How Tverskaya Street was “dressed”: from wood to granite

How Tverskaya Street was “dressed”: from wood to granite
Sometimes it is hard to notice what is right under your feet: for instance, asphalt. Meanwhile, this “clothing” on a street serves as a custodian of history in the same way as architecture, but to read what it has to say is much more difficult.

A wooden “shirt”

The city authorities launched a comprehensive upgrade of Tverskaya Street in the spring of 2016 under the My Street programme. Inspecting trenches dug for laying underground utility lines, archaeologists discovered not only the basements and foundations of demolished buildings, but also the fragments of corduroy roads of the 16th and 17th centuries: four layers of logs with a diameter of 15 cm.

Each layer found by archaeologists consists of floor beams laid on lateral joists. There are traces of a fire in the top layer, which most likely occurred in the 18th century. Similar discoveries were made during the construction of an underpass near the Mossovet building (now the Mayor’s Office on 13 Tverskaya Street).

The so-called Sigismund Plan of Moscow (1610) contains one of the first indications of the existence of a corduroy road on Tverskaya Street. It is hard to establish when they started covering streets with logs, but some information suggests the first wood coverings appeared in the Kremlin as early as the 12th century. Wood boards were placed on logs in the direction of travel in most crowded places, including, of course, Tverskaya, a central street. Their edges were often fastened with lateral poles to prevent corduroy roads from rising under the weight of carts.

Dirt and continuous cart traffic quickly put wood coverings out of action and were promptly repaired. Broken and rotten logs were simply replaced with new ones. Corduroy roads were elevated above the surrounding land to allow water to flow from them into wooden pipes that were placed into trenches next to ravines and creeks.

From stone “camisole” to asphalt “suit”

Although corduroy roads were used up to the 19th century, some sections of Moscow streets were paved with stones in the latter half of the 15th century. In the 16th century, by law, Muscovites had to pay special taxes for the construction and repair of corduroy roads. Wood was gradually abandoned due to its fragility and was replaced with cobblestone, which became most widespread in the 18th and 19th centuries. Homeowners were obliged to cobble and upkeep roads within the limits of their property. Only in 1863 did the municipal authorities assume responsibility for covering roads. The duty of homeowners became keeping streets in good shape. Alas, they were often unable to manage this task, and in 1875, their responsibility was limited to pavements.

Meanwhile, city planners were continuously looking for long-lasting materials and new methods of laying roads. Thus, in December 1840, Director of the Commission for Moscow Buildings Alexander Bashilov described the paving of Bolshoi Chernyshovsky Pereulok (now Voznesensky) near Tverskaya Street by a special method in his report to Duke Golitsyn:

“This work was done in the following way: a cube of soil was removed to a depth of seven vershoks (a measure of length in old Russia equivalent to 4.5 centimetres); two vershoks of sand were placed into its foundation and tamped; hard sand stones from the Lytkarinsky mines were put on top of sand. They were roughly dressed and shaped as five-vershok-high cubes. These sand stones were laid with certain spaces, which were filled with sand.”

Report of the Commission for Moscow Buildings to Dmitry Golitsyn. 5 December 1840. Main Archive Department of Moscow.

Report of the Commission for Moscow Buildings to Dmitry Golitsyn. 5 December 1840. Main Archive Department of Moscow.

Moscow was actively borrowing the European experience of street building and even invited foreign experts. Thus, in 1841 Count de Montier proposed investing his own capital for paving Moscow roads with sand stones on condition he was reimbursed for all his expenses with annual payments. This investor and subcontractor in one person wanted to sign a contract for 15 years. Citing the experience of paving roads in London, Paris, Vienna and Hamburg, he emphasised: “…good paving should last twice as long here than in Paris, specifically, for 80 years, and being well-done once and for all, such roads will cost much less to maintain than those covered with small cobblestones.”

Letter by Count de Montier to Governor-General Neidhart. 18 June 1841. Main Archive Department of Moscow.

Letter by Count de Montier to Governor-General Neidhart. 18 June 1841. Main Archive Department of Moscow.

Letter by Count de Montier to Governor-General Neidhart. 18 June 1841. Main Archive Department of Moscow.

The contract was signed but not everything proved to be as optimistic as the French count promised. Colonel Maximov, who inspected his work on Tverskaya Street in July 1842, expressed critical remarks in his report to Duke Golitsyn, also citing European experience: “…I cannot express my positive opinion about the pavement done on Tverskaya Street.  I am convinced that if the road on Tverskaya  is not boulder based but simply put on a sand layer, in my opinion, it should be at least one foot thick in Russia with all the precautions, <…> and it will be more comfortable and easier to walk on than our cobbled roads, but the stones used for it will wear much faster and the road will be more difficult to maintain. This is proved by the not-so-successful 30 year-long experience of contracts concluded in France on the upkeep of such roads.”

Report by Col. Maximov to Governor-General Golitsyn. 5 July 1842. Main Archive Department of Moscow.

