State rooms for a game of chess: how a mansion got to house a chess school

State rooms for a game of chess: how a mansion got to house a chess school
Many have claimed ownership of the mansion that rose out of ash. It served as a venue for the meetings of the Decembrists, composers, poets, and art patrons. Throughout its history, the mansion has borne witness to family dramas and the kindling of romantic feelings, and its walls remember the sound of opera music and the hum of car engines. Today, the state rooms of the mansion hold black-and-white checkerboard tables.

- Of all the capitals, big or small,

Moscow is surely best of all.

- As far as I can judge,

To a large extent the fire made it such.

Alexander Griboyedov, Woe from Wit.

 

These paradoxical words by Skalozub in Alexander Griboyedov’s play Woe from Wit, ring true when it comes to Gogolevsky Boulevard, a street that was built after the fire of 1812. “How much effort had to be made to turn the ugly hill, which is now a fine boulevard, into such a pleasant place: a lot of planning took place; a huge hill, not smaller than the dome of the Church of the Intercession in the Gryazeh on the other side of the street, was razed,” reads the Moscow Statistical Note of 1832.

Every building along the boulevard has a history. This is especially true of the ones on the even side, where many of Russia’s most famous people either lived or stayed. Alexander Pushkin was a frequent guest at building 2, while building 6 was designed specifically for city head Sergei Tretyakov, the brother of the famous art patron Pavel Tretyakov, who founded the eponymous gallery. A plaque on building 10 features intertwining laurels, – a reminder of the life of Decembrist Mikhail Naryshkin, who lived and was arrested there.

Building 14/1, just a few steps further, was a musical centre in 19th century Moscow. It was frequented by musicians Fyodor Shalyapin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Alexander Glazunov. Today, this mansion with its eclectic façade is home to the Mikhail Botvinnik Central Chess House. The building was included on the cultural heritage list, and was recently recognised as the best renovation project in the 2016 Moscow Renovation contest.

 

Marble fireplaces and a Persian room

Following the fire of 1812, what is now the Chess House was an empty lot. Ten years later, Yekaterina Vasilchikova, the wife of Second Lieutenant Alexander Vasilchikov, purchased the land. Five more years passed before she got a mortgage for it at the Moscow Building Commission, which provided her with five-year interest-free loan to build two mansions along the boulevard.

The mansion was rebuilt in the early 1860s, when a connecting building was constructed between the mansion and the smaller building next door.

The ground floor features a reception and a billiard room. From the side of the courtyard, a kitchen was located with a staircase leading to the state dining room on the first flour. A hall with excellent acoustics can be found on the floor. Orchestra choirs are placed in the attic on both sides of the hall. A guest room separates the hall and the dining room.

The enfilade of the state rooms is decorated with tapestries and wood panels, patterned parquet floors, gilded chandeliers and several sconces. There are three elaborate fireplaces made of marble and jasper. Some rooms have exotic names, such as the one with the dome, carved arches and geometric patterns, which was called Moorish. Another room, which was most likely used for smoking, was called Persian.

From wooden entryway to power station

Merchant Alexander Alexeyev purchased the mansion and moved in with his family in 1865. Friend and family gatherings were frequent, and the owner’s nephew, future stage director Konstantin Stanislavsky, came often. It was Alexeyev who built the two-storey annex in the courtyard.

After the Alexeyev family lived there, the mansion was sold several times. New owners replaced the wooden entryway with stone. A powerhouse with ventilation chambers and a boiler room was built. A column-supported cast iron balcony was built in the late 19th century. Later, in the 1910s, four cars, a rare sight at the time, were parked in the garage. 

The Supreme Court, political émigrés, and a House of Chess

Throughout the Soviet era, the mansion had several owners. In 1923, it housed the RSFSR Supreme Court, then political émigrés lived there in late 1930s, before a building organisation moved in after 1945. In 1956, the mansion became the USSR Central Chess Club. A FIDE Congress was held at the house as well as the headquarters of the Moscow Chess Olympics.

In 60 years, the house was visited by many chess stars including world champions Max Euwe, Robert Fisher, Viswanathan Anand, Magnus Karlsen, Hou Yifan, Susan Polgar, and the legends Samuel Reshevsky, Bent Larsen and others. It served as a venue for world championships, major international tournaments, Soviet Olympics, and All-Union school tournaments.

Today, the mansion is home to a children’s chess school, the 64 - Shakhmatnoye Obozreniye (Chess Revue) magazine, and the world’s first chess museum, featuring rare items such as a billboard of the 1942 Kuibyshev Master and Grand Master Tournament, and the Lady Hamilton-Russel Cup, which the world’s first female champion Vera Menchik won in 1927. Other exhibits include the table of the legendary 1984 Karpov-Kasparov World Championship match, and Ivan Butrimov’s 1821 manual, which is the first chess book written in Russian. There are also ivory, china, and wood chess sets, billboards, old books, paintings, and personal belongings of famous chess players.

 

Chessboards in state rooms

The building underwent renovation from January 2015 to November 2016. Lights were replaced; the original wall colour was restored, as were the parquet floor, the gilded plasterwork, the entrance hall and the white marble staircase with elegant brass railings. The open gallery with four caryatids underscores the ceremonial look of the staircase, which leads to the first-floor state rooms.

The frieze runs along the wall with medallion cupids on the upper part. The second state room is decorated with pilasters with capitals and stucco; bottom panels feature rocaille ornament, typical of the transition from Classicism to eclecticism; opposite the windows is a white marble carved fireplace in the Rococo style. The coves that mark a transition from the walls to the ceiling are embellished with alternating children figures and male mascarons, or mask-like reliefs. The dining, or portrait room today, has the original ceiling with elaborate stucco, and the plafond features a circle with high relief figures of cupids and vines.

The mansion is now a mix of history and the present. The unique 19th century interiors are matched with cutting-edge equipment for chess competitions at the highest level. The lavishly decorated halls feature tables with painted chessboards, which can be used by children and adults alike.

 

Chess is very popular in Moscow. Over 1600 players train at the six schools of the Moscow Sport Committee. Amateurs and professional players frequent chess-related events, as well as clubs. For instance, Moscow squares, parks and schools turn into chess venues on 20 July that marks International Chess Day. By tradition, a match with students as living pieces takes place that day.

Qualification rounds for the Chess Boulevard project are held on Moscow boulevards from May to September, with the finals scheduled for City Day. Participants compete against famous grand masters, and familiarise themselves with computer software, robots and other innovations. Read a Mos.ru article to find out more about the development of the game in Moscow, chess schools and related events.