Avant-garde planetarium, communal house, eclectic mansion. Six important buildings in and around the Presnensky district

Avant-garde planetarium, communal house, eclectic mansion. Six important buildings in and around the Presnensky district
Find out what house Korney Chukovsky hated while Soviet psychoanalysts loved, where the best known penthouse of the late 1920’s is located and what Moscow has in common with Sintra, Portugal.

This is the third year that the educational project by the Museum of Moscow ‘Street Lecture Course. Local History’ is gathering Muscovites and tourists for street lectures by historians and experts in Moscow studies in various areas – from Zamokvorechye to Krylatskoye.

The third season of the project started early in July. mos.ru is publishing summaries of the lectures of the previous season between the meetings. The new abstract is about the Presnensky district. Yevgeny Pliss, a local history expert and a guide, speaks about the most attractive samples of Presnya’s amazingly rich architecture.

Moscow Planetarium

5/1 Sadovaya-Kudrinskaya St.

Built in 1928–1929, the Moscow Planetarium is the oldest in Russia and one of the first and biggest ones in the world. It was based on a project by young architects Mikhail Barshch and Mikhail Sinyavsky, later professors of the Moscow Architecture Institute.

The building features constructivism style, extremely popular at that time. Its hall, originally designed to accommodate 1,400 spectators, is covered with an egg-shaped concrete doom, 25 m in diameter and only 8 — 12 cm thick. Now the Great Star Auditorium can seat 350 visitors. The entrance and the staircase extend beyond the cylinders of the lower floors, highlighting the shapes of the building.

The 1920’s were a tough time for the country. Nevertheless, the authorities bought complicated and expensive equipment for the planetarium. On 23 September 1928, the day the corner stone of the planetarium was laid, wrote:

It is remarkable that, suffering from material poverty, we erect an expensive edifice which has no analogues in lots of capitals … Outwardly spectacular, the planetarium will at the same time help the working people broaden their mental horizons. So we are to welcome this construction as an event of exceptional cultural importance.

The Planetarium was an extremely popular place in the Soviet epoch. Here citizens used to watch films about stars and planets, polar aviators got training, cosmonauts studied astronavigation. However, in 1994, the institution was closed to open again in 2011, after long-time hardships and reconstruction. The building has been raised 6 m up, with a ramp added to the historical entrance.

The Moscow Planetarium remains unique as a museum and a sample of the avant-garde architecture, and the unusual silhouette of its dome is easily recognizable among old and new Moscow buildings.

The People’s Commissariat of Finance building

25/1 Novinsky Boulevard

We still can see several excellent samples of the constructivist architecture. One of them is the ‘experimental house of transitional type’ built according to the project by architects Moisei Ginzburg and Ignaty Milinis for officers of the People’s Commissariat of Finance. It is one of the last houses built with the account of the outdated concept of a communal house.

There were six such experimental multi-storeyed houses built, with the People’s Commissariat of Finance building being the most interesting of them. The architects solved the problem of effective exploitation of the dwelling space by way of ‘cutting down and compacting the service spaces’. The house consisted of multi-storeyed dwelling cells instead of flats, the first floor was constructed as open space with supporting columns, while the roof was used as a solarium and a sports ground. There also was a penthouse-like additional storey where the people’s commissar Nicolay Milyutin himself lived for some time.

The neighbouring buildings had a communal block with a dining-hall, kindergarten, communal laundry and garage. Nevertheless, as kitchen modules were also provided in the dwelling cells, people could stick to traditional, detached mode of life. Non-standard architectural solutions created grave problems in exploitation, including those of water-supply and sewerage systems. After World War II, the tenants were moved from the communal block, and a printing house was established there, while the unique dwelling cells were turned into ordinary flats for one or several families. Due to the savage exploitation and reconstructions, the house come close to wreck.

In 2017, a team headed by Alexei Ginzburg, grandson of one of the architects, started restoration of the house. Now we are witnessing the return of its initial avant-garde shape – that of ‘a snow-white ocean liner with its captain’s bridge’ floating in Moscow.

Ryabushinsky’s mansion

6/2 Malaya Nikitskaya St.

On both Bronnaya, both Nikitskaya streets and on Povarskaya street there are a lot of old urban mansions. A famous architect Fyodor Schechtel built one of them for the outstanding merchant and patron of arts Stepan Ryabushinsky. This house can be called the most conspicuous Art Nouveau building in Moscow.

It is located on a lot of irregular shape. Formerly it was open from all sides, now it is partly hidden among the neighbouring houses and grown trees. The building’s façades are coated with popular then tiles ‘boar’ (metro) and original inlays. All façades are unique: now smooth, then strict volumes and lines transform into each other.

Ryabushinsky’s mansion can be admired not only from outside. Since 1965 it has been open for visits as memorial flat of Maxim Gorky who spent here the last years of his life, we have a chance to have a look at the interiors.

The magnificent décor of the first floor is dedicated to the water element. The fabulous wave staircase is rising from the ‘underwater realm’ to the ‘earthly world’ of the second floor. This used to be the place for the collection of icons, the greatest one in Russia. The spaced above was used as an old-believer’s chapel with a ‘small cosmic dome’. Having studied his new home, the astonished new owner murmured: “It’s curious, no one in Europe has ever seen anything alike.”

