St. Petersburg hates change Survivor: Having survived Hitler and the Bolshevik Revolution, St. Petersburg's beautiful cathedrals, imperial palaces and mansions face another threat: democracy and rampant capitalism.

Sun Journal

March 10, 1997|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- This is Russia's imperial city, where the Romanovs lived 200 years of extravagance.

Evening shadows beneath a long, mustard-colored arcade conjure Raskolnikov's tortured skulk from crime to punishment. At any of a hundred carved mansion doors, Anna Karenina could be stepping out into a lace of winter snowfall, hat brim pulled low for a secret rendezvous with Vronsky.

St. Petersburg is known for the treasures kept in the Romanovs' restored gilt palaces; the Hermitage and the winter and summer palaces offer imperial life under glass. But the most enduring treasure is the city itself. And urban planners and architects are watching what mark democracy and a free-market economy will make on a city that is a real estate developer's dream.

The 15,000 pre-revolutionary cathedrals, theaters, mansions and apartment houses clustered in the central city make up what may be the largest intact district of 18th and 19th century buildings in Europe.

Granted, the effects of the Bolshevik Revolution, the Soviet system, Nazi bombing and time have taken their toll. But no skyscrapers jut above the street-scapes of ornate facades of three- to five-story buildings. What a modern visitor sees is largely the same exterior that Catherine the Great, Pushkin, Tolstoy and Lenin beheld in their time.

Now officials here are hoping that the free market -- tempered by this city's strong preservation law -- will save the crumbling building stock.

"The vast majority of buildings have not been repaired in 80 years -- so 15,000 buildings basically became old all at once," says Alexander Kobak, head of the Baltic Arts and Humanities Foundation and a member of the city's privatization committee. "Even for a country with a healthy economy this would be a big problem."

Though the Soviets destroyed many czarist-era buildings (including the destruction or conversion of 1,000 churches into factories and warehouses) they went to great expense to rebuild and restore a few gems of the czarist era that were damaged in World War II. So elaborate was the work that Russia developed a school of restoration, which revived crafts available almost nowhere else.

But with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economy, government-sponsored restoration has stopped. Preservation officials say that whatever work is performed now is thanks to private money, most of it foreign.

Any development in the city center is dictated by the city's detailed historic preservation laws. Legendarily snobbish about the culture of their 294-year-old city, natives constantly say they won't let St. Petersburg do "what Moscow did." That is, to be wildly and tastelessly overdeveloped.

St. Petersburg will permit new construction in the city center where an old building has collapsed or can't be restored, but it must fit in with pre-revolutionary styles and scale.

So attentive to detail are preservation officials that developers of a hotel were barred from copying buildings designed by Karl Rossi, the early 19th century pioneer of the Russian Empire style. The Rossi style is so revered that construction of an exact copy was deemed presumptuous. Instead, says Nikita Yavein, chairman of the committee for protection of historic monuments, the developer was requested to build "in the Rossi style, but to be more modest."

About half of the pre-revolutionary buildings -- 7,000 -- are registered as local or federal landmarks. They can be restored only to their original condition, exteriors as well as interiors, down to the doorknobs. Buildings not registered as historic landmarks may be changed, but their facades cannot be altered.

Even for the grand mansions where the Bolsheviks packed humanity into communal apartments, the regulations call for restoration of pre-revolutionary decor. This, say developers, requires something akin to an archaeological dig, with a search for original ceiling designs, wallpaper and door frames.

Restoring a 25,000-square-foot naval officers' quarters for office space, the Winsted Construction Co. had to make new plaster ceiling molds and provide new etched glass for the windows, says Alistair Burgess, head of construction and design for Atlantic Investments-Oncore International. When workers discovered a wallpaper under layers of other wallpaper, craftsmen had to be brought in to reproduce the design by

hand-painting the walls.

Though most buildings are still owned by the government, the tricky business of privatization moves ahead.

Kobak says that so far only 10 percent of all apartment residents have exercised their right to obtain title to their apartments because of kinks in the legal system. "It's not like your American condos," he says. "When several people own separate parts of a building, and the city owns the land and the roof and stairwells, it's bad for historic preservation because nothing gets done."

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