Fairytale buildings: True stories behind Moscow’s turn-of-the-century buildings

November 29, 2020

In November 2020, Moscow took the first prize in the regional competition for the World Travel Awards as the best travel destination for studying European cultural heritage – in no small part due to the remarkable buildings built in the city at the turn of the 19th century. They seem to have come out of a fairytale, with towers, Firebirds and paradise flowers on their facades. Every one of these buildings deserves its own tale to be written. Read on to learn the history behind Moscow’s famous terem-inspired buildings.

Russian terems

Cockerels, windows of different shapes, snake haut-reliefs, sirens and phoenixes on murals. The neo-Russian commercial apartment building at Prechistenskaya Embankment that originally belonged to Zinaida Pertsova seems to be the perfect setting for Russian fairytales about Ivan Tsarevich, Zmei Gorynych and Koshchei the Immortal.

“Non-experts call them ‘fairytale buildings’ because they immediately bring to mind the art of Ivan Bilibin and Viktor Vasnetsov. In fact, the architects who created these buildings had a different concept in mind. After the abolition of serfdom in 1861, representatives of people and the creative community looked for means of self-identification. They turned to the origins of Russian architecture, especially northern traditions, and tried to adapt this to the needs of their contemporaries. This is how the neo-Russian (pseudo-Russian) style came about, with gable roofs and roof ridges, brickwork ornaments and murals inspired by traditional embroidery. The design was similar to 16th and 17th century chambers when Russian culture was not yet under the European influence,” explains Filipp Smirnov, local history expert and the editor-in-chief of the Moskovskoye Naslediye magazine.

Russian entrepreneurs accounted for the majority of investors who ordered fairytale designs for their houses. One such entrepreneur, Pyotr Pertsov, was an avid patron of the arts who decided to build a commercial apartment building for performers and artists. By a twist of fate, the project actually came to the rescue of another prominent philanthropist and theatre enthusiast, Savva Mamontov. In 1900, he had to pledge his property to repay debts, including the Metropol Theatre. In order to avoid bankruptcy, he took up folk crafts at the Abramtsevo workshops. That happened around the time that Pertsov was planning his building with artist Sergei Malyutin. Pertsov ordered a mural from Abramtsevo.

Photo by Maxim Denisov, Mos.ru

“Vrubel, Malyutin and Petrov-Vodkin worked with him [Savva Mamontov – Mos.ru editor]. Russian folklore-themed tiled paintings started to appear around the city. One such painting was a multi-coloured mural on the Pertsova House,” says Filipp Smirnov.

The mural features a sun with a human face and fantastic flowers blooming in its rays.

Merchant Nikolai Igumnov, owner of the Yaroslavl Manufactory, also had a pseudo-Russian terem built. Designed by Yaroslavl architect Nikolai Pozdeyev, the structure had towers, careen-shaped ogee gables, as well as fairytale scarlet flowers and Firebirds on its porcelain decorative tiles.

“This mansion in Yakimanka Street stands out because it was built from imported materials. For example, Dutch bricks were imported and fired multiple times, making them look like stones,” continues Filipp Smirnov. 

Photo by Maxim Denisov, Mos.ru

Another example of fairytale chambers with pinnacles and circular towers and a fortress wall is the Yaroslavsky Railway Station. The building has a remarkable story of its own. As the Northern (Severnaya) Railway was extended, the building had to be rebuilt several times. When the train service from Moscow to Arkhangelsk was launched, architect Fyodor Shekhtel was invited to expand the station.

“The architect had just returned from Glasgow where his northern Russian wooden pavilion was featured in a fair. When the fair closed, Glaswegians asked for the pavilion to be left in the city permanently. Shekhtel was so inspired by his success that he decided to rebuild the Yaroslavsky Railway Station (which was called Severnaya (Northern) at the time) in the pseudo-Russian style.”

Photo by Maxim Denisov, Mos.ru

Another building continued the northern architecture theme. Pyotr Shchyukin, collector of old Russian artefacts (primarily from the Russian North) wanted to place his treasures in a museum. He approached architect Bernhard (Boris) Freudenberg, who had built the Sandunov Baths, with a proposal to develop a project that would mimic the outlines of his exhibits. The architect settled on a red brick mansion with asymmetric towers of different heights and a steep porch. It was a typical style for Yaroslavl. In the 1890s, the building sprung up in Malaya Gruzinskaya Street.

