Historic building now derelict

Georgiou Gennadiou Street, a small and ungainly thoroughfare connecting Academias and Feidiou in downtown Athens, leads directly to the old Greek Conservatory, for many years one of the capital’s many ruins. There would be nothing new about this in Athens were it not for the fact that this particular building is of special historical significance, plus the fact that a Culture Ministry decision for its renovation has remained pending since 2006. The building becomes more dilapidated with every day that passes. It is currently covered in a thick material which serves only for hanging advertisements and posters for the Athens Bar Association’s elections. Most people are unable to see anything of beauty in this elegant shell of a building. Even in old photographs, the edifice always seems humble compared to the lofty neoclassical mansions of Vassilissis Sofias or Amalias avenues. Maybe people would be more interested in its fate if they knew that it is one of the three oldest surviving examples in central Athens (outside Plaka) of residential architecture from the early years of King Otto’s reign in the late 1830s. The other two are the Museum of the City of Athens in Klafthmonos Square and the two-story residence on the corner of Panepistimiou and Korai streets. In a Culture Ministry brain wave in 2006 to buy up old buildings for renovation, the former Greek Conservatory, which belongs to the National Bank of Greece Employees’ Pension Fund, was one of the edifices on the list. Serving as the residence of the first Austrian ambassador to Athens, it was a sparkling jewel of architecture used for formal parties and soirees in the 1840s. From the parapets of the open veranda one could see Athens growing year by year, home by home. Houses were separated by fields at the time, and enchanting piano music carried across the city on the gentle breeze. The residence of the Austrian ambassador (which is why the Austrian Embassy is showing keen interest in the fate of the building) played an important part in the history of both countries. It was constructed by the German architect Gustav Adolf Lueders, who adapted the designs of Viennese architect Carl Rosner to German neoclassical lines. Having changed hands many times over the years, the building eventually became home to the Greek Conservatory in 1919. New evidence of the building’s history has recently been brought to light in Professor Polychronis Enepekides’s book «Letters to Vienna, 1824-1843» (Oceanida). Traffic on the streets around Feidiou is always heavy. The German Archaeological Institute, a design of Ernst Ziller located right next door, is a bright spot amid the general ugliness of the city, but its impact is naturally limited. The Greek Conservatory building stands to remind us that this country has a very strange sense of appreciation and a very narrow view when it comes to urban architecture. Yet Athens still has many stories to tell. The question is: Who’s listening?