The Prague House was built in the period of 1897-1899 (as most houses in the street) by the prominent Belgian architects M. Bosmans and Henry Van de Veldem. It was in fact their first joint project for the famous Belgian dentist family of Van Stratum. Dentistry in this family had been passed down from one generation to another since 1840 and private surgery was always favoured by an elite clientele. The last generation of dentists provided their services to, among others, prominent industrialists (for example the Solvay family), members of the Royal family and nowadays to some highly placed EU officials.
The Prague House is located between two beautiful squares, Marie-Louise and Ambiorix, in the vicinity of European institutions. These squares together with the Avenue Palmerston, form a park complex interlinked through a system of fountains and small lakes. The Marie-Louise Square was created in 1875 following the plan of development of this area proposed by the architect Gédéon Bordiau. Belgian rich aristocracy had their residences in the square. Over the centuries, the system of lakes started slowly diminishing and the lakes were gradually filled in, with only the largest one being preserved, forming the focal point of the Marie Louise Square.
Anyone visiting Brussels is bound to notice the somewhat disheartening contrast of different architectural styles in buildings directly adjacent to one another. An Art Nouveau jewel of a building might be standing next to a new concrete block of flats, advertising itself as “a residential house”, while overpowering the Art Nouveau building with its height. This is only one of the examples of the priorities with regard to architectural heritage and town planning development applied by the former leaders of Belgium. This at times seem similar to those in practice during the Communist times in former Czechoslovakia, as may be seen in, for instance, the destruction of some exquisite architectural jewels created by the architect and founder of the Art Nouveau style Viktor Horta that were destroyed in the 1970s.
Thankfully, the loss of common sense and an infatuation with everything new did not blind all the interested parties and on 14 July 1994 many prominent buildings were classed as historically precious and protected by the state. It is no surprise that the Prague House – the residence of the Prague Representation – is one of the listed buildings since it is one of the most prestigious buildings on the list.
As mentioned before, Avenue Palmerston, where the Prague House is located and both adjacent squares Marie-Louise and Ambiorix, have been important residential quarters and this entire zone has been classified as a ‘zone d’intérest culturel, historique et esthétique’. On the upper side of the park, where two main streets cut across it, forming a symbolic cross, the town plan proposed the construction of a basilica that would be located right in the middle of Marguerite Square. This idea did not come to fruition and the proposal was altered resulting in the building of the dominate basilica at Koekelberg on the opposite side of Brussels.
One of the typical features of the traditional layout of Brussels houses, which has also been employed in the construction of this house, is the fact that each floor has a predetermined use. The basement, was allocated to the housekeeper and servants and was directly linked with the kitchen and larder situated on the same level.
The ground floor served as a representative area for receiving visitors, and therefore it was always furnished as luxuriously and grandiosely as possible to reflect the richness and social standing of the owner. The rooms on the first floor served as living space for the family and also as smaller rooms for the company present. The sizes of the rooms depended on the number of floors. The higher the house and the richer the owner, the more rooms were allocated for company. Higher floors housed bedrooms of the owners, above them were guest bedrooms and the attic was for children or the servants. Brussels houses, built on narrow plots of land as demanded by tradition, have rectangular layouts going deep into the blocks of houses encircling allotment gardens hiding in the middle of these blocks.
A short summary of the most important buildings by the architects M. Bosman and Henry Van de Velde:
Bureau de la société Solvay – Ixelles 1883
Hôtel de monsieur Résimont – Bruxelles 1898 – Maison de Prague
Résidence d’ Alfred Solvay – Watermael-Boisfort 1898
Institut de Sociologie – parc Léopold de Bruxelles 1901
Ecole de Commerce – parc Léopold de Bruxelles 1903
Gare maritime de Tour et Taxis – Bruxelles 1902 – 1910
The design of the Prague House reflects the traditional layout of houses between 1870 and 1914 with the only difference that the model design was exceptionally solid. The original, amazingly drawn plans for this house which are archived in the Brussels Archives include an application for the permit to build the house. This application was filed via Madame Résimont on 26 January 1898. On 1 March a document permitting the construction was received.
When glancing briefly at the Prague House for the first time whilst walking along the street, many might say: „oh yes, another typical Brussels house, just like any other”. But once you enter the house, you would be astonished by the beauty of its interiors which are simply amazing in terms of their spaciousness and the expertise reflected in the construction and architecture of the building.
The four storey house of the Prague Representation with its basement and garden belongs to the important buildings of Belgian eclecticism, an architectural style inspired by several architectural styles and periods.
The façade of the house is made of blocks of grey limestone and sandstone. The grey limestone, called by the locals ‘Belgian blue stone’, has always been a very popular and luxurious building material used by wealthy clients when building large buildings used for representative purposes. Red burnt brick was used for the rest of the house. The detailed original plans show that another upper floor was designed for the house on 12 February 1898 but it has never been built.
Entering through the massive oak door you will come to the blue and white tiled entrance hall with its high ceiling. The staircase too has blue and white tiling and boasts several master paintings on the walls. These canvases are attached directly to the wall and feature the symbolism of lions’ heads in imitation of old historical mosaics. The beautiful brass umbrella holder situated by the mirror is also worthy of attention.
