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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Architect Returns to Renovated '50s Masterpiece

When retired architect Yakov Zhislin made a recent visit to the restaurant Le Gastronome, his eye was on more than the menu.


Zhislin, now 80, designed the original gastronom or food store, housed in the Stalinist skyscraper on Kudrinskaya Ploshchad. Surveying the elegant space 45 years later, he found just one fault with the renovation: the brightly colored primitivist mural along the wall of the bar. Other than that, he said, "I think it works beautifully."


Zhislin's positive verdict of Le Gastronome is no accident, for much of the design stems from his own vision. When Stolny Grad developers refurbished the restaurant, they were obliged, under the city's stringent policy of preservation, to maintain the building's historic fabric. But keeping as much of the original design as possible was their choice, said Stolny Grad partner Konstantin Gusakov, and is a tribute to Zhislin's work.


"We simply brushed the dust off his masterpiece," Gusakov said, nodding deferentially to Zhislin.


In the early 1950s, under the ultimate direction of Stalin, Zhislin was commissioned to design four gastronomy in each of the skyscraper's four corners -- each store would sell something different: fish, meat, bread, dairy products. The design was to take its cue from elegant food shops like the opulent turn-of-the-century Yeliseyev store on Tverskaya Ulitsa.


"They were to look like palaces with all the marble and details," said Zhislin. Like the metro system, these food stores were to be "palaces for the people," who were used to food stores in horrible conditions.


"The design, in part, looked to the Italian Renaissance," Zhislin said. "The wall mosaics were based on Florentine models," he added, gesturing to the red and white inlaid marble.


Today, Le Gastronome uses these features to create an elegant space enclosed by colossal columns on one side and floor-to-ceiling arched windows on the other. Viennese chairs surround tables clad in white tablecloths placed where customers once mulled their purchases. The Empire-style booths that previously served as the food shop's kassa, or cashier, now house a telephone booth on one side and a service entrance for the restaurant's outdoor seating on the opposite side.


Even the stained glass was refurbished, so now diners can admire the original aquatic theme as they linger over their salmon fillet. The new design keeps some of the gastronom's original shelving and adds additional cabinetwork in a nod to the store's original displays.


The decorative gilding and chandeliers, too, were laboriously restored. And with the addition of dimmer switches the lighting no longer serves to illuminate the freshness of sundry victuals, but casts a complimentary light on one's dining companions.


"The project would have been much cheaper if we had used new fixtures," said Gusakov of Stolny Grad. "But we wanted to keep the original splendor."


When a shopper entered the original gastronom the initial enfilade was a bright, almost surgical space where the store's fish tanks stood. Today it no longer has the look of a laboratory, but is a cozy enclave that serves as the restaurant's bar. A lobster tank now stands where eager customers used to queue in front of the fish tank.


The restaurant's most impressive interpretation of the building's past hangs over the bar itself. A contemporary painting depicts the building as it might have looked in the 1950s -- couples stroll in front of the building in the idealized pastel hues that were characteristic of Socialist Realism, Stalin's romanticized aesthetic policy. The size of the painting, however, was dictated by that of the original sign describing the store's offerings, not the young artist's sentimental conception of yesteryear, according to Gusakov.


As for the primitivist mural that struck Zhislin as incongruous with the rest of the decor, Gusakov said, "The idea was to make the space eclectic."


But overall Zhislin was pleased with the reinterpretation of his original design. "It was one of my favorite gastronoms and I think this is the proper approach -- there is a happy life here now," said Zhislin, remembering recent years when the store stood closed, collecting dust. "I admire how the new design is built around the original concept, keeping Moscow's architectural heritage."