New Zealand Embassy, Moscow, Russian Federation
The story behind the construction of this wonderful Moscow mansion at Povarskaya Street(No. 44) is quite remarkable and is believed to tell about its time no less than its architectural style – Art Nouveau. The elegant house is a memory of a significant though short period in the city’s history when the centre of it once again saw construction of small comfortable villas/mansions.
Serious economic and social changes in the city’s life were generating new approaches to city development. Construction of apartment buildings to let was booming and made Moscow noticeably “higher" – most new buildings were 4-5-storey but 6-8 storey structures started emerging. Then the city that became “higher" hit upon the idea of a sui generis return to all-round city centre development through construction of mansions. Of course, this idea already belonged to another epoch, but at the time there were very pragmatic grounds for it. Interestingly, the author of the idea was the splendid Savva Ivanovich Mamontov, perhaps the most famous Moscow Maecenans and entrepreneur of the late 19th – early 20th century.
In 1898, a group of Moscow industrialists headed by S.I. Mamontov (it also included engineers K.D. Artsybushev and S.P. Chokolov) decided to establish The Northern House-Building Company, with plans to build a first-class hotel in the heart of Moscow (this became the “Metropole"), and construct several city villas/mansions to sell, since Muscovites, according to the founders of the Company, had a great liking for those rather than for apartments in multistorey houses to rent. That promotional statement was of course somewhat cunning, since at the turn of the 20th century Muscovites’ preferences were dictated above all by their financial status and not just their “liking". S.I. Mamontov and his partners were simply interested in the shortest payback period with the highest yield and, correspondingly, their target group was the most opulent citizens.
As a matter of fact, the very idea of building expensive dwellings on a turn-key basis for subsequent re-selling came to Moscow from Western Europe, and to a great extent it was interrelated with the development of Art Nouveau, a new architectural style orientated towards the creation of an integrated and artistically comprehensive living environment. The strengths of this brand new approach to dwelling construction, as opposed to compilative multistyle eclecticism, had to be displayed by new mansions created by architectural masters, in accordance with the logic of a perfect architectural work of art rather than by customers’ whim. It was not by chance that the undoubted creative leader of the “Northerners", Savva Ivanovich Mamontov, selected Art Nouveau as the style of the very first construction projects of the Company, as a powerful attraction to wealthy customers who had already seen the latest structures erected by fashionable French and Belgian architects.
Initially, The Northern House-Building Company intended to “arrange a tender for designing several villas/mansions", but the tender never took place and orders were simply placed with the Chief Architect of the Company, L.N. Kekushev, who had proved to be a champion of the new architectural style in constructing his own mansion in Glazovsky Lane. Unfortunately, those projects failed to be implemented because of the sadly high-profile arrest of S.I. Mamontov in 1899, which radically changed many of the plans of “the Northerners".
Nevertheless, the idea of turn-key projects for the construction of expensive mansions did not die with the collapse of “the Northerners" hopes and was developed in Moscow Trading-and-Construction Joint Stock Company established in 1898 and headed by Ya.A. Rekk, a young, wealthy and energetic entrepreneur. Later on, he became head of the managing board of Partnership of the Nikolskiye Shopping Arcades in Moscow, as well as of the Society of Glushkov Cloth Manufactory (“I.S. Tereshchenko’s successors"); as the head of the liquidation commission of the Moscow Trading-and-Industry Company he was at the heart of the Moscow business community and pragmatically planned to spread his influence into other businesses. The objectives pursued by the newly established Company were similar to the aspirations of The Northern House-Building Company, though somewhat more modest and practical. The idea was to acquire, erect, re-build, and maintain houses in Moscow and its suburbs “in order to furnish inhabitants with more of life conveniences, as well as to produce and sell various materials".
The planning and construction of comfortable mansions in the heart of Moscow became a core business for The Moscow Trading-and-Construction Joint Stock Company. V.F. Walcott, who worked for the Company from 1899 to 1902 created a series of projects, with two mansions actually built in Myortvy Lane. In 1900, I.A. Fomin designed under Ya.A. Rekk’s order a mansion in Skaterny Lane, and in 1901, G.A. Helrich created another Rekk mansion in Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street. Young, talented Moscow architects implemented in those projects the most innovative architectural and artistic ideas of the time. The old town became a construction site to build a new generation of city mansions.
For early 20th century Muscovites it looked as if old Moscow of the nobility – when a century ago had a picturesque variety of mansions surrounded with gardens and parks – had come back into being. The observant Empress Catherine II wrote: “Every nobleman usually possesses a small estate in the city, not a house". Such lovely “small estates" used to up the buildings in the central streets in Moscow – Povarskaya, Arbat, Nikitskaya, and the Boulevard Ring. In 1903, right on the site of an old city mansion in Povarskaya Street, The Moscow Trading-and-Construction Joint Stock Company launched construction of another two mansions in Art Nouveau style, both on a turn-key basis and designed by L.N. Kekushev, the venerable Moscow architect whom we have already mentioned above.
In the early 19th century, the chosen construction site used to be a single piece of property along Povarskaya Street, extending from Skaryatinsky to Skaterny Lane. Located thereon was the beautiful Classical mansion of D.G. Volchkov, the façade of which is shown in the famous Album by M.F. Kazakov that contains Moscow’s best buildings of early and mature Classicism. The layout of the mansion was traditional – the main house with portico flanked by two wings with outhouses in the rear. All structures were wooden. That was exactly what The Moscow Trading-and-Construction Joint Stock Company bought. It was decided to remove nearly all structures, split the site into two parts, and erect a mansion on each.
Construction lasted through 1903-1904. The new mansions occupied corners of the original estate at the cross-roads of Povarskaya Street and adjacent side-streets (Nos 42, 44). The buildings are similar in style – both show Art Nouveau shapes and methods – though their exterior images look absolutely different. It goes without saying that the commercial intention of the customers, in the person of Ya.A. Rekk, was taken into account – the newly erected buildings were meant for sale, so potential buyers were given a choice and a wide range of individual preferences was covered. Nevertheless, the mansions were not sold immediately. We are not quite sure whether this was because of lack of buyers. It may well be that The Moscow Trading-and-Construction Joint Stock Company may have used the mansions for its own needs in this period. Another explanation may also be quite realistic – Moscow merchants used to place orders and construct houses by themselves, which was less expensive. That is why it is difficult to say for sure to what extent Rekk’s commercial idea was successful. In any case, judging by Moscow address books, almost to the end of the 1900s the buildings remained the property of The Moscow Trading-and-Construction Joint Stock Company and only then were sold: No. 42 to Moscow industrialist M.G. Ponizovsky, and No. 44 to I.A. Mindovsky, a rich textile manufacturer from the Upper Volga.