The lower ground floor, currently used as a gallery, served as the servants’ quarters and housed all the facilities that enabled a smooth operation of the household. The front room facing Avenue Palmerston was used as a room for maids and it has a side staircase leading directly to the main entrance door in the hallway. The other two long, narrow rooms were used to store food and beer. The rear, largest room with its original tiled floor, panelling and a massive fireplace, used to be the kitchen featuring another of the amazing conveniences of the rich owners, a dumb waiter for meals. This was accessible on the ground floor only from the hallway so that the owners and their visitors, enjoying themselves in the lounge or the dining room, would not be disturbed. The basement also housed a laundry room, another larger, external larder and a big tank for rainwater. All these rooms have vaulted ceilings. The basement areas underneath the gallery house a wine cellar that has the very best characteristics desirable in such a room.
The underground areas also housed a furnace room, which is a chapter in itself, as is the ingenious and beautifully designed heating system. From the very beginning the house was heated using a central heating system with a massive wood boiler and a large cellar reaching to the street in front of the house. There was an entry for replenishing the wood supplies. Heat was distributed through air vents in the walls to all floors and rooms. The openings for heat distribution hidden behind decorative grilles may still be visible in most of the rooms. A typical example of the same system can be seen in the Cathedral of the St Cross in Orleans. This method of heating, which was commonly used even in manor houses, stopped being used at the beginning of the 1950s when it was replaced by the cheaper and less dusty type of heating using crude oil. Crude oil heating is still quite popular in Belgium although it is not as cheap as it was at the beginning. To ensure true comfort in the cold months, each room was furnished with a fireplace that in its size and architectural beauty reflected the purpose of the individual rooms. Currently, the house is heated with gas and only three of the fireplaces are functional.
The ground floor, the most beautiful area in the whole house, was traditionally arranged as three inter-connecting rooms. The middle room had to rely on the daylight coming from the windows of the two adjacent rooms. This flaw was solved by the architects by using large windows on the front and the rear facades. The windows exceeded 5 metres in size which was a record for this quarter of the town. The representative area formed one unit of 19 metres and it was divided into the Rose Lounge, the Dining Room and the Winter Garden.
The Rose Lounge has typical Neo-Renaissance wall paintings of the four seasons which go beautifully with the upholstered lounge furniture and the fireplace made of white marble. The Rose Lounge is divided from the Dining Room by a sliding door which is still in use today. When the door is closed the Lounge becomes a cosy space, filled as it is with mirrors, wall and ceiling paintings.
The Dining Room with its majestic fireplace has another of the numerous firsts this house boasts. Firstly, it is its size which generally, in houses of this type, would not exceed 4.5 metres. In this case the dimensions of this room are 8.4 x 5.6 m. This design was not very common when using a building plot with a width of 8.8 metres. On the contrary, clients preferred to use the width of the plot to incorporate a wide entrance thus reducing the size of the living space. The 19th century architectural result achieved here reveals some aesthetic and technical limitations as it would not have been possible to increase the size of the rooms even more as traditional materials were not allowed to exceed permitted limits. For example the weight-bearing joists had a maximum possible length of eight metres. The original furniture of the dining room such as the fireplace, cupboards, or the large dining table were meticulously made in nearby Mechelen, well known for manufacturing the best furniture. The furniture has remained intact till the present day. It can rightly be called one of the features of this house as it harmoniously corresponds with the picture decorations on the dining room ceiling.
The tall marble columns enhance the impression of space and optically divide the Dining Room from the Winter Garden letting us enter into an area bathed in light thanks to the large windows. To increase the feeling of intense daylight, the ceiling of the Winter Garden was glassed, creating a space on the first floor for a terrace and a sitting area with a view into the surrounding greenery. The glassed ceiling of the Winter Garden is no longer in existence today as it was covered by a false ceiling in the past. But the mosaic on the floor of the Winter Garden remained intact and it has not suffered from any building alterations. It provides a pleasant contrast to the surrounding dark parquet flooring. It is possible to enter the terrace and the garden behind the house which leads into Des Eburons street from the winter garden and the lower ground floor.
Before leaving the ground floor, there is one more rarity of this house, namely the staircase. Just as it could be expected there is not only one staircase, but two. One is a very comfortable, wide staircase with richly decorated steel railings forming the spine of the tall house. This staircase was for the gentry only. At the foot of the main staircase and its railings, a large gas lamp was installed in the steel sculpture of the lion. The other, narrower staircase in the rear part of the house was for servants.
The first floor offers an irresistible view over the park in front of the house. One of the large rooms was a billiard room reserved for men only; today this room is used as the office of the Director of the Delegation of Prague. The adjacent room served as a bedroom and it was equipped with a separate very spacious bathroom with a WC cabinet and a separate shower and bath. Having a bathroom in the house at that time, the turn of the 19th century, was both luxurious and unusual.
A remarkable fact is linked to the above dating back to ca 1860 when there was an outbreak of the Black Death in Brussels. It was caused by the disease-ridden and foul-smelling Seine so it was decided to cover the river over and divert it underground. The river has disappeared and only the paintings of old masters show its original flow. A big panic soon followed when it was discovered that houses started suffering from serious damp. Therefore, architects and builders began placing toilets in the remotest parts of the house, away from the residential quarters, ideally on the mezzanine floors. This is also linked to the ingenious system of ventilation of the individual rooms and the house itself; it is possible to see the ventilation grilles located underneath the windows on the façade and other ventilation inventions cleverly incorporated by the architect Viktor Horta. To complete the picture of the Prague House it must be said that the on the second mezzanine the side wall ended in glass; only one quarter of the glass wall has been preserved in its full beauty. The remaining floors of the house, including a large attic, were used as guest bedrooms and rooms for children and the staff.