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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Vysotka Revamp

By Ezekiel Pfeifer / The Moscow Times

As you enter the northeast corner of 1 Kudrinskaya Ploshchad, you are met by polished marble columns that soar above you, their upper volutes highlighted against a backdrop of stained-glass urns overflowing with titian oranges, pale-green pears and lavender grapes. From there yet higher rises the intricate white molding of the ceiling decorated with flora that flows between rows of wide frames. Eight-meter-high windows line the walls; giant chandeliers hang imposingly.

Below, people sit eating oliviye salad and black bread. Workers in triangular white caps shuffle around clearing plastic trays.

This is the unlikely Central Restaurant House cafeteria: one piece of an ambitious new project situated inside the palatial interior of one of the Seven Sisters, the famous series of skyscrapers ("vysotki" in Russian) scattered throughout Moscow that were commissioned by Stalin and completed in the early 1950s. Thanks to newfound investment, the garish, Gothic-mansion-meets-St. Peter's-cathedral interior of one of them has once more been put into use after more than a decade of sitting vacant.

"People come here not just to eat," said Olga Sobileva, general director of the new dining rooms. "It's for the atmosphere, too. It's pleasant to be here."
    
Although the Restaurant House has only just opened its doors to curious passersby and the hungry office workers who flock here at lunch time, the institution represents a return of sorts. The space's original tenant was a sprawling supermarket that occupied not only the wing that the Restaurant House now calls home but also the three other separate corners of the residential building's ground floor. And not only is food once again the room's focus but after two years of work with extremely high ladders (the 11-meter ceilings stand more than half the height of the Sistine Chapel, for comparison) and more than a few bottles of metal polish, the luxurious decorations of the main hall have been fully restored.

"The supermarket was on the one hand pretentious but on the other hand accessible," much like the Restaurant House cafeteria, said Sobileva. "This place can be viewed as a kind of tribute to the past, because that's fashionable at the moment."

If it is indeed trendy to restore historical interiors, it isn't much apparent in the spaces neighboring the Restaurant House. The adjacent corner of the building that also faces the Garden Ring is home to a rent-a-car company called Sky Rent that keeps most of its windows shuttered and the lights dim; one resident of the apartment building above claims never to have seen anyone go in or come out of it. The space behind the Restaurant House's freshly refurbished hall sits dark without a tenant. One night last week, a single panel of the stained-glass that wraps around the back wall within was mysteriously backlit, making the sunburst-yellow flowers and emerald background flash brilliantly against the otherwise empty black. The next night, the lamps were switched off.
    
The final corner, however, has seen equally thorough restoration work done, in order to house the Rimanenze Dolce clothing shop owned by the company Bosco di Ciliegi, whose holdings include a multitude of boutiques in the GUM shopping center on Red Square.

Rimanenze Dolce sells surplus designer goods under stained-glass sturgeon (the fish section of the supermarket was here) and the very same elaborate ceilings of the building's other three corners.

Since only one other section of the building's ground level has had its former gloss returned to it, the Restaurant House takes particular pride in its restoration work. According to Sobileva, all the major elements of the mishmash interior, from the classical marble columns to the candelabra chandeliers, are precisely as architect Mikhail Posokhin designed them over 50 years ago. Also intact are the stunning stained-glass panels made by Soviet artist Pavel Korin, whose masterful portfolio includes the colored-glass floral patterns that line the Novoslobodskaya metro station as well as the series of mosaics depicting episodes from Russian military history in metro station Komsomolskaya.
    
The entire building, located on what used to be known as Insurrection Square after a rebellion that took place on the site in 1917, has an illustrious place in Soviet architectural history. Part of the plan to construct eight magnificent buildings in prominent locations around Moscow, its foundation was laid in 1947 along with those of the now-famous structures that include the Hotel Ukraine on the Moscow River Embankment and the massive main building of Moscow State University. The building at Kudrinskaya Ploshchad was the second-to-last to reach completion of what became seven skyscrapers; the eighth, set to be erected next to the Kremlin, was scrapped due to worries that its 275-meter apex would overshadow the seat of government.

Posokhin's 26-story, triple-towered construction was one of the most successful of the set, according to Soviet-architecture expert Natalya Bronovitskaya. In addition to the ornate supermarket, the building has an underground parking garage, while a movie theater called "Flame," an ice cream parlor and a barber shop were once within its walls.

"Everything in there is valuable -- the veneer, the bronze, the chandeliers, the columns," said Bronovitskaya. "It's very upsetting to me that the sections have been split off and leased out separately."

Besides the meticulous renovations made to the area of the former supermarket, the nameless investors of the Restaurant House have also converted a maze of former service and storage rooms in the wing, making them into spotless, finished dining halls. Although for the most part still closed to the public, plans include space for a lounge with pillow seating, an upmarket gourmet restaurant and a beer hall.

Certain rooms have already undergone renovation, and their unique positioning speaks to the potential the Restaurant House has tapped by installing itself in the Stalin skyscraper. One section of the tavern, for instance, lies in a former storage space behind the stained glass that shows from the floor of the main hall, allowing diners to eat surrounded by the kaleidoscopic vegetation depicted on the panels. Down the hall from that room is a lofted bar area that looks out onto a retro American-style coffee shop, which occupies one side of the main space and has views onto Barrikadnaya metro station and down toward the Moscow Zoo.

Sobileva admits that the plans are rather grandiose. Yet regardless of the project's expansiveness and the ever-deepening financial crisis, she is all optimism.

"On the one hand, a crisis is a bad thing -- but on the other, it frees up space in the market," she said.

Given the halls' history, her attitude could be taken as hubris. The supermarket that once filled the four rooms had been a city institution since the building's completion in 1954, with many residents to this day remembering its unmatched meat pies, marshmallows and pate. It closed in 1997, however, due to financial problems.

One current expat resident of the building recalled an excellent California-French restaurant named Le Gastronome that was located where the Rimanenze Dolce store is now after the supermarket shut its doors. Because of its stunning interior, it was "the place to bring people" when he frequented it from 1997 to '99, the resident said. It ultimately fell victim to the 1998 default, however, closing the next year.

Sobileva claims that customers began flowing into the Restaurant House the very first day it opened. "Strange as it may seem," she began somewhat oddly, "the project has turned out to be very successful."

On a recent evening, the crowd was sparse. Two young men spoke to each other in furious tones behind a table filled with rows of empty and half-empty beer glasses. Nearby, four of the cafeteria's employees sat chatting and laughing.

Zhenya, a 28-year-old Muscovite who works at a nearby music shop, sat alone at the opposite end of the hall. It was his second time visiting the Restaurant House.

"I come because it's close," he said, laughing.

Asked what he thought of the interior, he said it was wonderful.

"I don't really like it here, though," he added incongruously. "The music is horrible."

He admitted, however, that he probably would come back.

"I mean, look around," he said, gesturing toward the Corinthian columns beside us that mounted toward the ceiling. "It's very beautiful."