“Since Shchyukin was a collector of Russian antiques and art, Freudenberg had a very specific task: to create a treasure box of a house. And he succeeded,” adds Filipp Smirnov.

Today the collector’s terem is home to the Kliment Timiryazev State Biology Museum.

The historical façades of the new and old museums have been almost completely preserved to this day. Last August, Moscow’s Department of Cultural Heritage approved a project involving the first ever comprehensive renovation of the estate. The renovation will consist of reinforcing the foundations and the brickwork of the walls, repairing the roofs, renovating the original windows and doors and recreating their lost elements based on archive documents. The interiors will also undergo renovation, which will include restoring missing marble floor tiles with embedded mosaic, moulding and ornamental murals.

Photo by Maxim Denisov, Mos.ru

The local historian found similarities between this story and the story of another building, the Tsvetkov Gallery on the Prechistenskaya Embankment. Art lover Ivan Tsvetkov collected works by Russian artists for many years and wanted to have a proper “treasure box” for his paintings. In the early 20th century, a red brick gingerbread house-type building with glazed kokoshnik-shaped window aprons and decorative tiles featuring paradise birds and flowers became the new jewel of the embankment. The masterpiece was created by Viktor Vasnetsov.

Photo by Maxim Denisov, Mos.ru

Artist Viktor Vasnetsov designed a pseudo-Russian house for himself as well, in Troitsky Pereulok (now Vasnetsova Pereulok). “He was an avid promoter of this style in architecture. He created a building that would be an inspiration for him,” Filipp Smirnov believes.

Photo by Maxim Denisov, Mos.ru

The wooden terem-shaped mansion has a combination of different architectural elements. There is a room that resembles boyar chambers and a one that is similar to a peasant hut. Another room looks like a wooden church.

Thanks to Viktor Vasnetsov, the Tretyakov Gallery in Lavrushinsky Pereulok now has a Russian terem façade with kokoshnik window aprons as well.

“This project had a different goal, which was to showcase a collection of paintings to a wide audience – in particular, ordinary people like peasants, the lower middle class and other commoners who better understood styles like lubok with simple graphics. This is how architects created the aesthetics that appealed to ordinary people.”

Photo by Yulia Ivanko, Mos.ru

Empire, Classicism and a lot of Constructivism: Walking around KhamovnikiFounders of the gallery. How the Tretyakov brothers fell in love with art

Castles and palaces

In the early 20th century, Art Nouveau, inspired by European epics rather than Russian fairytales, became a popular style in Moscow architecture.

“The first Art Nouveau mansion in Moscow was architect Lev Kekushev’s house in Glazovsky Pereulok built in 1901. Eventually, the architect found the house too small for himself and a buyer was found pretty soon. When Kekushev was offered three times the amount of money that the house was actually worth, he agreed to sell it. The architect used the money to buy land in Ostozhenka Street, build a new mansion and register his wife, Anna, as the owner,” Filipp Smirnov explains.

The mansion, or should we say medieval castle, with moulding in the form of climbing plants and a circular tower topped with a pointed hat-shaped roof, became commonly known as the Kekusheva House. The building was crowned with a sculpture of a lion, the architect’s emblem which he included in every one of his works in reference to his first name, Lev (Lion in Russian). The architect’s wife was the ‘princess’ living in the castle. Unfortunately, that fairytale did not have a happy ending as Anna Kekusheva left her husband for his assistant and kept the ownership of the house.

The lion sculpture mysteriously disappeared from the mansion roof after the Revolution. Unfortunately, the original sculpture was never found and, almost a century later, restoration artists recreated the three-metre lion based on archive photographs. The original designs of the façade and the interior layout were also recreated during the restoration. The Kekusheva House won the Moscow Restoration contest in 2018.

Photo by Yulia Ivanko, Mos.ru

According to Filipp Smirnov, Russian Art Nouveau was often eclectic and included elements of different styles. Some houses turned out so quaint that clients refused to buy the final creation, which seemed too obscure and foreign. Fyodor Shekhtel’s mansion in Yermolayevsky Pereulok was one such eccentric project. He built a fairytale castle with an observation deck, a dome, a mosaic floor and wrought-iron fences.

