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Chamber Theatre Prague

Friedrich Ohmann

history of the theatresupplementtechnical dataHistoric equipment

Important events

(detail)1901 | opening

The history of the abolished Chamber Theatre is related to the hotel Central in Hybernská Street that was designed by Friedrich Ohmann in 1899 and it was completed by his disciples and collaborators Alois Dryák and Bedřich Bendelmayer according to his design. A one storey hall was built in the rear section of the plot behind a five storey wing. The hotel was opened on 14th  November of 1901, but its furnishing and interior decoration was being completed long after that.


(detail)1929 | reconstruction

Radical conversion of the hall into a theatre was brought about by a reconstruction that was carried out in 1929. The architect Petr Kropáček  designed a new conversion of the hall into a theatre that was carried out by builder Václav Nekvasil.  The hall that lost its Art Nouveau appearance.


(detail)1976 | closure

The Chamber Theatre was abolished in 1976. The official reason was its critical technical condition and necessary reconstruction – that however has never been carried out. The real reasons for the closure of the theatre were rather political and the necessity of reconstruction was only a convenient pretext.


People

History

The history of the abolished Chamber Theatre is related to the hotel Central in Hybernská Street. The early Art Nouveau hotel, one of the most prominent Prague structures of the turn of the 20th century, was designed by Friedrich Ohmann (1858–1927) in 1899 and it was completed by his disciples and collaborators Alois Dryák (1872–1932) and Bedřich Bendelmayer (1872–1932) according to his design; the construction was supervised by the owner of the property and building himself, by builder Quido Bělský (1855–1909). A one storey hall was built in the rear section of the plot  behind a five storey wing.

The hotel was opened on 14th  November of 1901, but its furnishing and interior decoration was being completed long after that. Rich stucco and paint decoration was concentrated especially into the music hall. Two large mural paintings were created by Karel Špillar (1871–1939), A Dance of the Water Nymphs on the front wall of the hall above the stage and Jan Preisler (1872–1918) – Faun seduces a Dryad on the wall above the entrance staircase.

Generous space of the hall occupied the entire width of the plot. From the central corridor in the front wing, one entered into a vestibule with a central staircase, through which middle flight one descended into the ground floor, whilst side flights ascended to the first floor. The hall was lit by skylight windows in a barrel vault projecting from window lintels above the boxes in balconies along the side walls.

It became a seat of the popular cabaret Red Seven in 1918. It was necessary to alter the existing shallow podium into a real stage for its purposes. Reconstruction of the auditorium ceiling was related to this as extension of a low structure – probably a background or store room – to the rear wall of the hall. The cabaret operated here until 1922, when terminated its activity. It was replaced by the Varieté Parisien with director Vlasta Burian for a short time.

A conversion design of the hall into a cinema, signed by Kavalír brothers, comes from 1924. Apart of modification of entrances and emergency exit into the garden next to the stage, low auditorium elevation was modified  in the rear sector of the hall and a new projection cabin  was installed on the roof over the connecting wing  in the front wall of the hall. The modification was ordered by the Association for Care of Deaf-mutes in Prague according to the stamp on the design. The hall was occupied already in the Spring of 1924 by the renewed cinema Orient that operated in 1906–1921 in the nearby house N. 1006. The cinema was closed down after several years due to competition of talking pictures. A balcony that was planned already in the original design  but had not been constructed for some reason  was built to the front wall of the hall not before 1925. The first application for a permit of the construction comes already from 1921 and it was repeated two years later.

The building was purchased in 1927 by the Health Insurance of Public Servants and the hotel became an office building for several decades. Already the next year, Jaroslav Háva designed a new building of the rear wing for the Medical Fund of Public Servants. Five storeys of offices were built over the existing extension behind the stage in the hall. ( Literature states that the new construction was carried out either already in 1925 by František Malypetr, or that it was a component of Kropáček’s reconstruction in 1929.)

Radical conversion of the hall into a theatre was brought about by a reconstruction that was carried out in 1929. The architect – and occasional stage designer and playwright- Petr Kropáček (1889–1931), the designer of the Villa of Eduard Beneš in Sezimovo Ústí, designed a new conversion of the hall into a theatre that was carried out by builder Václav Nekvasil. The changes are labelled in the building records as „ transformation of the hall into a cinema or chamber theatre“, in 1930, it is stated „municipal chamber theatre and cinema“ . At least, the hall served as a cinema in the years following reconstruction – still the store room for movies was reconstructed in the attic in 1933.

