Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Snapping Up Romanov Style for Peasant Prices

ST. PETERSBURG -- When Michael Rundell, an artist and interior designer in London, cast about for a second home eight years ago, he dismissed Europe's well-known capitals as too expensive and too, well, developed. Even in Barcelona, he said, "I became tired of how everything is meticulously designed there, right down to the fire hydrants."

So Rundell, like other restless urban pioneers, turned to the rundown historical center of St. Petersburg, a 298-year-old city where both architectural innovation and standard building maintenance came to a halt nearly a century ago.

Inspired by a vision of Russian aristocratic beauty -- and aided by a large pool of cheap skilled labor -- Rundell, 43, now owns four remodeled tsarist-era apartments, with plans to buy two more. He and his family spend several days a month at one of his new apartments, which overlooks the Fontanka Canal. Before the Revolution, it belonged to Modest Tchaikovsky, brother of the composer Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky.

"I wanted to go [somewhere] where there was a total absence of design, but a rich past and culture to draw from," he said. "St. Petersburg proved to be the ideal answer because it has fantastic pre-1917 architecture, and when you see these structures crumbling, you just want to rebuild them."

From as far as California and Australia they come, a new class of globe-trotting urbanites, drawn by 3.6-meter ceilings, gorgeous views and cut-rate prices. There are no official statistics on the St. Petersburg renaissance, but hundreds of foreigners have joined a new Russian elite in reviving the 65-square-kilometer historical district. Now that Soviet restrictions on foreign residents and investment are gone, anyone with $50,000 can have a piece of St. Petersburg's past. Americans are highly visible, but the newcomers also include Britons, Italians and others.

"The opportunities in St. Petersburg are enormous," said Richard Blinder of Beyer Blinder Belle, an architectural firm that worked on restoring New York's Grand Central Terminal. At a conference in St. Petersburg in June on saving historical city centers, he described St. Petersburg as having one of Europe's largest concentrations of architecturally impressive 18th- and 19th-century buildings.

The city's architecturally aware emigr?s include August Meyer, 38, who quit his job as a deputy public prosecutor in San Diego two years ago and moved here to pursue a career as real estate developer and aspiring innkeeper. He now owns six apartments in the city center and plans to rent five of them to tourists.

"Where else in the world would I have this?" he asked, gesturing out the window of a 190-square-meter apartment, bought in December for about $54,000, on the winding Griboyedov Canal. He has spent more than twice that on renovations, tearing down walls to make one 115-square-meter room and putting in parquet floors with floral patterns like those in the tsar's Winter Palace.

"The opulence you can acquire here is vastly cheaper" than in other cities, Meyer said. "I fully intend on dying here. Just think how fabulous this city will be as it develops."

Most newcomers soon discover that remodeling requires a good deal more than scraping off wallpaper and pulling up shag carpeting. During 85 years of Soviet rule, imperial apartments were converted into poorly maintained warrens. When Rundell bought his 300-square-meter apartment in 1993, two dozen people were living there, sharing two kitchens and one bathroom.

The prospective owner can take possession only after giving each tenant a cash payment or buying each one a new one-room apartment. That usually costs $35,000 to $60,000, total. But the paperwork is staggering, taking at least three months, and it is bewildering to non-Russians.

"People think that because it's so cheap to buy an apartment, it's a great deal," said Katya Galitzine, a sculptor, who is buying an apartment and is the author of "St. Petersburg: The Hidden Interiors" (Vendome Press, 1999). "But they don't understand how difficult the process can be. Still, I like the rules and the bureaucracy because it protects the city heritage."

Because of the way the apartments were chopped up in Soviet times, few original details survive. "But foreigners often want to create a palace they couldn't afford in the West, one with marble and perfect parquet floors," said Ilmar Karuso, an Australian interior designer who moved here three years ago and has half a dozen foreign clients. "Most are not interested in restoring the apartment as it used to be but prefer to gut the place and start anew."

Douglas Boyce, an American who is helping to revive the Imperial Porcelain Factory, bought a center-city apartment five years ago. He tore down the interior walls and hired a Russian designer to create three rooms with strong angles and geometries, a look he said was inspired by the Constructivist avant-garde in 1920's Russia.

Rooms that have lost their original glory can often be brought back by artisans who -- until the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union -- rebuilt palaces damaged during World War II. Rundell, for example, had no trouble commissioning things like wood doors and kitchen tiles. "The artisans I hired had been working restoring the Catherine Palace in Pushkin," he said. "They were unemployed, and I just snapped them up" -- at about a tenth the cost of skilled labor in London.

It took them four years to do four rooms, among other things creating a pair of glass doors inlaid with real butterflies, using a technique Rundell developed with Damien Hirst, the British artist.

The workers are up to the kitchen. Rundell has ordered handmade tiles with a hammer-and-sickle motif: "very 1930's and 1940's Stalinist Soviet kitsch," he said. "The tiles," he added, "will be complemented by a work surface with mosaics of other Soviet-era proletarian propaganda motifs -- tractors, airplanes, blast furnaces, Soviet flags."

While foreigners are the most conspicuous new residents in the historical district, Russians are also contributing to the renaissance. Sergei Bugayev, 35, a performance artist, has turned his three-bedroom apartment into a showcase for his vast collection of 19th-century rural furniture and Soviet kitsch. He has also installed new furnishings with Soviet motifs.

Another Russian artist, Alexander Arkhipenko, 49, has an apartment inside a 12-meter tower atop an early 20th-century building. He is turning it into a triplex with views of the State Hermitage Museum and of the fortress of Peter and Paul.

A great hall on the windowless first floor of the tower has a four-foot fireplace suitable for roasting meat on a spit, and empty 18th- and 19th-century picture frames hang alongside abstract paintings by Arkhipenko. A spiral staircase climbs to the second floor, which is flooded by light from 12 windows.

"In my childhood, it was always my dream to live in a castle, and when I saw this place I knew I had to live here," Arkhipenko said.

It's not historical preservation in conventional terms, but closer to a freewheeling architectural relief effort. But with the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg just two years off, a more coordinated effort may soon begin. The Russian government has announced plans to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the city infrastructure. As some of that money finds its way into the historical center, it will meet improvement efforts by individuals who are fixing up downtown St. Petersburg, one room at a time.