Report by Col. Maximov to Governor-General Golitsyn. 5 July 1842. Main Archive Department of Moscow.

In 1843, Bashilov himself lashed out at Count de Montier because the road on Tverskaya Street “had become ugly” and compelled him to “fulfil his duty,” that is, his promise to rebuild the road.

Report by Director of the Commission for Moscow Buildings Alexander Bashilov to Dmitry Golitsyn. 15 April 1843. Main Archive Department of Moscow.

Road experiments continued in the latter half of the 19th century with the participation of foreign builders. Thus, in 1876 a representative of the British partnership, John Norris, asked the municipal council to pay it two thousand roubles in silver for paving a wooden road of about 140 square sagenes (old Russian measure of length equal to 2.13 m) in front of the house of the Governor-General on Tverskaya Street. The re-appearance of a wooden road right in front of this house some time later is not a surprise – it had one indisputable advantage over a cobbled road: it was much quieter.

Request by representative of the John Norris partnership Ivan Kumming to the Moscow Municipal Council. 18 October 1876. Main Archive Department of Moscow.

At about the same time, the Moscow Duma sent several engineers abroad to study the production of asphalt and advancements in road making. They came to the conclusion that Moscow should give up cobbled stone in favour of asphalt or paving blocks. As a result, five experimental sections of the road were built on Tverskaya Street: four were covered with asphalt (from briquettes, hexagonal blocks, Syzran’s asphalt and pressed asphalt) and one with wood (in line with the Nicholson wood block pavement system). Syzran’s asphalt and wooden covering proved to be the most practical. However, before long, the experimental sections became unfit for use and required repairs. They were covered with cast asphalt. The experiment cost about 50,000 roubles.

By the end of the 19th century, in 1896, the area of asphalt roads in Moscow totaled about 5,500 square sagenes. They were covered in asphalt mostly on private funds in front of the houses of wealthy Muscovites. The surface of cobbled roads exceeded that of other coverings by 15 times.

The 20th century: The asphalt era

In about 40 years, the paving of Moscow streets more than doubled: in 1868 the total area of paved roads was 907,500 square sagenes, and in 1912, it exceeded 1.07 million square sagenes (of which cobbled roads amounted to 94 percent).

Tverskaya Street faced its own urgent problems. The capital’s main street was crooked and narrow and had a longitudinal slope of up to 7.5 percent. In its early years, the Soviet Government could not decide what to do with Tverskaya Street. It considered an option of building a parallel backup street to include a number of Tverskaya side streets for several years, but eventually gave it up because it would have created more problems than it could have solved. The 1935 Moscow Master Plan provided for the expansion and straightening of Gorky Street (it was renamed in honour of the famous Russian writer in 1932).

To accomplish this, the authorities had to demolish a number of old structures and move aside the most precious historical buildings. As a result, the width of the street reached 56 metres at its beginning at the National Hotel and decreased to 40 metres near Pushkin Square. The unsightly zigzag turned into a majestic turn with a long perspective.

At the same time, the builders reduced the longitudinal slope at the section from the Central Telegraph to Sovetskaya (now Tverskaya) Square to five percent and kept the transverse incline within two percent. The pavements and traffic area of the upgraded street were covered with solid asphalt.

Statistics shows progress in upgrading Gorky Street. Upon completion of the first stage of reconstruction in 1939, asphalt covered about 2.5 million square metres of Moscow pavements, cobblestone and chips were on another 1.3 million squares metres and soil covered yet another 4.5 million square metres.

The city authorities resumed the upgrading of Gorky Street after the Great Patriotic War. Apart from real estate development, they planted more than 90 lime trees under the city’s landscaping programme. In addition, a new 30 cm wide granite border was attached to pavements on many central streets and squares.

Modern Tverskaya Street: History plus geology

In the 1990s, Gorky Street lost its greenery but regained its former name. This year it underwent another reconstruction, comparable in scale to its upgrade in the 1930s. Its pavements were substantially widened and covered with granite tile. Crossings via adjacent side streets were made on the same level with the traffic area for the convenience of pedestrians.

Utility lines – 28 km of cable channels and about seven km of wire – were concealed underground and connected to 95 collector wells. The lime trees remembered by old-timers are returning to the street. They are placed in special tubs with a high trimming to prevent their roots from being soiled with traffic grime.

The traffic area was covered with asphalt in two layers. The bottom layer is made of reinforced polymer net and the top one consists of modified bitumen that is adapted to the local climate. Moreover, asphalt was laid in one blanket layer without junctions. All this is done to prolong the service life of the road covering and reduce the risk of cracks. The total area of road repairs on Tverskaya Street – from Mokhovaya Street to Strastnoi Boulevard – exceeded 32,000 square metres.

The upgrading will be completed ahead of schedule. Builders are already marking the road surface.


Archive materials are presented by the Main Archive Department of Moscow.