The largest change affected the hall that lost its Art Nouveau appearance. The hall was provided with high floor gradient that considerably shortened the original monumental staircase, through which the ground floor was entered. Balconies on the sides of the hall were replaced by two rows of boxes, gradually projected and recessed into the sides; the rear part of the balcony along the front wall was considerably enlarged. Large skylight windows in the top of the arch of the hall were walled up, the new arch was articulated by strips and its top was attached by a row of lights in circular frames. Simple shapes and absence of decoration gave an austere and elegant character to the hall. The hall had a capacity of over 600 seats ( 440 in the ground floor, 100 on the balcony and 65 in boxes).

The stage was enlarged into  the former smoking room in the recently completed new structure behind the stage; dressing rooms came into existence in the rear wing in the first floor above the stage apart of further background. A component of the alterations was a layout change in the ground floor of the front wing and facing the ground floor of the facade by travertine. Kropáček’s reconstruction received many critical reviews concerning that it overlaid perhaps one of the most impressive interiors in Prague of the turn of the century  - very modified already at that time. However, only few people regretted the disappearance of over decorated Art Nouveau hall in the end of the 1920s and Kropáček’s arrangement,  architecturally valuable, had its undeniable quality. It follows from the recalls of contemporaries that the hall of the Chamber Theatre belonged among the most beautiful Prague theatres – and the preserved photographs confirm this.  

The appearance that was created by architect Kropáček had remained in the until its abolishment; further building modifications were only small of operational or technical nature. Cloak rooms on the left in front of the hall were enlarged already in 1933 on expenses of the existing office and medical attendance. In 1941, builder V. Mrha reconstructed the emergency exit in the lateral side of the hall leading from the vestibule in front of the hall into a garden of the neighbouring house ( the former Vrtbovský palace, reconstructed in 1924–1928 according to the design by Antonín  Parkman). Wiring repair was made in 1950 and a new room for a new transformer was inserted below the stage. A general overhauling of the main entrance  protracted to three years that commenced in 1957 and brought some layout modifications about especially in the spectators area in the front wing in front of the actual hall. The stage lift was reconstructed in 1961.

The stage was probably reconstructed as well apart of this documented changes: for instance the front section of the stage is higher than after the Kropáček’s reconstruction in the longitudinal section from the 1960s – the original dressing rooms above the stage made way to this enlargement.

It is not clear, who initiated the theatre reconstruction in 1929. Most probably, it was related from the beginning to the planned incorporation of the new theatre to the Municipal Theatre in the Royal Vinohrady. The newly opened Chamber Theatre (sometime also the Municipal Chamber Theatre) hereby became a second stage of the newly emerged Municipal Theatres of Prague (MDP) – and except for intermission in 1945, when it was incorporated into the Theatre of 5th  May – it was its component until its abolition.  A large reorganization of MDP occurred in 1950. The Vinohrady Theatre was transferred into administration of army and the Chamber Theatre was affiliated to the Komedie Theatre that had a seat in Stýblo’s arcade on the Wenceslas Square at that time. The theatres were struggling with a lack of space and „ it was necessary to procure   operational and technical rooms as well“ so the 50th  anniversary of MDP constitution was celebrated „in two – not actually buildings, but small theatre halls that were insufficiently equipped“. Another change in MDP was affiliation of the ABC Theatre in 1962. Since 1977, therefore already after its closure, the Chamber Theatre became again formally a part of the Vinohrady Theatre.

The Chamber Theatre was abolished in 1976. The official reason was its critical technical condition and necessary reconstruction – that however has never been carried out. The reconstruction of the theatre was discussed at latest in 1966 and its project came into existence three years later.

