Inside Romanian Atheneum, the most beautiful building in Bucharest

by Victor Grigore, Webphoto.ro

Though the term Atheneum usually refers to a library, the Romanian Atheneum is mainly a concert hall. Important personalities like Richard Strauss and Yehudi Menuhin have concerted here. The Atheneum was built by a French architect, with the help of some of the most important Romanian architects, after a national fund raising campaign. It stands for a period of great national achievements as well as for the century of progress that once earned Bucharest the title of the Little Paris of the East.

The Romanian Atheneum was erected between 1886 and 1889, at the initiative of an NGO with the same name, which lead a public campaign urging people to donate one Leu (national currency). The needed sum was raised in a few years. It was not the only construction made by a French architect, or inspired by the Parisian architecture at the time. Also on Victory Boulevard, a few kilometers away, the same Albert Galeron did the splendid building of the Romanian National Bank, as the headquarter of a private bank, which announced its bankruptcy in the day it received the bill for the sumptuous building.

The context
Another French architect, Paul Gottereau, did the project for the CEC Palace (Savings Bank) across the road from the History Museum, and also the project for Central University Library, under the name of Carol I Foundation, overlooking the Atheneum and the Royal Palace. Only a couple of decades had passed since the carriage carrying the new German king of Romania, Carol I, stopped in front of the building that was to be the royal residence. Surprised by the humble look of the place destined to be his palace, the young king had asked his companion “but where is the palace!?”. With the help of Gottereau, the royal palace was reshaped and extended. It now serves as the National Art Gallery of Romania.
The wise reign of king Carol I and the help of a patriotic generation of intellectuals and politicians, trained in the Western universities, had dramatically transformed Romania and its capital, with its dusty village like lanes, at best paved with wooden beans.

Buildings impressive by size (the Phone Palace, built by a telecom company looked like a skyscraper for the time), the Military Circle (by architect Dumitru Maimarolu), Athenee Palace Hotel (by architect Theophile Bradeau), a smaller building resembling that of the CEC Palace – the Agriculture Ministry (by architect Louis Blanc), Bucharest University and several others made Bucharest a cosmopolitan city with a French look, eclectic and with modern accents, that were bringing it at the level of other capitals on the continent.
The construction
The project of the Romanian Atheneum was made by the French architect Albert Galeron, together with Romanians Grigore Cerchez, Constantin Olanescu, Ion Mincu, Ion Grigore Cantacuzino. The style is neo-classic, with eclectic elements and of the XIX century French architecture.
The main use of this building is as concert hall, but it also has a symbolic meaning, representing the grandeur of the Romanian cultural heritage and bringing to life a glorious past with important historic figures. Both inside the concert hall as on the outside there are several names and representations of memorable personalities, as well as the name of main arts and sciences.

Under the triangular gable, resting on six ionic columns, are mosaic portraits of five Romanian rulers: Neagoe Basarab, Alexandru cel Bun, Vasile Lupu, Carol I and Matei Basarab. The golden mosaic remembers the Byzantine heritage and implies an almost religious cult of the dynastic figures.

It may seem unbelievable today, when the area is jam-packed with historic buildings and considered an ultra-central location, but at the end of 19 century, the former orchard of Văcărescu family was nothing but a wasteland, considered too far from the center for such an important building. For years, here functioned an American circus, that went bankrupt before finishing a permanent building. It probably used a tent for the rest of the premise, but there only existed a foundation and a 1-2 m high circular wall, inside which numbers of horse-taming were exhibited. The architect kept the existing round shape of the foundation, but surprisingly not for the main concert hall. The largest hall in the Atheneum maintains this ideal round shape, but the contour of the former circus was used for a majestic lobby with monnumental spiraling staircases. Before starting the actual construction, the projects were seen not only by some of the greatest Romanian architect (Ion Mincu included), but also by Charles Garnier, the famous author of Opera house in Paris and Monte Carlo, who was pleased with the solution of a vast circular lobby. The back wings were later added to the project to accommodate more exhibition halls and administrative offices.

At the entrance of the 41 m high building, the spectator is welcomed by a majestic lobby with 12 Carrara marble columns, between which 4 monumental stairs spiral their way up, on the sides of one staircase of honor. The bust of composer George Enescu, who conducted the philharmonic while being only 17 years old, rests in the middle of this staircase. Enescu was also the one who launched the fund raising for a new concert organ.
The concert hall has a capacity of 800 places, under a dome 16 m high, with a diameter of 28,5 m. The cupola is decorated with golden stucco representing plants and animals and with the names of important personalities.
Under the dome, all around the concert hall there is a fresco of 3 m height and 75 m length, by Costin Petrescu. It represents scenes from the national history, from the conquest of Dacia by emperor Trajan, the reign of Stephen the Great, the unification of Michael The Brave, the reign of Cuza, the independence war, the reign of king Carol I and Ferdinand I. The fresco was later added, between the two wars, under Carol II, having an exemplary role, as the Biblical scenes in churches, instructing the peasants unable to read.

The entire project would not have been possible without the efforts and struggle of Romanian Atheneum Society, presided by Constantin Esarcu, for which Albert Galleron built a majestic villa in Bucharest, also turned into a public donation by Esacru’s will.

Întregul proiect de strângere de fonduri ar fi fost imposibil fără efortul și entuziasmul uriaș al societății Ateneul Român, condusă de Constantin Esarcu, unul dintre marii donatori, pentru care Albert Galleron a proiectat și o vilă impresionantă în București, de asemenea donată prin testament.

The Philharmonic held concerts here since 1888, without interruptions, but the Atheneum also hosted painting expositions, conferences and symposiums. Important personalities have concerted here: George Enescu, Sergiu Celibidache, Ionel Perlea, Herbert von Karajan, Dinu Lipatti, Arthur Rubinstein, Pablo Casals, Erich Kleiber, David Oistrah, Igor Strawinsky, Richard Strauss.
In front of the Romanian Atheneum, in the small park, there is the most famous of Mihai Eminescu, the national poet of Romania. The statue of an almost deified Eminescu is made by Gheorghe Anghel, the same sculptor who created the bust of George Enescu from the inside.

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