The street called Abovian runs through the heart of Yerevan. Throughout the city's history, Abovian has been more than a busy through way, it has become a living museum of the city's epochs, a place where friends meet to stroll under shade trees or drink long cups of coffees at sidewalk café's, where the Armani shop vies with Milano for "New Rich" Armenian customers, and where an old man for years walked among the crowds handing out bouquets of flowers to young lovers.
Originally called "Berti Poghots" or "Fortress Street", Abovian led from Nork to the Yerevan Fortress on the edge of the Hrazdan river gorge (now the Yerevan Winery). Beginning in 1860, the region's Governor General, a Russian named Astafieva, commissioned the first Master Plan for the city. Drawing on the rising wealth of his citizens, Astafieva envisioned a city carved out of the surrounding hills with graceful boulevards and tree lined streets.
Astafieva's plan included the demolition of buildings along Berti Poghots, widening it to a then unheard of 8 meters, and installing a new horse-drawn trolley line. Large mansions commissioned by architects trained in Moscow and St. Petersburg began to line the new Prospect which was renamed Astafian. Though a Russian, the populace of Yerevan knew him as Astafian, and so they named the street.
Astafian St. became a grand promenade, including plans for a Catolicos Cathedral at the site where the current History Museum is located. The church was never built, but the street soon became its most fashionable quarter. The most wealthy and influential citizens in Yerevan lived along this prospect and its adjoining side streets. It boasted several European shops, including rival Aram Ter Avatikian's French Emporium and Yegor Khanzatian's Saxon Imported Goods.
Memories of a Romantic Time
What remains of that world, an "Armenian Belle Époque," are a handful of buildings dating back to the 1870's. From 1870 up to World War I, two master architects took possession of Astafian Street through their work. Those who could afford it commissioned V. Mirzorian and B. Meghrabian to construct ever more impressive mansions. Whether by design or gentleman's agreement, the architects built their signature works on opposite sides of the street, and in only one instance did they combine their work, at the Gabrielian mansion (ca. 1910).
Walking along the street is like walking in an outdoor museum. On one side of the street are the 'modern' architectural designs favored by Meghrabian, with their Art Nouveau flourishes on balconies, windows and doors. Like the Nouveau masterpieces in Paris, the fluid stone and metal details add grace to otherwise solemn structures. As opposed to Meghrabian's carved elegance, Mirzorian gave his Neo-Classic buildings lightness through color, contrasting red with black tuff. Taken as a whole, these buildings successfully combined the Art Nouveau style then the rage in Paris with Arabic details and Armenian influences. One of the best features of Old Abovian Street cannot be seen from the street side. The old buildings enclose hidden courtyards where trees, gardens and fountains used to form mini oasis from the outside world.
Beginning in the 1920's, Alexander Tamanian and his colleagues transformed the character of Yerevan from a regional town to a major metropolis, building ever more imposing structures along the way. The massive designs favored by Tamanian are meant to impress the viewer through sheer volume. They are perhaps more correctly called edifices. In contrast, the more personal buildings in the old sector impress through their graceful curves and simple elegance, the way they defy gravity while staying rooted in the ground. They impress through their details.
Following Tamanian's master plan the street was widened to 16 meters above Tumanian St., and trees were planted along the boulevard. The new buildings were designed to make a careful transition from the old quarter to the new, so that the casual visitor is well inside either part before he realizes there has been a change.
Abovian reflects the essence of each period of Yerevan's growth, whether in the turn-of-century mansions between Republic Square and Hotel Yerevan, in the Art Deco buildings and signs that flow up to Isahakian Street, even in the substantial Socialist structures scattered between. The street has also managed to preserve its character through the memories held by residents and visitors of times long past, and the buildings they belong to.
One such building is No. 2, Abovian, built in 1880 to house a boy's gymnasium (French style school). During the 1915-18 genocide, the building was converted into an orphanage for girls. "My mother was an orphan, she stayed there," pensioner Gregory Torossian remembers as he points to the richly detailed building. "She lost one sister as they escaped from Van, and her mother died in Yerevan. My father first saw her on that balcony. That's where they fell in love." Torossian said that when the orphanage arranged for her to immigrate to America, his father took her from the orphanage and they married. "It was just like Romeo and Juliet, he won her heart standing under the balcony."