The real reasons for the closure of the theatre were rather political and the necessity of reconstruction was only a convenient pretext. The golden age of the Chamber Theatre was  the period of 1950–1972, when Ota Ornest was its director and concurrently the  dramaturge and stage manager. One of the most important Prague stages apart of being the place, where excellent theatre was created, it was a place of encounter  for people that were inconvenient for the Communist regime. Ornest himself was sentenced together with Václav  Havel and other for subversion of the republic shortly after the closure of the theatre, where he worked even after his dismissal from the position of the director. The reconstruction of the theatre was discussed in the National Committee still in 1977. No actual steps had been taken and the closed theatre was condemned to slow decay. The house was owned by the Ministry of Interior in 1989. Renovation of the street facade started at least in this year. It was completed in 1991, when travertine facing was replaced by the original decorated portals.

The foundation Pro Thalia was established in the same year that determined the aim to initiate a reconstruction of the building and especially of the theatre hall and restore theatre operation. The state decided to sell the house in the following year; renovation of the theatre was a component of the conditions. The foundation Pro Thalia became actually the owner of the house after some complications. The project design was elaborated by the atelier ANTA s. r. o. and the reconstruction started. The plan failed in the end due to the unreasonably high price of the devastated house, complications from the side of the state institutions, which refused any help, an outflow of sponsors and high loan interest and the foundation was forced to sell the property. In words of Alex Koenigsmark : „ the old regime devastated the Chamber Theatre and the new one divested itself elegantly of the responsibility for it.“

The house with the former theatre was purchased by a certain foreign company in the end and it   dilapidated    for several years again. A subsequent “reconstruction” that commenced at the end of the 1990s was in fact a demolition – only the facade and the frame of the theatre hall had remained from the listed building ( the clearance order was made in 2003 for the rear office wing). Some original components were afterwards set out into the newly conceived building with a higher capacity (designed by the Atelier Grebner) and the outcome was presented as reconstruction and rescue of the valuable monument. All discussion had ceased concerning use of the theatre hall that used to be once famous.

The “reconstructed” hotel Central was opened in November of 2004. In the former theatre hall, partially reconstructed into the appearance before the Kropáček’s reconstruction, demountable glass steel structure was erected, where breakfast is served to the hotel’s clients.

 

Sources and literature:

 

–  Úřad Městské části Prahy 1, archiv odboru výstavby, spis domu č. 1001/II

–  Alfred Javorin, Divadla a divadelní sály v českých zemích: I. Divadla, Praha 1949, s. 216–219

–  Vladimír Müller a kol., Padesát let Městských divadel pražských 1907–1957, Praha 1957

–  Emanuel Poche a kol., Praha našeho věku, Praha 1978, s. 25

–  Jiří Hilmera, Pražská divadla, Praha 1995, s. 30–31

–  Komorní divadlo dosud nezměnilo majitele, Mladá fronta Dnes 6, 1995, č. 25 (30. 1.), s. 11

–  Petr Němec, Nadace Pro Thalia: Hledá se krásný princ (Aneb jak se obnovují divadla), Hospodářské noviny 39, 1995, č. 98 (19. 5.), příloha HN na víkend, s. 8

–  Co je nového kolem Komorního divadla? Ptáme se Alexe Koenigsmarka, Divadelní noviny
4, 1995, č. 12 (13. 6.), s. 11

–  JH [Jiří Hilmera], čp. 1001/II, in Růžena Baťková a kol., Umělecké památky Prahy: Nové Město a Vyšehrad, Praha 1998, s. 528–529

–  Jiří Hilmera, Česká divadelní architektura, Praha 1999, s. 48

–  Richard Biegel, Rekonstrukce a přestavba hotelu Central v Hybernské ulici na Novém Městě aneb Záchrana jako bolestný kompromis, Věstník Klubu za starou Prahu 33 (4), 2003, č. 3, dostupné on-line: http://www.zastarouprahu.cz/ruzne/central.htm (vyhledáno 1. 11. 2011)

–  Petr Wittlich a kol., Jan Preisler: 1872–1918, Praha 2003, s. 96–97, obr. na s. 104–105 a 321 (Preislerovy malby v původním sále)

–  Jaroslav Čvančara – Miroslav Čvančara, Zaniklý svět stříbrných pláten: Po stopách pražských biografů, Praha 2011, s. 55–56

 

Tags: Art Nouveau, Austria-Hungary, Fin de siècle, terraced house, yard extension

 

Author: Jiří Bláha

Translator: Jan Purkert

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