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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

City Opens New Manezh to Fanfare

MTSoldiers dressed in replica 19th-century military uniforms taking part in a ceremony celebrating the reopening Monday of the Manezh Central Exhibition Hall.
Fourteen months after flames raged through the Manezh Central Exhibition Hall, it was reincarnated Monday in a grand opening ceremony replete with flags, balloons and VIPs.

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Gutted by a fire on March 14, 2004 -- the night of President Vladimir Putin's reelection -- the famed 19th-century building looked like the biggest ashtray in Moscow.

Only the walls of the building, which was built as cavalry stables in 1817 to honor Tsar Alexander I's victory over Napoleon five years earlier, were left standing.

The building was originally built on a space cleared by the 1812 fire that helped defeat the French army. Now it looks as good as new, although some think the newness may be the problem.

"Today is a holiday for our capital and for the whole country," Mayor Yury Luzhkov said at the opening ceremony. "On Heritage Day we bring a symbolic present to our country, our state and the people."

Outside the building, actors dressed in period costume handed out red, white and blue balloons with the word "Manezh" written on them, as invited VIP guests filed through metal detectors into the building.

One elderly guest proffered his medical pass showing that he was not allowed to go through the detector. The policeman said, "It doesn't work," and ushered him inside.

In the main hall, a spectacular variety show involving the presidential orchestra and troupes of singing and dancing children performed as the city metaphorically patted itself on the back for a job well done.

Luzhkov compared Monday's opening to the 1817 occasion in historical importance.

Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration, was briefly shown around the building by Luzhkov before the opening ceremony, but did not stay for the speeches.

Anyone who had been to the old Manezh found the new one a different being. The building has been turned into a modern exhibition hall with brand new air conditioners and a modern fire detector system; four shiny new escalators to go to the new basement level, which has added another 10,000 meters of exhibition space; and an elevator for those too lazy to ride the escalators.

At one end of the main hall, two raised mezzanines with a cafe and a restaurant looked as though they had come straight from a state-of-the-art airport terminal.

In the main body of the hall, an exhibition traced the history of the Manezh and put on display some of the valuable artifacts dug up by archeologists after the fire. These include gold coins from the time of Peter the Great and swords from the Middle Ages.

The problem for preservationists who advised the city is that the building has not been restored to its original state so much as put through the city's construction grinder.

Preservationists have often criticized the city government for its attitude toward old buildings and estimated the number of pre-revolutionary buildings destroyed in the last five years at more than 1,000. The new building is a symbol of how the city deals with its heritage, critics said, while the Manezh has not undergone a restoration but something between a restoration and rebuilding.

"The monument is ruined," said Alexei Klimenko, a longtime critic of Luzhkov. Along with other preservationists, he took an active part in the Culture and Press Ministry's advisory council that offered design guidelines for the restoration. By law, the ministry should oversee the restoration work on a federal monument.

"There's no way you can call it restoration," said David Sarkisyan, the head of the Shchusev Architecture Museum, which provided the original drawings of the building to aid the restoration work. "It is anti-restoration."

Legally, a federal monument can only be restored, not rebuilt, but the creation of a new basement for the Manezh was major building work, Klimenko said.

Part of the problem is that the federal government had no desire to pay for the restoration -- estimated to cost $50 million -- so it was funded and controlled in its entirety by the city.

City planners initially wanted to install an underground garage below the basement but were persuaded to change their minds. But city architect Alexander Kuzmin told Saturday's Izvestia that he regretted not adding the garage to the redesign.

The biggest problem has been the speed of the project, with the city setting unrealistic deadlines -- the first one was last September -- and forcing work to be carried out at a ridiculous speed, critics said.

By comparison, restoration work on Britain's royal Windsor Castle, which was severely damaged by a fire in 1992, took five years.

As late as midday Monday, after workers had worked around the clock over the previous week, walls were still being painted inside and outside.

Luzhkov hinted at the dispute over the building's restoration in his remarks at the opening ceremony.

"Every day we needed to find a compromise between historians, builders and architects," he said.

Inside the hall, visitors can now see the famous beams of Augustin Betancourt, the master engineer who created the 45- and 47-meter-long wooden beams that held the Manezh roof in place.

The beams have been recreated using pine instead of the original larch.

The fact that they can see the beams is one of the major arguments preservationists have had with the city. The Culture Ministry's advice was that the main hall should have a ceiling as the building has had for most of its history.

Klimenko said that Luzhkov made the decision not to have the ceiling.

Sergei Khudyakov, head of the city's Culture Committee, insisted that the new Manezh was every bit as good as the old. "Of course you can argue about nuances, but in my view the right principles were chosen," he said, Interfax reported.

"The main crime is the absence of a ceiling," said Sarkisyan, the architectural adviser, agreeing with Alexei Komech, a member of the advisory council who said the same. The decision to do without a ceiling was made because the beams had been set too low, Sarkisyan said.

And the new floor was ugly, he added -- "the color of a piglet."

Ultimately, of course, visitors will have to decide for themselves whether the view of the wooden beams is remiscent of the building's glory days or of an unfinished IKEA shelf unit.