Hitler visiting Prague Castle, 1939
Petschek Family Portrait
Petschek & Co. Stamp, Prague, Czech Republic
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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.

Petschek Family Portrait, University of Hamburg Digital Archives

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.

As WWII ended, Toussaint gave up the Petschek Villa. In the interim between Toussaint’s Vacancy and the United States’ lease and following the purchase in 1945, and 1948 respectively, the Villa was briefly occupied by the Soviet Army and then by the Czechoslovak General Staff as a sort of Headquarters. During 1945 the Office of the Czechoslovak Prime Minister overtook the properties of “expelled Sudeten Germans and others.” This assumption of property resulted in the redistribution of furniture and finishes to existing residences in Prague, including the Petschek Villa and Chancery. While much of the furniture and accoutrements in the Residence are original, some arrived into the Embassy’s care through this provision.  During 1945 the American Embassy in Prague was formally established, growing from what had been a Legation to a fully-formed Embassy. As mentioned, the American lease of the Petschek Villa began in September of 1945, and was a deal brokered between Laurence Steinhardt, an American Ambassador and diplomat, and the Czech Ministry of National Defense. The lease entailed monthly payments and was subject to yearly renewal. The Ministry of National Defense actually turned the lease over to the City of Prague, however, the City was unwilling to deal with the burden of the property.   

In 1946, Fritz Larkin, then Foreign Building Office (FBO) Director, received US Congressional Authorization to use foreign tax credits to obtain foreign buildings. Also known as the “Little Czar” or “Dictator” for his penny-pinching and rapid-fire deal-making, Larkin used this permission to massively expand the international holdings of the United States. Jane C. Loeffler states in her book The Architecture of Diplomacy that the United States allowed $125 million for the purchase of said buildings. This was further broken down into “15 million in US dollars to be spent over twelve years and over $110 million in credit to be spent over five years.” Loeffler also mentions that these funds not only couched Larkin’s travel expenses, they also allowed the FBO to escape the traditional budget review process, and let the FBO function without much overt supervision. 

The actions of Congress, the FBO, and Fritz Larkin, allowed for the purchase of the Petschek Villa by the United States in 1948 from the Czech Government. The Villa complex was purchased for $1,570,000 on July 20th. This transaction was more a deal of credits than of money. In fact, the million dollar plus sum, was simply credited to the Czech Republic’s surplus property debt against the United States. Essentially, the acquisition of the property was practically free for the US Government. The Petschek Family, who had immigrated to the United States, filed a claim for reimbursement of the property, for which they received a sum from the Czech Government that was deemed appropriate.   

While the Czech Republic was behind the Iron Curtain and in the throes of Communism, the Ambassador’s Residence shone as a beacon of Hope and Freedom to the citizens of Prague. While Christianity was outlawed, the Residence held Christian Services for the diplomatic circle and for Czech citizens who would’ve been forbidden to practice otherwise. However, Villa Petschek’s importance extended beyond freedom of religion. The Villa also served as a meeting point for non-conformists and dissidents at U.S. Events and meetings. However, the Embassy and Residence could only guarantee safety within its doors. Vaclav Havel, future first president of the Czech Republic, was arrested outside of the premises one evening as he returned from the Residence. From 1945 to present day the Villa has served as the residence for the American Ambassador to the Czech Republic and their families. 

The Petschek Villa is classified as a Beaux-Arts building in a Neo-Baroque Style. This distinct taste for a French architectural spirit is likely linked to Otto Petschek’s multiple trips to Versailles. The choice to build the Petschek residence in a French style did not go unnoticed, in fact, it was rather controversial. According to Mikula Hulec + Daniel Spicka, leading architects of the residence’s 2007 renovation, the Villa was held in disdain by many citizens of Prague because the construction was done in a Neo-Baroque style. Perhaps this disdain was in part due to the anachronism of the style as the rest of Czechoslovakia surged ahead on the waves of Modernism with constructions such as Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat in 1928 and Adolph Loos’s Villa Müller in 1930. Another factor to consider is the direct link between French/Neo-Baroque Architecture to tastes of the Hapsburg Dynasty, from which the newly formed Czechoslovakia was recently freed. Take, for example, Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, the massive site that is distinctly Baroque in flavor. Interestingly, the extent of the buildings designed for the Petschek clan by Max Spielmann all speak to a French Baroque revivalist style. 

