Historical Homes: Deliberate Decay, Neglect and Looting

Photo by Andreea Ilie

The Niculescu-Dorobanțu Residence

Have you ever been on a tour of historical houses where some participants shout ‘murderers’? Where the rest nod, approvingly? Have you ever been on a tour where the guide leaves questions unanswered, not out of ignorance, but because the authorities responsible with cultural preservation have left many questions -pertaining not just to curiosity, but to common sense- unanswered? Have you ever explored buildings of international, national and cultural significance, without being allowed to go inside any of them, as they’re locked shut and left to rot by the authorities, whose financial interests are often best served if these properties collapse altogether?

When learning about the ways in which the Romanian government has dealt with the wonderful homes of key historical figures that helped shape this country, I, too, am here to call murder. I do so figuratively, of course, although to anyone with a love of cultural and architectural preservation, the story I am about to tell could give quite a literal meaning to the word.  I aim to explain why that is, in a language of international circulation, in the hopes of accessing a wider readership; I draw on the research of local architects and historians, for pertinent, demonstrable information on the subject, but also to shed more light on their work. This is not done to shame my country, as many would often think is the case when deciding to sweep these matters under the rug instead of addressing them publicly. My intention is to expose, educate and hopefully motivate people to take action. If shame, resentment or anger are to precede or even fuel those, then so be it.

Photo by Andreea Ilie


A distinguished and elegant mansion that towers over the General George Manu street in Bucharest, the former residence of the Niculescu-Dorobanțu family can easily be raise to the rank of a small castle.  Shaped like a rhombus and built on a high stone base, the building boasts architectural and decorative elements, such as windows and terraces adorned with fretwork-like patterns, gargoyles, towers, cornices and a tasteful interplay between sculpted stone and brick. With its ample, stained glass windows, and the French neo-Gothic stone-carved mullions, this imposing early 20th century residence has been listed as a cultural monument since 1955.

That is its northern façade, though. The building itself is at risk of collapsing.

Ilie Niculescu-Dorobanțu and his wife, Tatiana Niculescu Dorobantu, former Brătianu, in Venice.
Image from http://arhitectura-1906.ro/2015/07/resedinta-ilie-i-niculescu-dorobantu-monument-istoric/

Each member of the Brătianu family favoured an architect of their time, and entrusted them with building their family homes. For Tațiana Niculescu-Dorobanțu -daughter of Ion C. Brătianu, a key political figure of the late 19th century- that architect was Grigore Cerkez. On May 14, 1910, the building plans for the house on 9 Verde Street were submitted for authorization. Construction work took place between 1910 and 1923, as it was revealed from the family correspondence. From the letters exchanged by the Brătianu sisters during that time, we can find a few details on the construction of the Niculescu-Dorobanțu family residence. In a letter dated May 9th, 1910, Taţiana writes to her sister Măriuţa Pillat, who lived in Paris at the time: “I can’t say for sure, yet, but I think we will have a very beautiful home in a Louis XII style, with sculpted stone and a brick façade”

It is almost unbelievable that a building of such beauty and cultural importance would be abandoned, left to decay.  Still, an air of gloom seems to linger over every aspect of the buildings that once housed members of the Brătianu family; challenges were encountered at every step, from the choice of architect, to their style and interior decoration, to their subsequent uses.  It’s little wonder, then, that while each of the Brătianu family residences has a story that demands to be told, these snippets of national history are as charming as they are sad, with the contribution made by members of this family to the development of culture and architecture remaining severely underappreciated over the years.

Building plans.
Images from http://arhitectura-1906.ro/2015/07/resedinta-ilie-i-niculescu-dorobantu-monument-istoric/

The Niculescu-Dorobanțu family was to reside, according to Cerkez’s plans, in a building with 2, 3 and 4 floors, a large surrounding wall, covering an area of 668,29 square meters. The shape of the residence was irregular. The semi-basement included a summer living room and an office, a kitchen, a cellar, a pantry and the servants quarters. On the side that faced the street, on the ground floor, there was a lobby, a study and a large hall; facing the garden, there was a salon, a floral room and a living room, a pantry, the servants quarters and a bathroom. Stained-glass windows lit the vestibule on the ground floor, which was decorated with sculptures and had two staircases, that allowed for more space in the area. On the first floor, to the street, there was a study room and library, as well as a salon with large, neo-Gothic windows; towards the garden, there were the owners’ sleeping chambers, a shared bathroom and access to the terrace from both rooms. The lady’s chamber led into the child’s bedroom, then came the room of the governess, a bathroom and the service stairs.

