Hotel Jalta: Stalinist architecture gets a facelift

Having welcomed its first guests almost fifty years ago, the Hotel Jalta on Wenceslas Square is set to celebrate its first half century in style next year, following a full facelift to complement the various other discrete nips and tucks it has endured over the last few years. After spending three months under scaffolding the UNESCO-protected travertine stone façade has been restored to its former glory with the scrupulous attention to detail that a building listed as a cultural landmark demands.

Originally designed by the Czech architect Antonín Tenzer for the Czechoslovak national travel agency Čedok, the operation was considered to be one of the most luxurious hotels in Prague at that time, with extravagant marble floors, and was intended to serve as Warsaw Pact headquarters in the event of another war. As the building that previously stood on the site was destroyed in bombing raids in 1945, it seemed a sensible precaution in the coldwar climate of the mid-1950s to install a nuclear bomb shelter in the basement. Luckily the shelter has not been put to the test yet and the rest of Mr. Tenzer’s Socialist Realism style building has survived the trials of the Communist era remarkably intact.

jalta3.jpgThe hotel’s general manager Jan Adámek appreciates the longevity of the design. “I think the most fantastic thing is that today, 49 years after Antonín Tenzer finished his work, it is still a very good hotel in fantastic condition, with a vision of being a hotel in the same sort of shape for fifty more years, which is amazing. The infrastructure and the system of operations here is still the same,” he says.

Adámek has been with the British-owned property development firm Flow East for seven years now. Apart from taking over and reconstructing the Hotel Jalta, Flow East has been responsible for many of the more prestigious property development projects in the center of Prague since the firm began its operations here in 1990. One of the jewels in its crown is the Hotel Jalta’s neighbor known as The Forum at Wenceslas Square No. 19, in whose award-winning footsteps Adámek hopes the Jalta will follow.

jalta2.jpg“The Forum won an award for the best reconstruction of a heritage-protected building in 2005,” he says, “and has been recommended by the Heritage Office for some other competitions next year.”

Close cooperation between the developer and the Heritage Office ensured that the distinctive travertine stone façade was preserved impeccably and to the highest possible standards. Every massive piece of the white limestone with its characteristic tiny pits and holes was taken down, the hooks that hold it in place were replaced, and then each piece was put back up. Every effort was made to preserve as much of the original stone from Slovakia as possible but, as is usual with these delicate operations, things did not go as smoothly as hoped.

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“We put the scaffolding up and planned to have it up for one month but then we found out that the problems were slightly different to what we expected and so we had the scaffolding up for three months,” says Adámek. “We replaced only 15 % of the stone. We were so lucky that we found the same place that the travertine was taken from 50 years ago and we got partly the same travertine source, which is fantastic; and the Heritage Office was very happy about it. And the good thing is that we replaced only the parts that you normally don’t see, the internal parts or on the balconies inside, so generally what you see from outside is all the same original travertine stone.”

The recent completion of the work on the façade marks the end of the major renovation work that the hotel has undergone in the four years it has been in Flow East’s ownership. The first wave involved some reconstruction work, complete repainting, laying of new carpets, and the purchase of new beds. The popular Hot Restaurant was completely refurbished, as was the conference area on the first floor.

That left some less disruptive tasks to be done in the last twelve months, such as changing the lifts, installing new mini bars and new plasma TV sets, and adding new technical equipment in the conference area. Original decorative sculptures on the façade contrast with newly acquired artwork such as an original Andy Warhol portrait of Franz Kafka, which takes pride of place in the lobby.

And so a typical example of Stalinist architecture has been preserved to the satisfaction of all concerned, yet coaxed into the 21st century to retake its position as a prestigious and very modern destination for any visitor to Prague.

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