This series of posts comprises a few loosely translated extracts from Bolshoi Gorod, a fine Russian magazine of art and culture. In April last year, they did a small series on pre-Revolutionary private dwellings in Moscow, and these seemed of artistic interest in this blog. The tragedy is that it’s impossible for the average man-on-the-street to enter these residences, most of which are closed to the public even on the two days of the year (April 18, May 18) that are named Days of Culture, and it took nearly half a year of attrition and persuasion for Bolshoi Gorod to obtain access.
Fyodor Shekhtel’s House
Bolshaya Sadovaya, No 4.
(This building is sometimes open on April 18, May 18. Visitors may be admitted on prior appointment.)
In 1909, the architect Fyodor Shekhtel (born in a Volga German family as Franz Schechtel), who had been involved in over 50 buildings in Moscow (including the great Art Nouveau Ryabushinsky House), finished work on his own house. For the summer season of 1910, he had created a neoclassical private dwelling. An asymmetry, not inherent in early 19th century Empire-style mansions, had become a prototype of many dwellings in the 1910s, combining various elements of the facade: windows, balconies, wreaths.
A room with a triple window overlooking the Sadovaya was occupied by Shekhtel’s son, the artist Lev Zhegin, who had taken his mother’s last name because of the war against Germany. In this room, Zhegin with his friend Vasily Chekrygin, illustrated Vladimir Mayakovsky’s first book ‘I’ in 1913. In 1918, the Shekhtel family was evicted from their house; Shekhtel, till his death in 1926, lived in a communal housing project. The main house itself was taken over by Soviet military strategist Robert Eideman, who was executed in 1937.
The house was then occupied by a children’s nursery, and after the second World War until 1957, by a kindergarten. To this day, former pupils sometimes visit the house. Between 1957 and 1991, the house was taken over by the KGB. According to one version, it housed technical services of the intelligence agency, and according to another, a control centre for the neighbouring hotel ‘Peking’. These days, the house is occupied by a politico-philosophical club, ‘Humanitarian and Political Studies “Strategy”‘. The house is closed to the public, but when they have a spare moment, the employees are happy to take visitors around the building. Occasionally, there are films shot in the mansion.
Boris Balantsev, an employee at “Strategy” said that his organisation had been given a 49-year lease to the building in 1993 conditional upon “Strategy” repairing it after various fires and bombing had ruined it. They learned that it was Shekhtel’s house only when they started the repairs. Shortly thereafter the house was placed on the federal register of important monuments, and it became clear that they couldn’t merely repair the house – they had to restore it. This, of course, required a quantum jump in time and money. “Strategy” is a good tenant; in 2004, they were honoured with an award for best restoration. But they still haven’t been able to agree on changes in terms in the lease. The outstanding architect had built a house for himself, but the state stubbornly insists that it is an office building. And they demand 1.3 million roubles in rent every month. The government needs to answer the question: do they want to save the monument, or do they only want money?
“During the restoration, we discovered an icon,” said Balantsev. “We still don’t know if this is a Shekhtel family icon or not. Then we had the idea to create a socio-cultural centre in Shekhtel’s name. It is unfair that Moscow’s own architect has no museum for him. We came up with a concept, but we still have received no response from the authorities.”