). He was the son of one of the most prestigious traders in the city. As a young man, he had participated in an expedition to Africa bringing back a valuable collection of ethnographic objects. After studying in Graz and Heidelberg, where he earned a doctorate, he became assistant at the Natural Sciences Department of the University of Jena for one semester. Called by his father to Sibiu, he took over the family business without giving up his scientific pursuits.

We should not expect a street to be preserved unchanged eternally, keeping the same buildings through the ages. And in this regard, the broadway of Alba Iulia is no exception. The relatively recent removal of the two market houses is not necessarily a loss for the city’s architecture. Yet, the empty space left there, partially used for parking, does not justify the clearing of the terrain. The hexagonal building in Ion I. C. Brătianu Square is no longer extant. Nowadays, in its place is a parking lot on the northern side of the Raiffeisen Bank. The building which formerly housed Carl F. Jickeli S. A.’s shop no longer displays the elegant arches of the ground floor show-windows: they were replaced by simple rectangular openings at some long-forgotten moment. In the mid-1950s, it was nationalized and functioned as “The Metal Shop”. Nowadays in this place are the offices of a Romanian and transnational company.

The former Main Street of Alba Iulia, today Ion I. C. Brătianu Square, continuing as Ferdinand Boulevard, does not have the animation of a market place any more. It is no longer circulated by carts and townspeople, but by cars at full speed. Its rebirth as a commercial street—currently in progress—may be justified as a gesture of an urbanistic ethic. However, it would be a great shame if this were to lead to the demolition of or radical changes to buildings erected over the last two centuries. (V.M.)