The American Ambassador’s Residence in Prague, historically known as the Petschek Villa, built between the years of 1924-1929 by the Austrian architect Max Spielmann, is considered to be a triple touchstone of History.
Villa Petschek has a long history in terms of who has occupied the property, and what happened to the Villa during that time period. In 1923 Otto Petschek bought the land lots numbered 746-750 in Bubenec, Prague because he wanted to live closer to his brothers, who had already built residences in that neighborhood of the city. The following year, the Austrian architect Maximilian Spielmann started construction of the Villa. Spielmann was an expert in historicizing styles during a period of considerable rise in modernism throughout the rest of the country. Just five short years later, Villa Petschek was completed by Matej Blecha and Maximilian Spielmann, designed by Otto Petschek himself. The Petschek family moved into the Villa during the winter of 1929-1930 and the Staff-house next door was occupied by other Petschek relatives. Otto wanted a place for himself, his wife, and their four children—three daughters and one son—that would demonstrate his wealth and social status and provide enough space for a luxurious social life
Not even ten years later, in 1934, Otto Petschek became ill and he died. By 1938 the threat of a Nazi invasion hung over Europe, and especially Czechoslovakia. Because of this uncertainty the Petschek family fled to the United States. When the Nazi’s occupied Prague, they seized the home, and until May of 1945 it was the residence of General Toussaint who was the head of the German Army occupying Prague. After the Germans were forced out of the city, the Soviet Army took over the Villa for several days. The next occupants were the Czech General Staff and it was used as a Staff Headquarters. Not much was done to the Villa during this time to maintain or modify the property, other than several artifacts were taken and/or destroyed.
1945 was the start of an important new period when, in September, the first American Ambassador Laurence Steinhardt leased the residence from the Czech Ministry of National Defense. The lease was subject to an annual renewal and the ministry was required to make certain repairs. Three years later, in July of 1948, the residence, the Deputy Chief of Mission’s house, and the staff-house were purchased for $1,570,000 and were established as the Ambassador’s residence. The money went to the Czech government against surplus property debts to the US Government. The villa and its furniture were a part of a sales agreement between the Czech Ministry of National Defense and the US State Department along with other properties, adding up to $1.72 million. The total cost was credited to the Czech surplus debt after the war, so ultimately did not cost the US any direct money. When the relationships between the two countries became increasingly worse with the rise of Communism, the Czech Government ceased payment on property debts and the assets and credits were frozen.
The Petschek Family History begins in the early nineteenth century with Moses Ben Israel Petschek who moved from the town of Pečky to Kolin in the Kingdom of Bohemia. It is here that Moses Ben Israel has his sons, Isidor (born 1854), Julius (1856), and Ignaz (1857). In 1890, Isidor Petschek takes a position within the Brüxer Kohlenbergbau Gesellschaft, the largest coal-producing company in Northern Bohemia, situated in Brüx or what is known as the city of Most in the Czech Republic today. At the same time, Ignaz Petschek settles in Usti nad Labem, near the German border and works as a key coal trader with a focus on exportation of the product. Before Julius joins the family coal business in 1906, he works within the State Prosecutors Office for Financial Matters (Finančni Prokuratura) in a senior position. It is during this time that the Petscheks begin their economic and social rise to power through their acquisition of coal mining operations in Northern Bohemia (such as David Starck’s Bergbau und Industriewerke in 1917), making them an extremely rich and influential Jewish Family in the Austrian State. At the end of World War I the family coal business controlled 30% of the German and almost 50% of the European brown coal mining industry.
Ignaz Petschek went on to become a mine owner in 1920 and continued the family’s coal business. In the same year Ignaz also established the family bank in Prague. Julius Petscheck was a well-known financier and requested architect Max Spielmann, the same architect who designed the Petschek Villa, to design a physical building for the Bank in the center of Prague from 1923 to 1929. Commonly known as the Petschek Palace, Bankhaus Petschek + Co. was later sold to the Czech government when the family left for the United States to escape the rising tides of Nazism in 1940. In a gruesome twist of fate, during German-occupied Czechoslovakia, Petschek Palace served as the Branch Headquarters for the Gestapo, wherein Reichsprotector Reinhard Heydrich meted out sentences, many culminating in death within the walls of the Palace.
The Petschek family had recently relocated to Prague from Kolín in an attempt to escape an anti-Semitic Pogrom, and Otto Petschek was, like the rest of his family, a Coal Magnate as well as a Banker. Otto Petscheck (b. 1882) was one of Isidor Petschek’s four sons. Otto’s position in both the coal industry as well as the banking scene gave Otto the ability to buy land in the city of Prague to construct his villa. The family engaged architect and designer Max Spielmann to design their Residence, perhaps in a desire to show off their wealth or simply to have a proper home befitting a family of their stature. One would be loathe to forget the shared bond of Jewish Identity that connected both parties. As previously stated, the Petschek Villa was constructed between the years 1924-1929, concurrently with the construction of Julius Petschek’s Palace (Otto’s Uncle) in the center of Prague. As the Villa was being constructed, Otto, his wife Marta, and their four children lived in one of the other smaller buildings that were located in the complex, gradually moving the family into the central building as construction was nearing completion.
