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Stories behind some of the old buildings of Kyiv
There are quite a few buildings of this sort in Kyiv, most of them dating from the nineteenth or early twentieth century. Each of them has a story or stories attached to them, mostly romantic, some bizarre, and some with a touch of supernatural. Tourist itineraries are dotted with such buildings. We’ll visit some of them.
Olena KRUSHYNSKA did some research into the history of several buildings in Kyiv which stand out from the crowds of other buildings around them because of their unusual architecture, or thanks to some of their features, either imaginary or real, which make them “different.”
Castle of Richard the Lionheart
They say that it was the prominent writer Viktor Nekrasov who called the building in the pseudo-Gothic style at 15 Andriyivsky Uzviz, a couple of hundred yards down from the Church of St Andrew, “Castle of Richard Coeur de Lion,” after the twelfth century English king, one of the leaders of the Third Crusade, and a romantic figure of chivalry and bravery.
Like any decent castle, Richard’s Castle in one of the most picturesque streets of Kyiv which winds its way down the steep incline from the upper town to the low-lying part of Kyiv called Podil, was reported to be haunted by ghosts.
It was built in 1902–1904 for Dmytro Orlov who invested his money into this building hoping he would be able to rent apartments to tenants in it at a considerable profit. The design was said to have been provided by the Academician Robert Marfeld, an architect from St Petersburg, Russia. In 1911, Orlov was shot and killed but neither his murderer nor the reasons that could have led to the murder were discovered. His widow sold the house to pay debts. The new landlord rented out the apartments but soon tenants began moving out claiming the house was haunted by the ghost of the former landlord who kept making scary noises. Creaking, howling and mysterious voices murmuring at night were reported to have been heard in various parts of the building and it seemed that there must have been a whole gang of spooks rather than one. The reputation of a haunted house was bad for business; the neighbours also complained. One of the tenants of the castle, Professor of History at the Kyiv Religious Academy Stepan Holubev, liked the place where he lived but did not like the mysterious noises which were particularly loud on windy days and during thunderstorms. He took it upon himself to investigate the source of the noises and of howling. He did discover a very materialistic explanation — in some of the chimneys and ventilation ducts pieces of construction rubble that had been left there and not removed later as they should have been, were partially obstructing the passage of air and smoke and thus were responsible for producing the mysterious sounds which the superstitious ascribed to ghosts.
The hill on which the building stands offers a breathtaking view of Podil and of the Dnipro River, and it became a popular hanging-out spot among Kyivans with bohemian and romantic inclinations in the late 1960s. The tenants did not complain of any supernatural happenings either. In the early 1990s, the tenants had to move to other apartments elsewhere in the city since the building was to be overhauled. The house was boarded up and a fence was put around it. Later, an attempt was made to turn it into a multi-star hotel but evidently the plan fell through and The Castle of Richard the Lionheart remains empty of any occupation. At night, it looks somewhat sinister with no lights in its windows, but it does not scare people off who take walks there or who come to spend an evening in many of the cafes in Andriyivsky Uzviz.
The prominent Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov who was born and educated in Kyiv, spent his childhood and young years with his family who lived in the building at 13 Andriyivsky Uzviz, another couple of hundred yards down the steep street. Bulgakov is mostly known for his novel Master and Margarita, which tells a story of a persecuted writer who wrote a story about Jesus Christ, of his lady friend and of a visit of Satan to Moscow of the early 1930s when the country was in the stifling grip of Stalin’s dictatorship. Bulgakov’s earlier novel and a play based on it, The White Guard, deals with the events of the late 1910s; the action takes place in Kyiv in 1918 when civil war was raging in Ukraine. The author put his protagonists into the apartment where he himself once lived, and his vivid description of Kyiv of those times makes the novel an exciting reading. Bulgakov refers to Kyiv not by its name but by calling it invariably “The City,” with the “C” capitalized.
Bulgakov’s apartment has been turned into a museum, furnished in the style of the early twentieth century. The soviet authorities suppressed Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita for several decades after it had been written in the late 1930s. When finally this novel was published in 1967, serialized in a magazine, Bulgakov became a cult figure among certain circles of Russian and Ukrainian intellectuals, and remains to be widely read and highly admired.
The building at 1 Yaroslaviv Val Street in the very centre of Kyiv is another example of the pseudo-Gothic style in Kyiv, complete with a spire. The entrance is guarded by winged monsters but it’s the uniformed guards rather than these monsters who will actually prevent you from entering if you happen to be a casual tourist.
Some of the guide books claim that this building was owned or lived in by Baron Shteingel, but it seems this baron had nothing to do with this “castle” as it is often referred to. The available documentary evidence suggests that the building was built in 1896–1898 and later was owned first by Mykhailo Podhorsky, a landowner, and then still later by Lev Brodsky, the “sugar” magnate. Baron Magnus Karl Oleksandr Shteingel did live in the same street but next door to the castle ascribed to him, at 3 Yaroslaviv Val (at present this building houses the Embassy of the Republic of India). Baron Shteingel owned vineyards and distilleries and made a fortune selling wine.
Some of the evidence recently discovered in the archives by the historian Mykhailo Kalnytsky, points to the engineer and architect Mykola Dobachevsky as the actual author of the design. Curiously enough, Dobachevsky was one of the many engineers who were engaged in building the Panama Canal.
