Saint Petersburg Kaleidoscope from Home. Mertens House
05 June 2020
Highlights of Saint Petersburg.
On Nevsky Prospect one may find houses which attract attention not only with the beauty of their facades, but also with the unusual architectural solutions. This is exactly what the House of Mertens (Nevsky pr. 21) is like - a quaint symbiosis of the traditions of the Italian Renaissance with its admiration for the symmetry and harmony of forms, and the northern Art Nouveau with its enlarged decorative elements and intricate floral ornaments, as if running along the wall.
Due to metamorphoses of the changeable architectural fashion of St. Petersburg, this house had changed several times beyond recognition. It is noteworthy that the development of NevskyProspektby stone houses on this site was in full swing in the first half of the XVIII century. The buildings erected in that time were "exemplary", which means they were designed according to a single approved model developed in the time of Peter the Great. The place where the House of Mertens now rises wasoccupied with a “typical” merchant mansion. It is possible that one can find stones laid by the workers during the reign of Empress Elizabeth Iin the foundation of the house.
As time passed, the house also passed from one owner to another. There were both merchants and princesamong the owners. Yes, in the middle of the XIX century it was owned by none other than the son-in-law of Nicholas I and, by the way, the grandson of the French Empress Josephine – Maximilian ofLeuchtenberg. It was during his time the building grew to four floors and turned into a solid apartment house with expensive apartments and luxury shops. It was probably aboutsuch houses they said: "it is better to have one apartment house in St. Petersburg than two gold mines in Siberia."
In 1870-s, the building had become the property of the Mertens family –the wealthy furriers who gave the house its name. The Mertens head office and the main storeselling fur products were settled here. Wealthy citizens and visiting dandies rushed to the Mertens House for magnificent fur coats and hats. By the way, at that time, the owner of a long coat could more often be a man. The coat perfectly emphasized the wealth and social position of the gentleman.
Other well-known St. Petersburg shops, for example, the famous confectionery shop of George Bormann, the producer of delicious chocolates, were also located in the Mertens House. Long before the modern “KinderSurprise”, George Bormann’scompany came up with the idea of producing chocolate Easter eggs with models of cathedrals,little crosses and other nice souvenirshidden inside. After the revolution, this chocolate factory was renamed "Red October". Still, for some time St. Petersburg street kids had been singing a “teaser” - “George Bormann - his nose is torn off, and instead of his nose here goes a smoke”
At the beginning of the 20th century, L.F. Mertens, the owner,started a major renovation in order to turn his house into an architectural masterpiece and landmark of Nevsky Prospect. It was more than just a marketing trick. Photos of the MertensHouse were included into St. Petersburg guides and art albums. The inscription "Mertens" in capital letters left no doubt about the ownership of the building. Sales of fur clothes immediately increased, and the company gained popularity far beyond the borders of Russia.
The author of the “transformation” was an architect of Polish descent Marian Lyalevich. He was a big fan of the architects of the Italian Renaissance, in particular, the great Andrea Palladio. It is very characteristicfor the Palladian style to place the arches on the central facade. Lyalevich placed three huge arched windows on the front wall of the House of Mertens, occupying almost its entire area. To do this, he had to use the monolithic reinforced concrete frame almost for the first time in St. Petersburg, which allowed these giant glass apertures to be open to Nevsky Prospect. Masterfully executed ornaments in the Art Nouveau style complement the festive decor. Plant garlands and sculpture do not overload the facade, but only highlight the purity and grace of the lines of the building. And what is surprising - Lyalevichhas preserved, where possible, the brickwork of the XVIII century. So,in fact, itis one of the oldest Petersburg housesin front of us!
When the work had been completed in 1912, the whole Petersburg started talking about the House of Mertens. Newspapers wrote about it andthe future architects of the constructivismera studied new architectural methods on its example. The combination of glass and concrete has later become a textbook practice in buildings for many decades. And the inscription“Mertens” on the top gave rise to a funny urban legend that it had been allegedly made so that any cabman could deliver the owner exactly home after a banquet or party
The 1917 revolution drew a line under the fur business of Mertens. Various Soviet institutions moved into the building, and fashion had been forgotten for a long time.
However, in 1944, after the lifting of the siege of Leningrad, the House of Mertens turned into the main "place of fashion" of the city again. The first Leningrad House of fashion models opened here. It was a real gift for the citizens. Since then, Leningrad women have become considered the most elegant and stylish women of the country. At all times, the best designers and fashion designers worked here. And the locals often came here at six o’clock in the evening and watched how incredibly beautiful fashion models left the building and headed, some to the trolleybus, some to the subway.
Today there isa fashion store of one of the largest European companiesin the House of Mertens again. Although it is not only the name on the façade, that reminds of the previous owners. There’s an "inhabitant", which had served as a symbol of the fur company "Mertens" hidden the courtyard. This is a bear sitting above a small fountain. The sculpture is made of limestone. This bear has been looking after the House of Mertens for over a hundred years.