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Obnecni Dum -- the Liberace of Buildings

by David Sturm

Lovers of Art Nouveau at its most flamboyant have a new pilgrimage site, Prague's newly reopened Obecni Dum (Municipal House).

The vast building dominating Namesti Republiky (Republic Square) on the edge of Old Town shed three years of scaffolding in May to emerge as the city's premier attraction of 1997 -- and likely for years to come.

Prague's unique contribution to Art Nouveau, the Obecni Dum (pronounced OH-bets-nee DOOM) is a dazzler with room after room of stained glass, botanical filigree, pastel murals, crystal chandeliers, burbling fountains and all manner of gilded lilies. Ostentatious but also showing discipline of proportion, it's the Liberace of buildings.

Commissioned by Prague City Council during a wave of intense nationalism at the turn of the century and built from 1905-11, it was a Czech thumb in the eye to the dominant German-speaking culture and politics of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Even more, it was Prague's bid for acknowledgement as a European capital on a par with what it had always considered its sister city, Paris.

A bourgeois white elephant is born

When it opened in 1911 there were as many catcalls as coos. The ethnic Germans, of course, detested it and others criticized its extravagance (it came in way over budget). Worse, Prague's young artistic community, now fervently embracing cubism and constructivism, scorned it as a bourgeois white elephant.

Nonetheless, it had been built and they came. Its restaurants, concert halls and salons were a hub of Prague's cafe society prior to World War II. After the war came a long period of decline as the communists, who also regarded it as bourgeois, relegated it to slow neglect. By the Velvet Revolution in 1989, it was a peeling, soot-filled mess.

The problems to be solved were daunting and, in fact, were too much for the first contractors hired in 1993. A shoddy renovation job was called off in a matter of months and the Czech government swallowed a $500,000 loss, ordering a new and thorough $59 million renovation project. The project was completed on schedule to permit the Prague Symphony Orchestra to open the 1997 Prague Spring Music Festival in Obecni Dum's Smetana Hall in May.

The building is now in pristine condition, restored in excruciating detail. An hour-long tour (call 2200-2100 for tour times and reservations), offered in English when there is demand, takes you through salon after salon, each seeming more exquisite than the last. Of special interest are Smetana Concert Hall, Gregr Hall with its vast allegorical mural of war, the Hall of Mayors with Alfons Mucha's patriotic frescoes and the curious black-tiled American Bar "in honor of the Czech minority living in the United States."

Visitors need no tour to check out the richly decorated below-street-level and ground floors of the building, which contain no fewer than four places to eat and drink. Few can resist the airy Kavarna immediately to the left of the main entrance, where you can have a draft Pilsner Urquell or a bottle of Czech Muller Thurgau to wash down a platter of Hungarian salami, Prague ham, spiced pork and sliced cucumbers, all the while enjoying the view through gigantic windows of a couple of acres of pedestrians in the square. There are also a posh-looking (but reasonably priced) French restaurant called Francouzske Restaurace (The French Restaurant) and an amusingly sumptuous folksy pub called Pilsen Restaurant. The street-level shops peddle Emanuel Ungaro fashions, Art Nouveau reproductions and brass musical instruments.

(Published in The Washington Post and Travel & Leisure magazine)

(c) 1994-2001 David and Chris Sturm
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