But a part of the contemporaries and later the Soviet government as a whole took a dislike to Art Nouveau in general and Ryabushinsky’s mansion in particular. This is how Kornei Chukovsky characterized the house: “The ugliest sample of the decadent style. Not one sincere line, nor a right angle. The whole thing is spoiled by obscene flourishes, vapid and impudent grimaces. The staircase, ceilings, windows – nasty vulgarity everywhere.” At the same time, members of the Society of Psychoanalysis who worked there in the 1920’s admired the complicated interiors. After Maxim Gorky had returned to the USSR, the house was given at his disposal. The writer and the public figure lived here up to his death in 1936.

Arseniy Morozov’s mansion

16/1 Vozdvizhenka St.

This house is not in  Presnensky, but in Arbat district, but we also would like to mention it. All the more, it is in a stone’s throw from Ryabushinsky’s mansion.

To erect the most unusual house in Moscow among the most beautiful mansions seemed an almost insoluble task. But Arseny Morozov, nephew of Savva Morozov, a celebrated patron of arts, never frittered away his energy – such a house was what he demanded.

The client found himself unable to formulate any specific withes to the architect Victor Mazyrin, and the two men started to travel in Europe. Morozov especially liked the Pena palácio in the town of Sintra, Portugal — a fantastic construction in pseudo-medieval style, and he ordered to build something of the kind on his lot.

Even  the unfinished house attracted attention of the public. Leo Tolstoy sternly characterized it in his novel Resurrection. According to one version, even Varvara Morozova, Arseny’s mother who had presented the land to her son, said: “Formerly only myself knew you are a fool, now all Moscow will know it.”

But Arseniy was not at all interested in the public opinion. He moved into his eclectic house in 1899 and started to organize carouses there. Having gone in for mysticism, in 1908 he made a bet and shot through his leg: he stated that he would not shout as he had developed spiritual power in himself thanks to esoteric exercises. He won the bet — and died of toxaemia. The mansion passed to his mistress, and later she sold the house to Levon Mantahsev, also a millionaire and a notorious fast liver.

After the revolution the house used to be the anarchists’ headquarters, then the Proletkult theatre. In the early 1920’s poets Sergei Yesenin and Sergei Klychkov lived and worked in the theatre, while avant-gardists Vsevolod Meyerhold and Sergei Eisenstein made their productions here. The People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs hosted embassies and offices of different countries here since 1928. In 1959, the mansion became known as the House of Friendship with Peoples of Foreign Countries. Now it is the Reception House of the Government of Russia.

Observatory of Sternberg Astronomical Institute, Moscow State university, in Krasnaya Presnya

5/1 Novovagankovky Pereulok

In 1827 the patron of education and sciences Zoy Zosima presented his summer house in Tri Gory (Three Mounts) in Presnya to ‘The Imperial Moscow University for arrangement of Observatory or anything else useful on the said place’. So, in 1831 an observatory was established, and during the Soviet period it was reorganized into the Institute of Astronomy. Prominent scientists held fundamental researches of the Sun, the Earth, the atmosphere and the space.

Sometimes discoveries were made by using simple devices and observations. But, in order to stay one of the world leading research centres, the observatory regularly needed new expensive equipment. The observatory was expanding, new buildings were being erected for new tasks, and only the scientists’ dwelling houses are still standing on their places.

The principal tower put on a special double foundation for highly precise measurements, was built on a huge rotating dome in 1900. It covers the famous telescope — a 15-inch double astrograph, the second largest in Russia after the refractor of the Pulkovo observatory. The telescope is equipped with two 6-metre tubes, one of them serves directing and visual observations, the second one for photographs. The telescope is still functioning today, it has conserved all its original details.

The institute got new premises on the Lenin Hills in 1954. Since 1979 the observatory has been an architectural relic. The last scientific observations here we held in the 1990’s.

House-museum of Vladimir Dahl

4/6 Bolshaya Gruzinskaya St., bld 9

The lot on which the house-museum of Vladimir Dal is now standing, in the early 18th century belonged to okolnichy Yuri Shcherbatov. He headed the Yamskoi Prikaz under Peter I. Then the land passed to his son, later to his grandson Mikhail, the author of 7-volume Russian History from the Oldest Times, owner of a colossal library, one of the most highly educated Russian people of the epoch of Catherine the Great. We do not know for sure whether the house was already standing over the Presnya River. The wooden construction has been rebuilt several times, and the original details of the interiors can now be seen only in the museum rooms.

After the Shcherbatov family the estate was owned by Lev Vasilievich Tolstoy. One of his daughters, Ekaterina, gave birth to the poet Fyodor Tyutchev, another one, Nadezhda, was stepmother to the Decembrist Dmitry Zavalishin.

The famous lexicographer and ethnographer, former army doctor Vladimir Dahl purchased the house in 1859. He had retired in the rank of councilor of State and moved from Nizhny Novgorod to Moscow. It was in  this house he worked on his collection Russian Popular Proverbs and completed the work of his life,  The Explanatory Dicrionary of the Living Great Russian Language. The writer Pavel Melnikov-Pechersky, the author of well known books about Russian old-believers, and his family lived in Dahl’s house during three years.

Some miracles have been saving the house up to nowadays. In 1812 it escaped the great fire, while the neighbouring mansions perished. Napoleon’s occupants did not destroy it while making a fire in the rooms. In 1942 an aircraft bomb stroke a house next it but did not explode. Field engineers found a Russian-Czech dictionary in it; probably, the bomb was made by Czech anti-fascists.

Enthusiasts from the All-Russian Society of Preservation of Historical and Cultural Relics inaugurated a museum in Dahl’s house on a voluntary basis.