Dig around the foundations of some 14th-century landmark buildings, and you’re quite likely to find a few ghosts.
Or, in the case of the two grand buildings gracing Národní (National) Street in Prague, a few potatoes.
That’s what Dr Martin Jan Stránský discovered when his family was restituted two buildings on the grand old avenue in Prague where the Soviets had stored potatoes for the restaurant’s kitchen. “They had boarded up the basement at our building at Národní 11,” Stránský says. “When we pried off the boards there were potatoes bouncing down the steps.”
Such an experience is hardly symbolic of the history – or value – of the classical revivalist building at Národní 11 and its classic Art Deco neighbor, the Topič building next door. Stránský declines to speculate on the value of the properties overlooking major city center tram stops and across from the National Theatre, but each building contains six floors including basements. Both total about 7,000 sq m of rental space, or 8-to-9,000 sq m in total. Further, in a nod to its long historical tradition, the gallery’s “salon” in the Topič building has been designated a Czech National Landmark. The peaceful, airy room with gently filtered sunlight boasts the first glass roof exhibition space in Europe (“this was even before the Crystal Palace exhibition,” Stránský boasts); and just after opening, the salon hosted exhibitions of famous Moravian, Bohemian, and European artists of the time, including Toulouse Lautrec.
First Republic ‘book-of-the-month’ club
The buildings are also home to a long literary tradition which can’t be measured with a mere price tag. The Topič building, named for the family that built it around 1899-1903, was designed by Osvald Polívka, who also designed the landmark Obecní Dům. The Topič family ran a publishing house with a massive bookstore on the first floor, the publishing offices on the floor above, the family living quarters above that, topped off by the servants’ quarters on the last floor.
In fact, the Topič publishing empire created the first mail-order book business and book club in the country, according to Stránský; enthusiastic Czech readers across the country paid an annual subscription fee and each month received a book in the mail. “I don’t know for sure what they were sent,” Stránský smiles, “but I suppose it was something that the publisher picked out himself.”
Meanwhile, at about the same time, the neighbors at Národní 11 were publishing books, too. “This was the heyday of the Czech national publishing revival,” Stránský explains, “and the new building’s owner, František Borovy, was even more deeply involved in publishing than the Topič family.” Around 1905, Borovy established the magazine called “Přítomnost” (The Presence), which Stránský revived around 1990 and still publishes today in Czech as “Nový Přítomnost” and in English as “The New Presence.”
But the Topič family was in for some even stiffer competition. Stránský’s great-grandfather Adolf had founded the literary newspaper “Lidové Noviny” in Brno, in 1893. He moved to Prague and landed at Národní 32, but soon outgrew the space. Friends including Czech author Karel Čapek convinced Adolf’s son Jaroslav Stránský that it would be a good idea to buy out the Topič family. (“Národní will always be Národní, there are four tram lines outside the window, and more just around the corner on the river,” they argued, according to Stránský family history.) Jaroslav went one better: he not only bought out the Topič publishing empire, he bought the building, the building next door, and Borovy’s publishing firm, too, eventually publishing “Lidové Noviny” and an incredible 17 additional periodicals there.
“My grandfather was the Rupert Murdoch of the Czech Republic,” Stránský chuckles, “but he also insisted on the independence of each publication.” Jaroslav Stránský – as well as Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk – occasionally contributed articles (but Masaryk used a pseudonym, Stránský relates).
With the outbreak of World War II, activities in the Stránský buildings went underground – both literally and figuratively. A theatre was established in the cellar, which also provided cover for the meeting of resistance members. Following the war, the cellar was remade into a Cold War era bomb shelter. “There were tins of food … cots … it was spooky,” Stránský recalls. “And when our family came and took over the two buildings [after restitution] we also discovered an escape tunnel leading to the middle of Národní Třída.”
On the darker side of the publishing business, the floors above had been home to the “Czech Literary Fund,” the State organization which scrutinized all publications in the country, and the location of the “Ceskooslovenský Spisovatel,” the writers’ periodical which contained carefully monitored articles.
Throughout Národní 11’s long history of flip-flopping changes, however, one thing remained constant: the need for writers of all kinds to meet and drink together. That’s how the ground-floor “kavárna” and the first-floor restaurant got their starts, and in one form or another have survived for decades.
Coming full circle
For the future, Stránský says he would like the buildings to stay in the family and to be a center especially of cultural activities, although most of his own time is taken up with his private medical clinic located on the third floor, as well as with playing real estate agent to his 18 separate tenants. “It would be a lot easier to have just one major tenant,” he admits, “so I toyed with the idea of turning the building from the first floor up into a hotel. Major hoteliers and developers are very interested in the properties in terms of location, but they’re not so interested because of the high cost of the reconstruction that would be necessary.”
The buildings came back to the family at high emotional and financial costs as well. But after frustrating, lengthy court battles and the restitution process, plus extensive restoration, both the Topič and Národní 11 buildings have come full circle, not only back to the family but back to their original purposes. Stránský has revived the publishing function: he and other journalists made an unsuccessful offer to buy “Lidové Noviny,” but “The New Presence” is once again being published in its original home. The “salon” has reopened as an art and auction house and exhibit space. The lower level “vinarna” has been open for more than five years, and very soon the first floor restaurant will re-open. Most fitting of all, perhaps, is the fact that next week the ground-floor “literary” kavarna, N11, will re-open with the intent to once again attract the city’s thirsty journalists – and with the incentive of a small discount on prices for them.
Governments, literary styles, and even lifestyles may have changed in the century since the buildings were constructed, but Stránský is happy: “Everything that was here originally is here again,” he says with satisfaction.