Sunday, December 25, 2011

Thatched house in Blackbird Street

In the village of Pont-en-Royans, Blackbird Street (la rue du Merle) rises from the end of the Picard Bridge, just opposite the famous hanging houses above the River Bourne, and curves around the lower slopes of Mount Barret for a couple of hundred meters before descending to meet up with the main road to Sainte-Eulalie. Here's a view of the hanging houses seen from Blackbird Street:

In the lower center of the photo, you can see a fragment of the above-mentioned road that runs from Pont-en-Royans to Sainte-Eulalie, a couple of kilometers to the south. In the background, you can glimpse the stone arch of the Picard Bridge, high above the Bourne. On the opposite bank of the Bourne, you have the multi-colored façades of the hanging houses. Finally, at the spot where the photographer was located, in the lower right-hand corner of the photo, you can see the edge of Blackbird Street, with a stone parapet.

Let's move to the other side of the Bourne. Here we view the Blackbird Street neighborhood from the vicinity of the hanging houses:

A couple of vehicles are driving along the road to Sainte-Eulalie. The first vehicle is about to pass in front of the three "awkward doorways" mentioned in my blog post of 23 May 2010 [display]. Above the middle doorway, the narrow building with a relatively bright red (new) roof was the garage of my late neighbor Dédé Repellin. The level of Blackbird Street corresponds to the base of the houses in the background.

You can associate the two scenes by means of a building that appears in both photos. In the first photo, it's the building in the forefront (half-hidden by a dilapidated shed), on Blackbird Street, with snow on the roof and a tall cream-colored chimney. In the second photo, the snow has disappeared, but this same building, a little to the right of Dédé's garage, is distinguished by its slanting roof, and a small balcony high above the road. Further along to the right, a massive concrete base and pillars support the dilapidated shed (seen in the first photo).

Now, if I've tried to describe the layout of this neighborhood, it's because I would like to share with you, if possible, my attempts at identifying a mysterious unsigned drawing, dated March 1870, which my ex-wife Christine discovered recently in her collections of antiquarian artwork. We come upon a big house with a thatched roof.

All the familiar old engravings of Pont-en-Royans show houses with tiled roofs. And the famous Picard Bridge appears inevitably in all such images. Consequently, Christine (who's quite familiar with Pont-en-Royans and its pictorial representations) was disinclined to imagine the house with a thatched roof as an element of 19th-century Pont-en-Royans. Nevertheless, in the background, there are buildings that look like our hanging houses, as well as a mountain. So, Christine decided to send me a copy of the drawing, to ask for my opinion. And, over the last week, I've been carrying out an investigation of the affair.

Today, my conclusions are firm. This was almost certainly a building located not far from the Picard Bridge, between Blackbird Street (on the right-hand edge of the drawing) and the Bourne. The house was no doubt eliminated, to a large extent, to make way for the new road from Pont-en-Royans to Sainte-Eulalie. But it's possible that vestiges of the building have survived in the vicinity of Dédé's garage and the house with the slanted roof.

Let me start out by explaining the reasons why I've reached these conclusions. Here's an enlargment of the buildings in the background, to the left of the thatched house:

When I showed the drawing to Paulette Ageron (the 84-year-old sister of my neighbor Madeleine), she was adamant that the block of three buildings to the far-left is the place where she was born. These buildings on the Place de la Halle (market square) were destroyed by Nazi bombs in 1944, but old-timers remember them well… no doubt because of the bombing. And Paulette needed no prompting to assure me that she recognized the place where she was born, on 27 April 1927, in her parents' second-floor residence in a house whose first-floor occupants were Monsieur and Madame Guillot. Let us leave aside this leftmost block, and turn our attention to the remaining 5 buildings. Here's what we find there today:

Although the buildings, their façades and even their heights have evolved considerably during the century and a half since the drawing was made, little imagination is required in order to associate significant elements in the two images.

A vital element in the elucidation of this puzzle was the Napoleonic Cadastre of Pont-en-Royans dated 15 March 1823. Significant fragments of this precious document are still accessible in the town hall of Pont-en-Royans, where the friendly employees Colette and Chantal allowed me to take photos. Here's a fuzzy map of Blackbird Street (photographed on a dull morning, without lighting, on the floor of the town hall):

In the drawing of the thatched house, the woman with a child is seated on an empty grassy slope. I would imagine that this is the allotment #130 in the Napoleonic Cadastre, stretching all the way down to the Bourne, and that the thatched house lies on the allotment #123. But my reasoning might be faulty. Maybe the house was located on the allotment #127, much closer to the Picard Bridge, in which case the grassy patch would have been the allotment #125.

To conclude, here's a well-known illustration of that area at the beginning of Blackbird Street:

To my way of reckoning, the artist who made this delightful illustration of the local blacksmith, at the start of Blackbird Street, must have been located with his back towards the thatched house. For the moment, I have no information whatsoever concerning the date and origin of this artwork. My investigations are not yet terminated...

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