The former abbey of Clairvaux is looking for a buyer

Above the modern building of the central prison of Clairvaux, a thick column of white vapor slowly escapes from a heating duct. It stands out as one of the rare signs of life in this frozen panorama, enclosed by three kilometers of walls, which stands out sharply from the wooded hillside. This smoke testifies to the presence, for a few more months, of the last forty prisoners of the penitentiary establishment. In September 2023, the prison will close.

By this date, Clairvaux must have invented a future worthy of its remarkable past. The abbey is famous for having been created by Bernard of Clairvaux in 1115. It was the ember of his reform of the Cistercian order advocating a return to the radicalism of the Rule of Saint Benedict. Endowed with impressive buildings from 1135, it quickly became the largest Cistercian abbey in France, giving birth to more than 800 “daughter” abbeys in Europe at its peak, becoming the beacon of monastic Europe.

32 hectares, with 36 listed or registered buildings

No less important, although darker, was the second life of the site, confiscated during the Revolution and became a prison in 1808 under Napoleon I. Clairvaux became the largest French prison of the 19th century, with more than 3,000 inmates, men, women and children. It housed famous prisoners, Claude Gueux who inspired Victor Hugo, Blanqui, Maurras… “Throughout this story, the same horizon, that of confinement, voluntary or involuntary, permeated the spirit of the place”, points out Gérard Beureux, president of the Renaissance Association of Clairvaux, which has been organizing guided tours and cultural events there since 1979.

Imagining the future of Clairvaux is an extraordinary file for the state owner. The site covers a total of 32 hectares, with 36 listed or registered buildings (i.e. 40,000 m2 of protected areas), 9,000 m2 of unprotected buildings, lawns and meadows, hydraulic installations, etc.

A site that has suffered

The heritage parts have suffered from the decline in prison activity, moved to the modern building of the central created in the early 1970s. “The monument has suffered from its non-use which has led to a sudden halt in maintenance, recognizes Michel Trubert, chief architect of historical monuments (ACMH) in charge of the building. On the scale of such a site, it is difficult to make up for lost time, but it remains within our reach. »

To meet the expense, the state decided to find allies in the private sector. His project is to find a buyer, to whom he will entrust the abbey in the form of an emphyteutic lease or a delegation of temporary occupation, while remaining the owner. “Beyond the issue of restoration, there are two main issues for the State: developing a strategy that fits into land use planning – with a site that has an almost urban dimension – and proposing a reconversion economy of the place with new job-creating activities”, explains Sébastien Zonghero, “Clairvaux” project manager for the Ministry of Culture.

Three candidates running

Beyond money, the state is also looking for ideas. Last July, he issued a call for expressions of interest (AMI), which closed at the end of September. “An original method for the State, recognizes Sébastien Zonghero. We showed the site, its constraints, its heritage status and we left the development of the project to the potential partners. The idea now is to co-construct the project with them. »

Three candidates – Adim Est, Edeis Concessions and Redman-Soverency – were selected by a jury bringing together the State, the Drac, the prefecture and the various local authorities. The projects are confidential, but we are talking about hotels – including a luxury establishment –, restaurants, one or more museums, activities related to higher education, coworking and even digital data storage…

Open to the public maintained

One certainty, all will have to offer a wide opening of the site to the public. “It is out of the question to privatize the place”, insists Sébastien Zonghero. Currently, visitors can already admire the magnificent refined building of the lay brothers, dating from the 12th century, with the large cellar, the dining room and the dormitory, moving testimony to the great sobriety of Cistercian life. You can walk through the large cloister – in poor condition – which recounts the great architectural overhaul of the 18th century abbey and preserves the vestiges of prison activity: the collective cells, the tiny “chicken cages” lined with iron or the dark mitts…

With the departure of the prison, many other spaces could become visitable even if nothing guarantees it yet, in particular the old infirmary of the 18th century, the lodgings of the abbot and the prior, a chapel“as well as important testimonies of life in prisonsuch as the solitary confinement-disciplinary quarter (QIQD), “jewel” of 19th century prison architecture, and the building of the current central if it is not demolished”, says Gérard Beureux.

Split Invoice

In this case, the State intends to share the bill for the restoration of the monument, valued at 150 million for the enclosure and the cover. To attract investors, he gave up sanctuarizing the heritage parts. The Ministry of Culture wishes promote the total recovery of the site as much as possible and avoid cutting it into different parts, comments Sébastien Zonghero. Reserving a “public” part and a “private” part would be complicated in terms of management. »

In terms of state policy, the case is unprecedented. “For a property of this importance, this is the first time that the State has entrusted management to a private third party”, recognizes a specialist in State heritage policy.

The project must create jobs

On the side of the local authorities, initially hostile to the closure of the plant and now associated with the development of the project, expectations are very high. “The closure of the central prison was a trauma for the territory and we are now awaiting an ambitious project, consistent with the history of the site, creator of wealth and jobs”, summarizes Philippe Pichery, president of the departmental council of Aube.

Will the selected project live up to the importance of Clairvaux? Can such a site be “profitable” without losing its soul? This will be the focus of the closed-door discussions over the coming months. According to the schedule announced, the project should be finalized next summer, to take effect from September 2023. Suffice to say that the contradictory debate must take place now.


An exceptional place

June 12, 1115. Creation of the abbey by Bernard de Clairvaux.

1,135. Construction of the abbey.

Eighteenth century. Extensive architectural overhaul and construction of the classical parts.

1,808. The abbey becomes a prison.

1971. Creation of the new plant.

1981-1999. Classifications and registrations with historical monuments of many buildings.

2010-2020. Restoration of the lay brothers’ building and the chapel-refectory.

2016. The State announces its decision to close the central prison of Clairvaux, which then still has 200 prisoners.

2019. The State issues a call for ideas for the reconversion of the site.

Summer 2022. The State launches a call for expressions of interest (AMI).

September 2023. Closure of the plant.


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