Obecni Dum, Prague’s Unheralded Treasure

Prague has a real treasure “hidden” from most tourist groups herded into the city for a day or three. The current entry on Prague in Wikipedia doesn’t mention it. And, though it’s listed as a top attraction, Lonely Planet does not showcase it as a highlight to a Prague visit.

Regrettable, I’d say. Especially if you like art or beautiful things. The Municipal House (Obecni Dum, in Czech), is a magnificent specimen of art nouveau, all 40,000 square feet of it. Quite unique, therefore, from the usual tourist itinerary of palaces, castles, and other royal houses.

To me, those palaces, etc. become jumbled up in my mind after a while, impossible to distinguish from each other. Usually royal quarters dating back to the 17th or 18th centuries, they impress with the opulence and excess of gilding, rich patterns, classical frescoes and coffered ceilings.

The Obecni Dum was not built for royalty. It was, in fact, a project from a much more recent past (early 20th century) which the city undertook to foster national pride.

About twenty years ago, it was in disrepair. Fortunately, the Czech Republic restored it in the mid-1990s. Quite likely, it now has the distinction of being the best restored building done through and through in an art nouveau style—of the Czech variety, of course.

In Paris where art nouveau flourished like nowhere else, you can find many buildings with art nouveau facades. But except perhaps for an occasional grand hall or two, most have had their interiors gutted and redone in the style of the moment.

In contrast, except for one done in a related art deco style, every room in this large public space, including a concert hall as well as a café, is a Czech rendition of art nouveau.

The guide who showed us the various rooms made sure we didn’t forget this restoration was strictly a Czech proect. That is, only Czech architects, artists, and builders were engaged to design, oversee, and decorate the whole building. From its exterior to its various rooms. Notably, it has a room designed to its smallest detail by the Czech Republic’s best known artist, Alfons Mucha.

This incarnation of art nouveau integrates some neo-renaissance, baroque, and art deco touches with the characteristic art nouveau feature—sinuous, organic lines associated with motifs derived from nature. You see this in the exterior windows, for instance.

If you’re interested in learning a bit more about the history of Obecni Dum, try this website.

I came away from the guided visit of this house in awe and admiration. Not by the grandeur of the place, but by the harmony of its design and the beauty of its well-crafted details.

I find it difficult, if not impossible to describe anything that appeals to me in generic aesthetic terms—such as ‘magnificent’ or ‘beautiful’ etc., etc. They just never seem to do justice to what I actually experience as a visual feast. If you want to see more, watch this.

All pictures of the interior rooms in this slide show were taken by Steve Kerrigan, at that time a Ph.D. candidate in art history who told us, over a beer in a basement bar of the building, that quite possibly, art nouveau might have arrived in Paris via Prague.

Meeting and talking with strangers can be the spice of foreign travel as it was for us in Prague. This was our second visit and we were more inclined to explore farther away from the usual tourist track. We concluded our tour of Obecni Dum in genial conversation with Steve and his lawyer-brother Mike.

Henry in his metal vest

Earlier in the day, we had a lively exchange with a pleasant and good-looking young man working as a sentinel, dressed in full sentinel garb. He’s guarding the Powder Tower, a vintage 1475 Gothic gate attached to Obecni Dum. We found ‘Henry’ (actually the English equivalent, he said, of his real name, Jindřich) a remarkable young man.

He is multi-talented, telling us he learned his English (quite good) from watching television and talking to tourists. He proudly announced he made his metal vest himself, patterned after medieval vests used in jousting and battle. He has played in a modern tournament.

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