Monday 15 February 2010

Where there’s a will – there might be a way

By Richard Morley.

This photograph, taken in 1900, is really part of the history of Madrid's longest road, the Calle de Alcalá. On the left hand side, in the background, is an entrance to another street. Those who know Madrid will say, "Oh, that's the entrance to Gran Via". Except that in 1900 Gran Via did not exist.


Cast your minds back, say to, a Century ago. Imagine an expanding Madrid. To the east there is the newly sprawling district of Salamanca and to the northwest the bustling areas of Moncloa, the university district, Arguelles. And in between them Old Madrid; a messy tangle of ancient, narrow, and not very sanitary streets. The only route from east to west is along the Calle de Alcala, through the confused and crowded Puerta del Sol, a crowded, gridlocked intersection, and out along the Calle Mayor towards the palace. At the time none of those roads were wide – some are still not – and with traffic of horse drawn carts, the first trams, perhaps an early motor car or two, the congestion was more than the town could take.

What was needed was a by pass.

The plan was simple: Drive a road from the Calle de Alcala, somewhere near what is now Cibeles, to the Plaza de España, but no suitable alternative route existed. When Carlos Velasco drew up the first draft in 1862 it was obvious its execution would be far from easy.

To build a road through the mess that was Madrid in the late 1800s was going to throw up many problems. Maps of the time show the radiating roads from Sol heading north to be continuous, but none of the short, disjointed, east-west streets were really suitable for the widening and straightening that this new thoroughfare needed.

The name on the original plans was “The elongation of the Calle Preciados and it’s link with Alcalá”. Those who either opposed or thought the project impossible gave it another, ironic, name: “The Great Way”, or in Spanish, “La Gran Via”.

Although first dreamed of in 1862, the first proposals did not see the light of day for another twenty four years. In 1866 Carlos Velasco presented the city with three routes.

1. A straight line from the church of San José in the Calle de Alcalá to the Plaza San Marcial. Many places in Madrid have had one or several changes of name over the years. Today, the plaza San Marcial is better known as the Plaza de España.

2. In two straight lines with a bend in the middle. Using the present day names, the route would have followed the Calle de los Reyes and then have turned sharply eastwards along the Calle del Pez and continuing straight through the Calles de Puebla, San Onofre, Infantas to enter the Calle de Alcalá much closer to Cibeles than it does today. For those of you who know the city, think of Gran Via being a couple of hundred metres north of its present position and sweeping through that mass of tiny streets between the Telefonica building and Tribunal.

3. In three straight lines. The first from San José to just north of the confluence of the Calles of Montera, Fuencarral and Horteleza, (the area now called the Plaza de Red de San Luis – or where Gran Via Metro station stands). From there due west to present day Callao, and then a swing northwest down to España. Of course, this was the route finally decided on.

Calos Velasco had grand plans for the Gran Via. It would be twenty five metres wide, with the centre section, meant to be the “poshest” bit at 30 metres. At the intersection with the Calle Alcalá there would be a large roundabout to direct traffic. At it end at España would be a long, elliptical roundabout. To make it really distinctive, the original plan was to have the pavements, (sidewalks for my US readers), made from wood.

So far, so grand!

And the City Council rejected it with the words, “…it did not create any obligation for the Municipal Corporation”!

Basically, it was going to be expensive. In that maze of streets that lay between Alcalá and Marcial stood three hundred and thirty-four buildings in thirty blocks that the council would have to purchase – and demolish. The mayor, Conde Romanones, formed a committee to study the feasibility of “forced expropriation”, but due to a legal technicality its findings were declared null and void. A French company’s attempt to take over the project was denied on grounds of cost. So the plan went to the national parliament to declare the project a “Public Utility” and for the government to enforce the Expropriation Act, part of the Laws of Enlargement, drawn up in the latter half of the 19th century, that allowed Madrid to expand.

