A Building's Restoration May End in Its Loss

For MT
It stands like a victory for Moscow architectural preservationists who have witnessed the disappearance of so many historic buildings in recent years.

Just off the Arbat on Denezhny Pereulok is Dom Polivanova, one of the oldest wooden buildings in the city, immaculately restored after teetering half destroyed for years.

But now, if the federal government gets its way, the company that spent $6 million on the restoration will have the building taken from it and given back to the previous owners -- the people who let it fall apart in the first place.

Dom Polivanova, a small, two-story building with a mezzanine, dates from 1822-23. It was built on a burned-out lot a decade after the great fire that destroyed much of the city in 1812, ridding it of Napoleon and La Grande Armee in the process.

Ironically, it was a fire almost 180 years later that led to its restoration.

Considered one of the finest surviving examples of Empire style, the house, although made of wood, is painted in the fashion of the time to look like it is built from stone.

"Wooden buildings for Russians are more comfortable than stone," the then-English Ambassador Giles Fletcher wrote in the 16th century, as life in the stone buildings tended to be "damper and cooler than in wooden."

During his 17th-century rule, Tsar Alexei I is said to have preferred living in the wooden palace at Kolomenskoye to staying in the Kremlin's stone palaces.

Dom Polivanova attracted some pretty big names of its own, with Alexander Pushkin -- that most peripatetic of Russian poets said to have popped in occasionally on its former owner, another poet named Stepan Zhikharev.

Igor Tabakov / MT
Photos showing Dom Polivanova before and after the building's renovation.
In the Communist era, the building was given to the Soviet Union Chess Society. After 1991, its post-Soviet successor failed to look after the building and was ultimately evicted by the city's architectural-heritage body.

A fire had destroyed much of the building, leaving a hole in the roof through which the rain and snow poured.

"It was terrible," said preservationist Alexei Klimenko. "There was practically nothing left."

The city then gave the building to Energosistemy. The company did nothing with the building at first because it didn't have money for restoration, said Oleg Tsalabenok, the head of Energosistemy.

Tsalabenok dodged a question about the company's line of business at the time, saying only "we're in restoration now."

In 2004, Moskva, Kotoroi Nyet, or "The Moscow That Is No More," a group that was trying to save the city's old buildings, held a demonstration in front of the ruined structure, gathering signatures and demanding that it be saved.

Coincidentally or not, it was then that Energosistemy found the money and, to the surprise of many, pulled off one of the best restoration jobs the city had seen in the last 10 years.

"We got involved and spent a lot of money," Tsalabenok said, adding proudly that the company had even retained the building's original ceramic stoves.

"It is a good restoration," said Yulia Mezentseva, of The Moscow That is No More.

The Moscow Heritage Committee, which had signed a deal with Energosistemy allowing it to rent the building if it completed the restoration, certified the work without any complaints, a rare event in Moscow.

As the federal government became more aggressive in ongoing battles over control of a number of federally listed buildings, Dom Polivanova was one of the sites that drew its attention.

Energosistemy received a letter last month from the federal agency formed to look after listed buildings, informing the company that it had until Jan. 28 to vacate the premises. The agency, along with the Federal Property Management Agency and the chess federation, had gone to court over the building, Tsalabenok said.

The court's decision even ordered Energosistemy to pay for any damage done.

"Have you seen the building," said Tsalabenok, "And we have to pay damages too."

He said his company had not left and would fight to stay in court; a fight that preservationists think Energosistemy should rightfully win.

"They did a quality restoration," said Natalya Loginova, a spokeswoman for the Moscow Heritage Committee. "It would not be fair to throw them out."

The agency did not return calls for comment on Wednesday.

The decision has horrified preservationists.

Mezentseva says the decision sends a clear, negative message to anyone thinking about trying to preserve the city's heritage.

"It is better to just demolish a historical building," she said. "No one gets punished for knocking them down."