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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gloomy Mikhailovsky Castle Gets $25M Face-Lift

MTThe extensive renovation work on St. Petersburg's long-neglected Mikhailovsky Castle will not be fully completed until 2008.
ST. PETERSBURG -- Mikhailovsky Castle has always been one of the most mysterious, tragic and sadly forgotten spots in St. Petersburg. Until now, that is.

The building is best known as the site of the murder of Tsar Paul I. In fact, many still think that his ghost wanders its endless corridors. The paranoid son of Catherine the Great, Paul ordered this fortress built both because he feared that he would be assassinated and because he hated his mother so much that he refused to live in her home, the Winter Palace.

Four years in the making, the building — complete with moats and drawbridges — was completed in 1801, but Paul lived there just 40 days before his premonition came true and he was murdered by his inner circle on the night of March 11, 1801.

After Paul's murder, the royal family moved out of the new palace, considering it a place of bad fortune.

Later, the fabulous building was turned into a military engineering academy — it is still sometimes called the Engineers' Castle — and the writer Fyodor Dostoevsky studied there.

After the 1917 October Revolution, the building became state property, and housed a number of state organizations and offices.

For the last few decades, though, the run-down building has hardly been fit even for ghosts. That, however, is changing fast, now that the Russian Museum has taken over the building and adopted an ambitious renovation plan that encompasses both the interiors and exteriors of the building and the surrounding territory.

Much of the work is scheduled to be completed in time for St. Petersburg's tricentennial jubilee in 2003.

"Although the building has undergone several partial reconstructions, this is actually the first complete restoration in its entire history," said Nina Smolnikova, chief architect of the Mikhailovsky Castle.

The entire plan will not be completed until 2008, by which time 22,000 square meters of display space on the castle's four floors will be opened up to the Russian Museum. Currently, the museum is unable to show much of its collection due to lack of exhibition space.

Work is already under way. The outside of the building is being painted; its landmark spire is being re-gilded; the main staircase is being rebuilt; and all its engineering systems are being changed.

"The new facade is something that we are proud of and worry about at the same time," Smolnikova said. Historical research had great difficulty determining the building's true original color, which turned out to be a slightly orange-tinged brick color.

According to another castle legend, Paul chose this color when he saw a glove that one of his favorites had dropped on the ground. Finding and applying this unusual color of paint has proven difficult for restorers.

"It's one of the most difficult facades for restoration I have ever dealt with," said Svetlana Stepanova, head of the facade works. "Sometimes, we bring back to life only several centimeters of it a day."

The Russian Museum took control of the building in 1988 and began planning the restoration work in 1991. However, work began seriously only as the city's 300th anniversary approached and more state funding began to be allocated to renovation projects for the city's museums.

The total budget for the Mikhailovsky Castle renovation is 734.3 million rubles (about $25 million), all of which has been allocated by the federal government.

However, Smolnikova notes that as the work inside the building proceeds, new damage is uncovered, and the total cost of restoring the building will be much greater than was initially anticipated.

"Since Paul was in such a hurry to move into his new residence, the family moved in when the castle still wasn't dry enough. The building has suffered ever since from excess humidity. Therefore, the artificial marble it was made of has partially decayed, and the floors have rotted," Smolnikova said.

She said that every time they open the floors of another hall, they discover damage that wasn't originally taken into account.

"This is slowing down the work process," she said. "When the initial sum was allocated, it was an approximate figure, and we couldn't tell what the future expenses would be with complete certainty.

"We wouldn't mind outside sponsorship," Smolnikova added. "For instance, we need to restore the details on the pediment that existed during Paul's time but don't any more. It's another extra task for which money was not allocated."

Smolnikova also confessed that the restoration group worries that after 2003 the government will lose its interest in the restoration of the city, and they may not be able to get financing for further work.

"Therefore, we work without vacations, using every minute to do as much as possible before that date. A lot of other projects in the city are working this way too," she said.