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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Peek Inside of a $280M Palace

MTThe Marble Hall in Konstantin's Palace has bluish walls and yellow marble pilasters.
STRELNYA, Northwestern Russia -- While thousands of workers toiled round the clock to prepare the crumbling Konstantin's Palace for this month's grandiose summit of world leaders, the 18th-century residence had been strictly off-limits to journalists and curious onlookers.

Now that most of the $280 million renovation has been completed, the presidential administration has proudly unveiled its masterpiece. And even skeptics have to admit that the result is breathtaking.

The bluish walls and yellow marble pilasters of the central Marble Hall, where President Vladimir Putin will host a Russia-European Union summit Saturday, give but an inkling of the imperial grandeur restored during the past year.

The coffee-and-milk-colored palace of Italian baroque, with the Russian national flag waving on top, stands prominently on a hilltop surrounded by vast green lawns, ponds and freshly planted lindens. Its northern facade overlooks the windy Gulf of Finland, connected to the palace by an intricate network of canals landscaped with drawbridges and fountains.

Few people believed that the palace -- the most neglected historical site in the dazzling "necklace" of landmarks surrounding St. Petersburg -- could be renovated in time for the celebration of the city's 300th anniversary. But Kremlin officials now tout the project as a miracle of speedy, high-quality work.

"Just 1 1/2 years ago, the 200 hectares of the park's territory were a swamp, and the palace itself was in such decay that it could have collapsed," Vladimir Kozhin, head of the presidential property department, told reporters Sunday.

The toughest part of the reconstruction was the foundations, whose ancient oak piles had rotted away in the damp ground. Securing the palace on the uneven hillside required more than a million cubic meters of sand and soil, Kozhin said.

Although most of the interior was restored using old pictures and blueprints, the palace now mingles tradition with high technology. The meeting rooms are equipped with monitors and discretely hidden booths for interpreters.

In addition to the Marble, Oval and Blue halls, the palace has 50 rooms, each one unique and some already serving as museum expositions. The decor includes impressive crystal chandeliers, painstakingly carved friezes and gilded paintings climbing up the columned walls and across the arched ceiling.

While there are some innovations -- including an oak belvedere styled as a ship's hold with a spiral staircase leading to the cupola's observation deck -- the emphasis was clearly placed on recapturing the palace's history.

One example is the grottos and re-opened wine cellar stocked only with Hungarian Tokai wines. "The wine has already arrived," Kozhin announced.

The palace, built between 1720 and 1750 as the brainchild of Peter the Great, bears the name of the son of Nicholas I who went on to become the reformer of the Russian navy.

The entire ensemble, including the grounds, will be completed in 2005, said Gennady Yavnik, head of the foundation in charge of the work. But parts of the territory will be opened to the public as early as June.

Meanwhile, 20 upscale guesthouses have been built to house some of the 45 heads of state expected at this weekend's summit. Each of the 2,000-square-meter cottages -- which boast their own meeting rooms, swimming pools, saunas and gyms -- bears the name of a Russian city and is decorated with gifts from there.

Like the area surrounding the palace, the guesthouses will also be available for private individuals, but Kozhin declined to name the price of such a sojourn.

Organizers of the press tour made it clear that security was no less a concern than luxury. Sappers in military fatigues could be seen combing the area for explosives.

Journalists were not allowed to enter the so-called Negotiations Pavilion, built on a small island in front of the palace for face-to-face talks, but Kozhin laughed off speculation that the building stood atop an underground storage area designed to hold "a secret submarine with Putin on board."

Kozhin also denied that the palace would become Putin's private residence. Instead, he said, the president would stay in one of the guesthouses and that he does not have apartments in the palace itself.

The territory, known officially as the Palace of Congresses complex, includes a park, the four-star Baltic Star hotel and a helipad. "Many ministries have already filled out applications to use the complex for their conferences, meetings and celebrations," Kozhin said, adding that various nongovernmental and private organizations also have shown an interest in renting out the facilities.

Officials have said the project was funded only with private donations and not a kopek of government money.