Left to right: Southern facade. The hall of honour.
Images from http://arhitectura-1906.ro/2015/07/resedinta-ilie-i-niculescu-dorobantu-monument-istoric/

When designing the interior of their home, Tațiana opted for carpets and other Romanian traditional decorative objects, but particularly favoured pieces of furniture found in antique shops in Paris, Munich or Spain. The family wanted to include aspects of medieval architecture and design in their residence, so a lot of time was spent at auction houses across Europe, looking for the perfect elements of medieval interiors-often sold as whole rooms at the time, along with the castles and medieval residences they belonged to. An impressive collection of furniture and decorative elements was thus acquired, with tapestries, trinkets and statues adorning the family’s Bucharest home.

Left to right: Interior. North facade.
Images from http://arhitectura-1906.ro/2015/07/resedinta-ilie-i-niculescu-dorobantu-monument-istoric/

While on her annual spa treatment at Karlsbad (or Karlovy Vary, in today’s Czech Republic) in August 1911, after which she was to travel to Munich and Paris, Tațiana asks her sister Sabina for some addresses of antique dealers. On September 3, 1911, she writes from Munich: “I’ve visited the antique dealers but they have nothing for me, that is, for the style of the palace, which is French-Gothic and already has fine sculptures. I found two chests at Gregor’s, but they can’t be compared to Ionel’s, they mostly come from homes. At Böhler’s, where I found very beautiful things, especially in the Renaissance style, I also saw two beautiful Gothic chests, one with paintings and sculptures, and the other only with sculptures, each worth 2.500 marks. At Holbing’s, I only found saints. He gave me the address of the Hess House, which he sells as a whole, and it includes a whole Gothic chamber (…) I am sorry I’m not here with you as well, as you have a stronger influence than I do, I’m not very daring”

A year later, on November 7, 1912, Taţiana writes to her sister Măriuţa about decorating “the salon and Nicol’s study, as the living room and the buffet are done. It’s only a month from now before the part of the house where we are currently living is finally ready. I won’t even tell you about the other one. I trust I’ll have it ready by the summer or the fall. We’re only moving into our room tomorrow, so that I can set up Ion’s”. A month later, Taţiana informs her sister that “the chauffeur is here, but there’s no new development in my new house. It seems that the workers have all fallen asleep and the architect has joined them’. On February 8, 1913, Taţiana complains: “There is no progress whatsoever in the building of our home, having been left exactly as we found it upon our arrival here”

In another letter from September 25, 1913, Taţiana writes to Sabina: “I can’t even begin to tell you about the castles on the Loire, I am blinded by so many beauties and I am so proud to realise that, without any possible comparison to these, my house is very beautiful. Unfortunately, because of the narrow street it’s on, the palace seems cramped”.  

Interiors.
Images from: http://arhitectura-1906.ro/2015/07/resedinta-ilie-i-niculescu-dorobantu-monument-istoric/

In the pictures of the Niculescu-Dorobanțu residence below, taken in 1939, we can see the salons, the study, the living room, all designed for viewings, and all fitting testaments to Tațiana’s good taste. She wanted everything to be perfect, and as she told her friends: “I will show you a certain room only when it’s completely furnished”

Tațiana died on November 12, 1940, at the age of 70, two days after a 7.4 magnitude earthquake hit Romania, severely damaging their home.

Interiors.
Images from http://arhitectura-1906.ro/2015/07/resedinta-ilie-i-niculescu-dorobantu-monument-istoric/
Interiors.
Images from http://arhitectura-1906.ro/2015/07/resedinta-ilie-i-niculescu-dorobantu-monument-istoric/

Unfortunately, from the correspondence between Ilie I. Niculescu-Dorobanțu and his grandson, Nicolae Pillat, in 1941, we learn that the former was forced to move to the servants quarters, after the earthquake damage left his own rooms uninhabitable. He writes, ‘I’m still living here, in a semi-basement flat I’ve set up for myself. I couldn’t live upstairs anymore, as the bedroom ceiling has been destroyed by the earthquake, and the wall facing the garden is about to collapse, as it is inclined between five and eight centimeters. The house has been severely affected by the earthquake”.