Building with cats and owls
Among the buildings with unusual architectural decorations there is one at 23 Hoholivska Street with stucco cats and owls adorning its facade. The building was built in the early twentieth century in the style known as “art nouveau” or “modern” which was prevalent at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in many European countries. This “building with cats” was designed by the architect Volodymyr Bezsmertny who had under his control the construction work in the Kyiv Huberniya (province) in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Though there was probably no particular reason for the images of cats and owls to be put on the facade except for purely decorative considerations, these cats and birds generated all kinds of stories attempting to explain them.
Lion and snakes
The building at 33 Honchar Street has a lion made of concrete sitting on its roof. It was built in 1907 according to the design provided by Ignatsiy Ledukhovsky; statuary and stucco work was done by Fedir Sokolov, the sculptor who had collaborated with the Italian sculptor Elia Scala, the one who was regularly commissioned by the famous architect Horodetsky to do the decorative work on the buildings Horodetsky designed.
The building at 33 Honchar Street housed a private clinic of Petro Kachkovsky, associate professor of St Volodymyr University in Kyiv who was widely known as a doctor of a superb medical talent. After his untimely death in 1907, the clinic was headed by Ihnatiy Mayakovsky who introduced the surgical specialization into it. He made his clinic an advanced medical institution installing sophisticated equipment. In 1911, it was to Mayakovsky’s clinic that the Russian Prime Minister Pavel Stolypin was rushed after he had been mortally wounded by an assassin at the Opera House in the august presence of the Russian Tsar Nicholas II.
Some of the decorations on the facade of the building suggest certain symbolism: snakes hint at medicine; sirens with hairdos typical of the early twentieth century are of unclear symbolism if any, and the lilies are definitely symbols of purity.
In much more recent times, this building housed the headquarters of the People’s Movement of Ukraine whose activities contributed a lot to raising the national awareness in Ukraine in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and thus to the attainment of independence.
On the facade of the building at 23 Lyuteranska Street that dates from the year 1907 (designed by architect Eduard Bradtman in the then prevalent “modern” style), we can see a sculptural image of a woman who looks as though she was crying. When it rains, this impression is enhanced by rivulets of rain water streaming down the stone cheeks. The weeping face gave rise to all kinds of stories explaining the sad image. The house was built for the 2nd-guild merchant Serhiy Arshavsky whose family was known for its orderly and peaceful life. What was the intention of the designer of the weeping face remains a mystery.
Stone garlands, leaves and small faces of lions grace the facade of the building at 17/2 Shovkovychna Street which has been traditionally referred to as “the chocolate house” — it is painted in the dark-brown colour which does give the facade a chocolate look. The decorative elements only enhance this chocolate association. The house used to be owned in a succession by a general, a baroness, and a merchant, and after the revolution of 1917 and massive nationalization, another succession of tenants made up of ministers, politicians and scientists had their residence behind the chocolate walls. In the 1960s–1980s the building housed the Central Marriage Registry Office where marriages were legally certified by government officials who officiated at the solemn ceremonies accompanied by the appropriate music wearing long velvet dark-red robes and wishing the newly-weds happiness in married life. It so happened that the author’s parents were also happily married at the chocolate house.
The stone faces of the dogs that can be seen doting the second floor are said to have been commissioned by the timber merchant Semen Mohylyovtsev, one of the owners of the house in the early twentieth century, who was known as a great enthusiast of hunting.
Room in memory of a meeting that led to marriage
The mansion at 1/15 Pylyp Orlyk Street is decorated with cats’ faces some of which are said to bear resemblance to the architect and designer Pavlo Alyoshyn who built this house in 1911–1913 for the nobleman Mykola Kovalevsky. One of the rooms was said to have been designed to look like a compartment of a luxury railroad car. It was rumoured that Kovalevsky met his future wife Halyna on a train. Kovalevsky loved his wife dearly and the compartment-like room furnished appropriately down to the light fixtures, was to remind him of the happy meeting that eventually led to marriage.
From the Feast of Sukkoth to the Writers Union
The ornate mansion at 2 Bankova Street, situated not far from the totalitarian-style building that used to house the central committee of the communist party of Ukraine and now houses the Administration of the President of Ukraine, was built in 1898. The mansion was owned by the industrialist Symkha Liberman. One of the rooms was designed in such a manner that the owner of the house could observe the Jewish religious festival Sukkoth which commemorates the temporary shelters used by the Jews during their wandering in the wilderness, and meet all the Sukkoth requirements without going out.
In the soviet times no one observed the Jewish religious feasts in that building — it was given to the Union of Writers of Soviet Ukraine who had other things on their mind.
The author would like to express her thanks to Dmytro Lavrov, Dmytro Malakov, Mykhailo Kalnytsky and Leonora Rakhlina, all of them enthusiasts of Kyiv’s history and lore, for contributing to this report.
Photos by the author
Mikhail Bulgakov, the author
The building at 1 Yaroslaviv Val Street.
The facade of the “building with cats”
The industrialist Lev Brodsky, “the sugar king,”
The building at 33 Honchar Street that used
The “delicious” decorations on the “chocolate
A woman’s face on the facade
Architect Pavlo Alyoshyn.
The building at 2 Bankova Street, built in 1898,
The facade of the building that used to belong