German Troops Move Into Prague, Prague, Czech Republic, 1939. Originally Published in Time Magazine.
The Nazi’s stamp under a table in the residence, Villa Petschek, Prague, Czech Republic. Photographed by Sussman, Robert
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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. 

The Petschek Villa is a three-story construction capped with a metal mansard roof, perforated with hooded dormer windows, both likely constructed out of copper. This roof is a direct and obvious homage to the palaces of France and some of the rooflines of Versailles, not to mention Haussmann’s architecture of restructured Paris under Napoleon III. The floor plan is quite simple, and segmented into three parts. The Central wing is a crescent flanked on both sides by the rectilinear East and West Wings. The building’s façade is built out of stone, sandstone, and limestone, and throughout the entire Villa six different types of stone were used, including various marbles. Unfortunately, due to the juxtaposition of an historical style with the inclusion of modern conveniences, this led scagliola plaster to be used in various places on the façade in place of actual stone material. This stucco plaster deteriorated quickly and led to the damage of many decorative aspects of the exterior, which Hulec & Spicka Architects had to replace during their exterior restoration in 2007. This light-colored masonry and use of marbles, lime, and sandstones are also characteristics of Beaux Arts architecture. 

It is important to note the special conditions surrounding its property and the original two hectares bought by Otto Petschek. Firstly, the Villa is rotated so that it’s crescent is at a “maximum opening” towards the garden, according to Eva Skvarova. She also notes that the grounds contain two other buildings, one for a gardener, the other for the porter, and access to the grounds is through a decorated metal gate. The Interior of Villa Petschek, including some windows, were furnished by Emil Gerstel and Co., under the direction of Bedrich Gerstel at the time. According to Skvarova, the Gerstel company’s name was found above the ceilings of the Music and Dining rooms. The furniture provided to the Villa Petschek ranges in styles but is mainly concentrated around Louis XIV through Louis XVI, according to what Gerstl had delivered into the Residence. The home’s floor plan is rather straightforward. The family lived on the upper and attic floors of the Residence, much like a traditional Piano Nobile, while the lower floor was slated for more representative use.  

Villa Petschek is perhaps an unconventional, but stunning example of historical events that intertwine both American and Czech History. As previously mentioned, the building is a placeholder for a broader pattern of emigration from Europe to the United States, Jewish History, and American supportive intervention into a nascent country’s independence movement. After World War II the building encompasses Nazi, Soviet, and again American History. Villa Petschek then serves as a crossroads of global political forces, and has ever since its inception, as it has welcomed various heads of state across its nearly 90-year history. This directly leads into Criterion B, which states that “properties may be eligible for the National Register if they are associated with the lives of persons significant in [the American] past”. This would also extend to the numerous Ambassadors, Presidents, and dignitaries—American and foreign alike—that have inhabited the Residence in years past. While Villa Petschek may not be in a style typical for the Czech Avant Garde at the time of its construction (see Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat and Loos’s Villa Müller), the design is certainly distinguished and indicative of a distinct period in Czech history, albeit stemming from French roots. 

It is difficult to determine whether Max Spielmann is to be considered a “master” in the annals of architectural history, despite his prolific constructions for the Petschek clan. In the case of the Otto Petschek Villa however, a majority of the ornament and detailing was damaged or did not last long due to shoddy materials and construction techniques. 

The American Ambassador’s Residence in Prague, the famous Petschek Villa, is an iconic landmark to both the people of the United States as well as the Czech Republic. The Villa is testament to Europe’s dark history of oppression and occupation, but also stands as a symbol of hope and freedom to those brave enough to look for it. The continued preservation and use of such a building is a testament to the United States’ commitment to International Diplomacy and its duty to the citizens of the Czech Republic.