Following Niculescu-Dorobanțu’s death in 1943 and according to the terms of his will, the building became the Ion C. Brătianu Institution, and was to be turned into The Ilie, Tațiana and Ion Niculescu-Dorobanțu Museum. The couple had no living heir, as their only son, Ion, had died in 1922, at the age of 21. According to George Marinescu, the director of the Ion C. Brătianu Institution, speaking at the funeral of the building’s last owner on November 11, 1943, it ‘was to receive sufficient funding to start and maintain the museum, which is meant to collect the memories of the family and other acquisitions made by external parties’

The building was to suffer from a number of modifications from then on that led to its decay, while its ample furnishings and decorations, I can only assume, were looted over time, as no mention remains of them- and as it is the case with many historical properties that have withstood the test of the communist rule, officially installed in Romania from 1947 to 1989 (and one that, some would argue, with minor modifications in nomenclature and leadership, is yet to leave).

Between 1948-1957, after its nationalization by the communist regime, the building served as a canteen for the employees of the Ministry of Metallurgical Industry and Machine Building. In 1956, the building was included in the patrimony of the Ministry of Culture and Education, following demands made by the Direction of Historical Monuments. The latter maintained that the building was one of the most valuable in Bucharest, due to its great architectural and artistic worth. This transition facilitated consolidation work on the foundation and some interior decoration, to create the necessary conditions for the good development of theoretical education and specialized instruction- as from 1958, both the Spiru Haret and the Niculescu-Dorobanțu houses were turned into a school of choreography. Three hundred students regularly shook their floorboards, with minimal restoration to be done thereafter.

Left to right: Hall of honour. Choreography school in the 1960s.
Images from http://arhitectura-1906.ro/2015/07/resedinta-ilie-i-niculescu-dorobantu-monument-istoric/

In 1988, engineers A. Bortnowschi and M. Mironescu wrote a memorandum warning of structural changes that they had detected to the south of the Niculescu-Dorobanțu building, with fissures, cracks, dislocations, inclinations, broken lintels and rotten rafters that resulted from constant exposure to high humidity and lack of appropriate consolidation over the years.  The engineers suggested structural and resistance interventions on the building’s foundation, as well as on the ground and the first floor, both indoor and outdoor. Thirty-one years later, and these are yet to be done.

In 2014, the Spiru Haret House next door- the home of a key historical figure of the late 19th-early 20th century, who effectively built the modern Romanian education system- was demolished. Above it, an unsightly, cubical, red building of eight floors further weakened the Niculescu-Dorobanțu residence’s structural integrity.

The Niculescu-Dorobanțu building is now a Class A historical monument, of national and international importance. It lays empty, after the state, through certain means of its own, somehow managed to sell it, transferring it from state to private property. It has been listed at a starting price of 4. 5 million euro by Artmark Historical Estate, awaiting its buyer.

The tour guide wasn’t able to tell us how all of this could be done, legally. There is no investigation that I could find that was carried on the matter and made public, and I could tell that the guide- a historian herself and a regular contributor to Artmark Historical Estate publications- didn’t want to discuss it further. She motioned towards the boulevard, and urged us to carry on with our tour- we wouldn’t want it to get too late, would we? Someone then called ‘murderers’, and the rest of us settled for no further explanation; it wasn’t needed, yet it would have been nice, reassuring actually, to know there is one.

The fact of the matter is that anything’s possible in a corrupt country led by a greedy government with bottomless pockets. We now know it, yet I can’t say we are used to it- at least, not we the ones who have opted out of the exodus that has Romania ranked second after Syria in the number of people leaving the country each year. We may have stubbornly insisted to stay, yes, but we have not agreed to the terms and conditions imposed by a populist government that draws its influence from regions more easterly than we’re comfortable with. After the fall of the communist regime in 1989, we continued to be plagued by a ruling party that has no knowledge and hence, no respect, for culture. Not unlike its predecessors, not unlike its muse.

If enough money were to be raised to buy this building, and many like it that have obscurely fallen into the hands of private individuals-whose identity remains as much of a mystery as the processes that allowed them to acquire elements of national and international cultural heritage- they could be turned into public spaces for cultural and historical development. This country and its cultural heritage could then, finally, be returned to the people who have been committed to its progress- both here and abroad, both now and echoing from the pages of a troubled history.  

References:

Cultură I.C. Brătianu, culturabratianu.ro/ro/section/parte_neamul_bratienilor.

“Pericol Public!” Dilema Veche, dilemaveche.ro/sectiune/bordeie-si-obiceie/articol/pericol-public.

“Reședința Ilie I. Niculescu-Dorobanțu, Monument Istoric.” Arhitectura 1906, 9 July 2015, arhitectura-1906.ro/2015/07/resedinta-ilie-i-niculescu-dorobantu-monument-istoric/.