In 1934, Isidor Petschek, Otto’s father, passed away and leaves the running of the Petschek Concern to Otto. However, Otto himself dies later that same year in a sanatorium in Vienna, turning the Petschek Concern over to brother Hans Petschek, who serves until 1938. Around this time the Petschek family would clearly be aware of the anti-Semitism and Nazi regime that was spreading like a cancer across Europe. It is safe to assume that the highly visible Petscheks fully understood what these signs portended. Following the Munich Agreement the family sold all of their properties to the Czech Government and subsequently the German authority in 1939, including the Villa and Palace that had been completed barely ten years earlier, and the family left on 12 March 1939 for Great Britain, eventually emigrating to the United States in 1940. Here Hans and Walter Petschek (Julius’s Son) joined the United Continental Corporation, and some sources reaveal that Otto Petschek’s surviving nuclear family, his wife Martha (nee Popper), and his three daughters (Eva, Twins Rita and Ina-Louise) eventually immigrated to Toronto, Canada.
On 30 September 1938 the Munich Agreement between France, Great Britain, and Germany was signed. The Munich Agreement provided for Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia which was, as stated, an area that had a large German population which Hitler yearned to add to his Reich. While the Munich Agreement impinged on Czechoslovakia’s borders, the Czech Government had little to say in the proceedings. At the time Czechoslovakia and France were engaged in an alliance, which granted military assistance to the Czech Government. However, neither France nor Britain relished the idea of entering into Battle with Germany, and they used the Agreement to appease Hitler. This left Czechoslovakia with two options; either to defend themselves against the armies of the Third Reich unaided or agree to the annexation. Unable to adequately defend themselves against the might of Germany, the Czech Government permitted the annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938, effectively a seizure of the Czech lands that bordered on what is now Germany and Poland.
Consequently, President Edvard Beneš (Masaryk’s successor) exiled himself and established Czechoslovakia’s Government in Exile in London. The National Assembly then elected Emil Hácha as President of the Second Republic, created under the new National Unity Party, which was abolished at the time of Germany’s total annexation of Czechoslovakia in 1939. Hácha, a former Chief Justice, Conservative, and Catholic was a play to the Right, intended to diffuse the tense political climate. These hopes were short-lived as Hácha signed the Czech Government over to Germany in 1939. Following the turnover, Hácha retained a puppet position within the Czech government as “State President,” yet all legal and ruling power belonged to the Nazi Regime until the end of the occupation in 1945.
During this time, the Residence did not lay abandoned. Instead, Nazi General Rudolf Toussaint established his personal residence and the Wehrmacht headquarters in the home in 1939, and the Villa remained his home for about seven years. While the Petscheks lost their property to the Nazis, they were able to get a large amount of their possessions including personal family items, as well as furniture, household items and silver shipped to the United State. Unfortunately, what was left behind by the family the Nazis left their mark on, quite literally. Former Ambassador to the Czech Republic, Norman Eisen, stated in an interview with historian Aleisa Fishman, that there was Nazi Memorabilia around the house with Nazi insignias carved into the underside of desks and various pieces of furniture. Hitler intended to turn Prague into a “Museum of an Extinct Race” to serve as a “trophy case” for post World War II and the success of the Nazis, and as the story goes, Hitler ordered that none of the furniture or valuables in the Petschek Villa would be removed, but rather catalogued and stored in the basement. Former Ambassador Eisen removed many of these objects from their storage and reinstated them in their original environments throughout the interior of the home.
To understand the Residence, one must first posses an understanding of two distinct concepts. Namely, that of Neo-Baroque Architecture and the Beaux Arts tradition. For the purpose of this exploration the Beaux Arts tradition will be considered more of a theory or approach to design (although it does possess aesthetic qualities) through which Neo-Baroque sensibilities were expressed. Beaux Arts—or Classical Eclecticism—can be traced back to the end of the 19th and the Beginning of the 20th centuries. L’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris was at the center of this movement. The Ecole, which replaced the French Academy of Arts in 1819, emphasized the Classical Tradition and had students work in Ateliers under Masters or “patrons,” similar to the age-old practice of patronage common in the fields of art and architecture. Conceptually the Beaux-Arts movement aimed to restore order and unity in design. Multiple stylistic representations and associations were possible, all pulling from Classical Greek and Roman forms. For instance, Neo-Classical and Neo-Baroque are 19th-century reinterpretations of design tenants from the Classical and Baroque eras respectively. Architecture and planning were monumental in scale, hierarchical, and often mono-axial with small cross axes.
Neo-Baroque is a 19th-century reinterpretation of the Baroque Styles that were popular beginning in the 16th century in Italy. Baroque was characterized by overabundance. In part a political move by the Catholic Church to retain and attract new parishioners during the Counter-Reformation, Baroque practically overloaded the senses. Architecture became grander and more embellished, sumptuous curves and movement were introduced into the arts as Baroque wished to evoke feelings and emotional responses from its audience. It took classical forms and exploded them into decorative bouquets of decadence. This style permeated all of Europe and took hold particularly in France during the Time of Louis XIII, later developing into the French Rococo over the course of the next several Bourbon monarchs. Thus, Versailles is a perfect example of French Baroque and Rococo styles from which Otto Petschek took an enormous amount of inspiration.