Around this time the citizens of Madrid were of several minds regarding this proposed new street. There were those who thought it a good idea; those who thought it would never happen; and those who chose to make fun of it. It was a subject for music hall jokes and an opera by Chueca. Taking the form of a Zarzuela the opening scene is of the streets, personified by actors, who are bewailing their fate. Here we see the Calles de la Sarten, Libertad, Primavera, Paloma, Reloj, Luna, Priora, Caza, and Pez. And the alleyways of Perro and Gato all wondering what will happen to them.

Those names are, or were, real names and it’s a great shame that Madrid has lost “Frying Pan Street” and “Clock street”, “Hunting Street” and “Cat” and “Dog” alleys. (Actually, the bane of any student of old Madrid is the cavalier manner with which street names get changed. I am sure one day we will awaken to find they have changed the name of the city!)

For eight long years the project was delayed even though yet another feasibility study was published in 1888 by the State Council and there was even an attempt by the widow of the now “late” Carlos Velasco in 1894 to renew the declaration of the project as a public utility. She tried again the following year and also in 1898.

However, in the intervening years the Spanish Government had passed new sanitation laws. In August 1898 the mayor ordered the municipal architects, A. Octavo and F. Lopez de Salaberry to review the project and an unnamed physician was to examine the sanitation of the affected area. It was the sanitation that clinched the deal.

According to a Royal Decree given on the 26th of January 1901 the construction of the Gran was justified based on the following points:

1 To unclog the Puerta Del Sol; 2 To ease communications between the prosperous districts of Arguelles and Salamanca; 3 To improve journey times between Atocha and Principe Pio railway stations; and, 4 To remove the unhygienic housing and clear the dismal and “murky” streets.

Note the year: 1901. So far, from first inception it had already taken thirty nine years. So, they got down to work immediately. Er! No they didn’t.

It was decided to build the thoroughfare in three parts. Avenue A, from San Martial (España) to Callao, “Boulevard” from Callao to Red de San Luis, and Avenue B, from Red de San Luis to Alcalá. And despite the alphabetical terminology, they planned to start with Avenue B first!!

The final design was for a road of 1,316 metres of 25 metres width, except the posh “Boulevard”, which would be 35 metres wide. The total area affected was 141,500 square metres or property and 40,100 square metres of roadway. 312 houses were to be demolished, 44 plots of land to be acquired, nearly 9000 square metres of pavement, 26,365 square metres of paved and cobbled squares to be removed. Also they had to remove and reroute fourteen and a half kilometres of water and gas pipes, 274 street lights and 100,000 cubic metres of soil, rock and rubble. The city would lose 48 roads and the report I culled these figures from says 358 fincas, which I understood to be “farms”, but can actually mean any type of property. One definition is “town house”, which makes sense.

It was a sizable undertaking.

On the 21st of August 1904, the project was approved, although it included a clause abolishing the “Boulevard” if it was so decided. And the project was now divided into four sectors as Avenue A was bisected by the Calle San Bernado. Thirty two new city blocks would be created.

So now the project was approved. Now the City council had to decide who would do the work. There were various architects and contractors bidding for the work. Finally Martin Albert Silber suggested that the City itself be the main contractor and in 1909 this was done, appointing one Martin Albert Silber as the man in charge. Now there’s a coincidence!!

Finally, in 1910, forty eight years after being just a twinkle in a city planners eye, Madrid’s mayor, Nicolas de Peñalver Zamora, initiated the start of works.

"Demolition of houses for the opening of the Gran Via - 1912"

Like “An axe blow on the map”, the demolition teams moved in, and over the next nineteen years the face of Madrid was going to be changed for ever.

This is part one of my Gran Via post. Come back soon for part two.


  1. Hey, nice blog: I've added it to my blogroll.

  2. Really interesting! Looking forward to the next part. Am I right in thinking that Gran Via had it's name changed during Franco's time? On some old maps i've seen it has a different name.