The topics of this blog are Armand-Jean du Plessis, Cardinal Duke of Richelieu, and the IDEAL CITY built on his command next to his magnificent CHÂTEAU on the borders of Touraine, Anjou and Poitou, in France.

Wednesday 19 February 2014

148 nice houses for sale in Richelieu!

the pavilion at the south east corner

Property in Richelieu!

It seems at present that almost every house in the Cité Idéale is for sale!  The French property market - like that that of France in general - is in a poor state, with sales and prices falling.  

Richelieu is itself a small poor town, tucked away from more prosperous areas of 'sweet' Touraine, outside the UNESCO categorisation of special interest that applies to most of the famous châteaux of the Loire and the banks of the fleuve sauvage itself.  
(The Loire is the major un-dammed river in France, from the Massif Central to the Atlantic - a grand storm drain.)

The Good Cardinal Duke placed his New Town on his ancestral site and hoped to make it important enough by his patronage to compensate for its 'unnatural' location.  Once his properties were built, he 'reduced' any contemporary property competition in the locality, to a radius of 25 kilometres.  Monsieur's (the King's brother) château at Champigny was demolished, for example. 
All to no avail. Armand-Jean, cardinal-duc, died young at 57 years. Loudun, Chinon, ancient towns  in logical locations continued to eclipse the pompous little new town.  The King's gift of tax-free status within-the-walls became a device to avoid payments to the State right up to the Revolution (i.e. for 150 years!).  Grand houses were divided up to provide tax-exempt paper 'main residences'.  The grandiose identical 28 hôtels-particuliers were chopped up and fragmented. So the grand houses, so redolent of the 17th century, were corrupted and bastardised.

Seven succeeding dukes and the little Corsican all failed to bring much life to the town, which drifted on as a provincial town, small and less prosperous than its neighbours, but stubbornly conceited and self-conscious.  In the 19th century the château was flogged off by the cart load.  Only the romantic intervention of the Parisian banker, Michel Hein, re-assembled the parc of the former château to create today's current 'tiny-town' linked to a 400 hectare empty hunting park.

Curiously, this sad story actually preserved the town in all its completeness, all consistent in its Louis XIII period counter-reformation manner.  Too pathetic to live, but too stubborn to die. ZOMBIEVILLE!  The un-dead.

But the town remains today unique, complete, and full of authentic 17th century houses aching to be restored.

The typical prosperous Parisian, stacked in his swanky apartment without garden or outside space, is not attracted to these 17th century town row houses as résidences sécondaires, as the Parisian dreams of rural gardens or larger land ownership, in order to escape the nightmare of over-developed Paris, with its famous pavement cafés and obligatory street life.  So, surprisingly, today there are few metropolitan owners within the walls (pace….!), although the entire concept of the cardinal and M Le Mercier was, from the first, an essentially Parisian conceit.

For those who live in Touraine, the properties in Richelieu are just too far away from any area of activity.  For the French, it is so much easier to live in Chinon or closer in to Tours where activity and employment are more accessible.  Too far away to commute to Tours - one bus in the morning and evening for teenage students, otherwise 50kms a day by car.  For young aspirant people…..?

For those who would wish to live within the town, where do they work?  The industrial zone is collection of derelict or failed commerce - with the exception of local building ventures.  The only larger employer, a furniture manufactory, has gone bust, after trying to re-locate production to Romania.  French businesses all sweat under the national politics of the modèle sociale (which makes French labour-costs too expensive to survive) unless one is a fonctionnaire - a state employee.  And how many state jobs like this are needed in a small distant provincial town?

Well, one might say, Richelieu is at least the centre of an immemorial agricultural economy.  True, but this places the cité idéale with a thousand competitors.  If one is a farmer, why not live on the farm?  Richelieu is hardly Madame Bovary's Rouen!

But let us not get negative!

So, to whom is this situation advantageous?

  1. The more modest houses within-the-walls are for sale in 2014 at about 75-100k€, unfixed.  These houses are often perfectly fine, often located leaning up gainst the town's outer walls - the original builders didn't have to pay for the rear walls as they were financed and built by the Crown. They are small and so easy and cheap to fix, relatively to the larger properties.  Sometimes they are a problem, as Bâtiments de France want to reduce the 19th century excrescences into the town's moat.  The entire town within-the-walls is 'listed', and so each structure requires Historic Building consents.  Restoration is expensive in France as, while the builders and artisans are good at their job, their prices are high because of 'social costs' - being more than 100% of the labour rate. But pretty small houses are possible at no great cost.  This suits local people and sometimes landlord letting to local and municipal tenants.  Maybe some modest pied-a-terre résidences sécondaires.
  2. Larger and more expensive properties in the main streets might cost 200k€ or more.  Often the smaller cottages are paired, with common access to the rear.  It might be artful to combine two such houses to enlarge the resultant property and to 'clean up' the title, allowing private space at the rear.  Restoration costs rise by the square of linear dimension; be careful as the houses get larger!  Although some of these structures have had their street facades 'improved', they are mostly from the 17th century, all beams and tuffeau stone.
  3. The 28 hôtels particuliers - individual mansions - are, of course the property jewels of the Cité Idéale.  Created in a standardised format for the court of the cardinal duc - as Dumas would put it, his creatures - Richelieu hoped that in his age he could continue his grandiose life style with his friends and court about him.  When he suddenly died in 1642 all his political allies had to reset themselves to Louis XIII and his succeeding Regente, Queen Anne, and the new premier ministre cardinal Mazarin while they all awaited the majority of Louis XIV.  So the houses were sold up to the locals of Poitou who relished their royal tax relief advantages through the period of over-taxation French history calls la fronde.  The huge noble houses were often split up in 'multi-occupation' and ownership, mezzanine floors were inserted into high piano nobile floors.  In short they were trashed to suit the diminished stature of the years that followed.  Thank goodness PVC windows had not yet been invented!
  4. So purchase problem number 1 - get the entire building into a single ownership so that the interior courtyard world is spacious and private.  Then problem no 2; expect Bâtiment de France to give you a hard (capricious and expensive) time. Problem 3 - have a very deep pocket. Problem number 4 is that these are LARGE houses so the restoration costs are out of the normal range except for the truely rich, simply as a result of their area.  These truly rich do not care to hang out in a dingy half-ruined city. Some hôtels have been cut up into HLM (council houses) for the desperate; some have been modernised and cut up into small flats for private sale.  Financially this latter has worked, no doubt, but surely this is a tragedy for such noble buildings. It might be the only path for those hôtels in very poor condition.  There is less national subsidy available, despite the listing of the entire town, than might be expected.

MORE to come soon