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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Who'll Save the Houses?

In the midst of Moscow's unrelenting 20th-century growth, Soviet and post-Soviet, it is increasingly difficult to recognize that the city contains some of the greatest neoclassical architecture in Russia. To be sure, a few masterpieces appear to be reasonably maintained: the Pashkov House, now part of the State Library; the Sheremetev Refuge, now the Sklifosovsky Institute; and the Ivan Demidov house, the Geodesic Institute. While these monuments seem to be holding their own against urban pollution and development, far more numerous in central Moscow are examples of neoclassical houses is a state of disrepair.

Some of these houses miraculously survived the 1812 fire, while others were rebuilt in the 1810s and 1820s. Although their exterior may seem sound, the interiors show the effects of inadequate maintenance. This has led in some cases to irreversible damage of exquisite wall paintings, particularly floral patterns whose colors seem beyond the range of the contemporary palette.

One of the saddest examples of neglect is the former Gubin house, opposite the Vysoko-Petrovsky Monastery on Petrovka Street. There is some evidence that this masterpiece by the greatest of Moscow's neoclassicists, Matvei Kazakov, is being restored; but will it be used in ways that return this beautiful structure to a place of pride in Moscow's historic culture?

Whatever the ultimate answer to that question, there are many other such landmarks that Muscovites pass without notice every day. The former Talyzin mansion, an elegant late 18th-century townhouse located next to the looming Russian State Library, is nominally part of the Shchusev Museum of Architecture. But the drastic reduction of funding for such institutions has left the museum with smaller quarters in the back courtyard, while the main house produces revenue by renting space to furniture and art showrooms.

In some cases a successful, if tenuous, adaptation has occurred. On Kozitsky Lane, around the corner form the Eliseyev Store on Tverskaya, one can see a superb example of a Moscow villa from the end of the 18th century. Known to architectural historians as the Lobkova house, the residence now contains the Russian Institute of Art History, whose director, Aleksei Komech, has made restoration of the house one of his priorities. This involves almost superhuman efforts because, as he explained to me, the state allocation for this institute is hardly sufficient to pay minimal salaries for those who work there. This institute, however, has been able to find other resources through cooperation with private entities and through programs such as a series of recitals and chamber music concerts in the main hall.

In most cases we have little detailed information on the original owners of these neoclassical Moscow mansions; yet each house has its history, and in the twentieth century most of them underwent the radical changes experienced by Russian society as a whole. During the 1920s and '30s, some were converted into communal apartments, with several families on each floor and extensive damage to what remained of the interior design. A few of them were made available to foreign embassies, although most ambassadorial residences are in mansions built for the wealthy of a later era, at the turn of this century.

Almost all of the neoclassical houses eventually contained various institutes, some of which were inappropriate for this type of structure. Only in rare instances were monumental residences converted to museums that allowed the preservation of their artistic treasures. The two most prominent examples are the palaces at Ostankino and Kuskovo, both located in parks beyond the boundaries of the 18-century city.

Yet, a location beyond the urban crowd has provided no guarantee of preservation for Moscow's landmark villas of the neoclassical era, a number of which now fall within the city limits. One of the most remarkable of these mansions is located on the former Durasov estate at Lyublino. Built in 1801 by Ivan Yegotov, the mansion was designed in the cruciform shape of the Order of St. Anne, which had been awarded to a proud Nikolai Durasov not long before.

When I first saw the mansion, in the spring of 1980, its superb wall and ceiling paintings were in relatively good condition. A film crew had recently been at work on a costume drama, but the main tenant of the premises was a marine design bureau whose drafting tables and suspended lamps filled a wing of the house with surreal industry. When I returned in the fall of 1992, the design bureau was there, but hard economic times had put nerves on edge. The halls seemed shabbier and more cluttered than before.

This past August I returned to visit friends who live in the Lyublino area, now more accessible by a new metro line. The park seemed completely overgrown, and had it not been for the Russian colleague with me, I would have missed the Lyublino villa. As I approached I saw that all its great windows had been covered with sheet metal. The house stood empty, and in the groves around it, a few homeless people camped. This scene, in fading summer light, was both idyllic and unsettling, in the manner of a painting by Viktor Borisov-Musatov.

What will become of this masterpiece, now sealed off from its surroundings? In a city awash with money, who will rescue these abandoned mansions, and when? And at what cost?

William Brumfield, professor of Russian at Tulane University in New Orleans, is the author and photographer of several books on Russian architecture. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.