“The architect wanted to demonstrate the extent of his abilities and show to his potential clients that even in our city, in Russia, it is possible to build palaces like this. In fact, Shekhtel is known for building houses that ‘talk.’ In one of his mansions, he cut out a nine-metre window and put in a giant fireplace big enough for a six-foot tall person to stand up straight in it,” the historian says.

Photo by Yulia Ivanko, Mos.ru

A fortress and a pagoda

Some architects went even further and created some very exotic designs with puzzling meanings that went down in the history of Moscow streets. One such creation was the Arseny Morozov Mansion in Vozdvizhenka Street.

“In the early 20th century, many entrepreneurs travelled to Portugal inspired by the local non-violent revolution of 1908–1910. Russians were speculating whether a similar experience would be possible in their country,” Filipp Smirnov explains.

Arseny Morozov, accompanied by architect Viktor Mazyrin, also went to Portugal. The merchant was captivated by the Pena Palace in Sintra built in the Mauritanian style with some elements of the Manueline (an architectural style, sometimes called Portuguese late Gothic, that was named after King Manuel I the Fortunate). Arseny Morozov wanted to have a similar mansion in Moscow and Viktor Mazyrin supported his idea. Now there is a white fortress with castle towers and arched windows, seashell-shaped moulding, a knights’ hall and an interior imitating Arab and Chinese styles.

Nobody praised Arseny’s project, even his mother who reportedly said: “I used to be the only person who knew you are stupid but now the whole of Moscow will know.” Morozov did not live long in his fortress though. During one of his wild parties, he shot himself in the leg as part of a bet and died of sepsis at the age of 35.

The pagoda in Myasnitskaya Street (the tea shop) owned by merchant Sergei Perlov was also the source of great perplexity among Muscovites at the time. Brothers Sergei and Semyon Perlov were tea traders and rivals. When they heard that the chancellor of China Li Hongzhang was coming to Moscow, each of them wanted to host the prominent official and they even made a bet.

After their father’s death, Semyon Perlov inherited a house at 5 Prospekt Mira built by Roman Klein. Klein’s assistant, Karl Gippius, actually redesigned the façade of the newly built building in Myasnitskaya Street, also created by Roman Klein. Klein himself refused to ruin his creation with the client’s bad taste. Sergei asked Gippius to redesign the mansion inspired by Chinese style. With a pagoda tower, bells and ornaments depicting hieroglyphs, dragons and bamboo, the building resembled a Buddhist temple. However, the Chinese tale did not bring Sergei Perlov good luck. The Chinese politician honoured his brother Semyon with a visit and did not even stop to look at Sergei’s shop.

Sergei Perlov’s former tea shop is now a cultural heritage site of federal importance. In October 2020, it was approved as a listed building. Experts made an inventory of all the architectural and decorative elements that characterised the historical building’s exterior and interior. The interior is considered particularly valuable, including the coffered ceiling with gilded ornaments and murals, lamps and carved wooden décor. Some furniture and interior items have been there since the shop first opened – for example, the display cabinets and two 1.5-metre Chinese vases.

Photo by Maxim Denisov, Mos.ru

Dragons and pagoda tower: The mesmerisingPerlov’s Tea House

No ending to the fairytale

The majority of the “fairytale” buildings are home to diplomatic corps or foreign embassies these days. The Russian Foreign Ministry’s diplomatic corps have offices at the Tsvetkov Gallery and the Pertsova House. Shekhtel’s mansion is the residence of the Uruguayan ambassador and Igumnov House is the French ambassador’s residence.

“When the Soviet government was establishing diplomatic relations with other countries, their diplomatic missions were offered the best and relatively new mansions,” Filipp Smirnov explains.

The local historian notes that many Muscovites rarely leave the city these days, which explains their interest in these unusual buildings. Local residents walk around Moscow streets and take in the beautiful façades which they probably did not notice before.

“The architecture is so colourful and enchanting that people want to know the history behind this fairytale,” he concludes.

Mezzanine house and Hotel Peking tower: 2020 Moscow renovations

Source: mos.ru

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