LIFE

Memories of the ‘blue building’ in Exarchia

MELITA TSOUTRELI-BENA

TAGS: Architecture, Athens, History

Years have passed and none of the builders, designers or original residents of the apartment block on the corner of Zaimi and Stournari streets in the central Athens neighborhood of Exarchia is alive anymore. For this reason, it would be a shame if the building’s history – especially the scarring events of December 12, 1944, which I lived through here as a resident in my childhood – were allowed to be forgotten.

It’s better known to the general public as the apartment block of Exarchia Square, or the “blue building” (even if it isn’t anymore). When it was built, architects marveled – as they still do today – at the work of Polyvios Michailidis, a Cypriot who would later become a professor at the Athens Polytechnic’s School of Architecture. The talented architect was himself an alumnus of the school, having graduated in 1930. He then went to Paris where for two years he collaborated with one of the pioneers of what is today called modern architecture, Le Corbusier. In 1934, influenced by the ideas of the Swiss-French architect, and in collaboration with Valentis Thoukididis, Michailidis designed an apartment building that was considered very modern at the time on the corner of Zaimi and Stournari streets. The building permit is dated June 11, 1934. Its construction was carried out by the technical office M. Averov-Michailidis Brothers, who were also the owners of the five-story building. Michailidis’s brothers were Giorgos and Dinos, who were both civil engineers, and also graduated from the Polytechnic. They were the brothers of my mother, Maroula Bena-Michailidi. The youngest, Giannos, was still in middle school at the time.

I was born in this building in 1939, when Exarchia was quite a desirable area for an Athenian family to live. The events of December 1944 are etched into my childhood memories. There was a small pool on the roof of the penthouse and a garage in the basement. The Michailidis family lived on the fourth floor, which had an outer and inner stairway, and access to the penthouse on the fifth floor, where the bedrooms were located. We were all friends and looked out for each other during the hardship of the Nazi occupation. I was too young to remember the names of all the tenants, but I do remember the family of architect Pavlos Michaleas, the lawyer Vyronas Vasileiou and a couple named Eleftherios and Susan Saridis. I had no siblings but there were three other children in the apartment building. They were Antonis and Froso Michaleas and Aleka Vasileiou, and together we lived through the dangers of the Dekemvriana – the series of battles in Athens in which Greek leftist resistance forces fought against the British army and the government of Greece in December of 1944, which ultimately ended in a leftist defeat. Bullet holes from the Dekemvriana are still visible on the building’s facade.

When the Dekemvriana began, British troops set themselves up on the fifth floor of the building and installed a heavy machine gun on the roof that targeted the corner of Zaimi and Stournari streets. In doing this, they prevented troops from the EAM-ELAS left-wing resistance movement from reaching Patission Street. At the time, representatives of EAM-ELAS informed my father, Spyros Benas, who was a civil engineer, that they intended to blow up the apartment building in order to force the British out and get rid of the machine gun they had mounted on its rooftop. He was told all the building’s residents must leave as soon as possible because their lives were in danger.

My father somehow thanked them for their warning, but then told them it would not be possible for the building’s tenants to cross area streets due to bullets from both sides of the conflict. He asked them to tell him where they planned to place the dynamite and the precise amount of explosives they intended to use. Benas was familiar with the layout of the building and the endurance of its columns, so after the rebels answered him, he met with the Michailidis brothers and they all decided the building’s 46 residents would stay in the large apartment on the third floor at the time of the explosion.

The dynamite was placed in the building’s garage, which had been used as a shelter since the beginning of the war. Forty-two tenants along with myself and three other children sheltered in the kitchen, the area in front of the kitchen and the ironing room of the third-floor apartment, which was considered the building’s safest area. We stayed huddled there for more than 24 hours.

Early on the morning of December 12, 1944, the bomb went off. The small apartments on the first, second and third floors of the building on the side facing Zaimi Street were demolished. But the rest of the building stayed standing.

In order to get out of where we were sheltered, we opened a hole in the wall on the uncovered side, facing the apartment building on Bouboulinas Street. That way we were able to escape through the enclosed garden between the buildings. We emerged on Bouboulinas Street near the back of the Polytechnic. Our building’s residents were guaranteed safe passage after the explosion, so we were able to make our way on foot to seek refuge in safer parts of Athens.

Polyvios Michailidis had two daughters whom he loved dearly. Dolly Cheimona-Michailidi, who now lives with her family in Athens, and Katy Stavrou-Michailidi, who lives with her family in Cyprus. Katy inherited her father’s talent and became a painter. They did not experience the Dekemvriana as Katy had not yet been born and Dolly did not live there at the time.

Respected architects and civil engineers had their technical offices in the building. In 1967, a civil engineer named Giorgos Birdimiris and the unforgettable architect Giorgos Theodosopoulos, also president of the Architects Association, rented the second-floor apartment, which was rebuilt after its destruction during the Dekemvriana. Giorgos Theodosopoulos had a collaboration with architects Eleni Agriadoni and Katerina Thanou. The apartment is still used as an office by Thanou.

On the third floor, the apartment facing Zaimi Street, which also suffered damage from the Dekemvriana blast, is also an architect’s office, belonging to Eleonora Paspaliari, who has also taken on the difficult job of managing the building.

Architect friends of mine have told me that when they were studying in the 1950s and 60s, their professors would take them to this building to study it. Others still ask me to this day if I have the original blueprint of the building for them to see.

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