NEWS

Once a force in architecture and industry,Ermoupolis retains its neoclassical charm

Ermoupolis in Syros, when viewed from an arriving ferry, presents one of the most purely neoclassical images in Greece’s urban geography. As one explores the streets leading up the town’s two hills, it is hard to imagine that in 1821, when the Greek War of Independence began, this was an «uninhabited, deserted stretch of coast» inhabited only by «unsuspecting frogs» and a place that not even the island’s fishermen would visit. Ermoupolis peaked shortly after being settled and soon became an industrial and commercial 19th century metropolis. Syros took a neutral stance during the War of Independence, firstly because it had no quarrel with the Turks, who had granted the island a self-governing status, and secondly because that was the advice of the island’s French patrons. Protected from the effects of the war, Syros’s port became a haven for refugees from Smyrna and other parts of Asia Minor, from the Peloponnese and the islands of Samos, Crete, Rhodes and especially from Chios, Kasos, Hydra and Psara. The refugees lived in tents and wooden shacks as they believed that their stay was temporary. Very soon, however, enterprising Chiots and Kasiots entered into business and the town began to be built, each group of refugees forming a district, hence their names: Psariana, Hydraika, Vrontado, Egripiotika. The oldest is Ano Syra, the medieval town built around AD 1200 around the church of Aghios Georgios at the top of the hill. After 1830 the situation settled and the town’s inhabitants became prominent in the transit trade of the eastern Mediterranean, in the textile, tanning, iron, shipping, banking construction and shipbuilding industries. In 1869, Syra was Greece’s main commercial port. The entire community was dedicated to the god Hermes, after whom the port was named. It was the metropolis of the «second chance,» a miniature New York of its time. Prosperity brought culture, art, opera, clubs and architecture. For the new urban class, the dream was to acquire one of the new neoclassical houses being built based on a town plan designed by Wilhelm von Weiler in 1937. According to reports by Andreas Syngros, the locals would scrimp on everything else, including food, in order to invest in luxuries and an imposing home in the latest European architectural style. Famous Bavarian and Italian architects worked feverishly from 1940 to 1960, the period when the town took on the shape seen today. The neoclassical style employed was either Athenian, French or German, with a narrow facade, no courtyards, thick walls built of large stones, timber floors, marble rectangular balconies, decorative iron railings, and stone work carved by stonemasons from Tinos and Andros. A wooden staircase leads straight to the upper floor where the reception rooms were situated, with ceilings painted by Italian artists. The ground floor, if not occupied by a commercial establishment, was where the dining room, kitchen and family sitting room were found. The inward-looking and very private homes were somewhat foreign to the maritime, Mediterranean temperament of sociability. Walking out of one of these houses and heading up to Ano Syra, one has the sense of entering another world. European introversion gives way to a Cycladic landscape, an open sky, and simple cubist architecture. A tour of the town as it is today begins in the port. There you can see the Customs House at Nisaki and the Lighthouse, a monument built in 1934 and whose light, according to legend, could be seen as far away as Smyrna. There are also buildings along the waterfront, including the historic old hotels such as the Aktaion, the Hermes and the Kymata. At the heart of the town is the 19th century Miaoulis Square, with Ernst Ziller’s imposing town hall. Further on are the districts of Metamorphosis and Vrontado and the mansions of the wealthy Chiots, then Vaporia, with its view of the sea. The families of Vaporia – the Rallises, the Rodokanakises, the Mavrokordatoses – trace their origins to Byzantium. Some hailed from the island of Chios but others were aristocrats from Hydra, Roumeli, Smyrna and Psara. The town’s heyday lasted little more than a decade or perhaps a generation at best. The rich industrialists soon abandoned Ermoupolis for Athens and the capitals of Europe. The administrative center of the southern Aegean, Syros today retains its self-sufficiency and nurtures a budding economy that is not entirely dependent on tourism, unlike the area’s other islands. This article appeared in the Aug. 27 edition of K, Kathimerini’s color supplement.