Balchik, a resort with Romanian royal connections on the shore of the Black Sea

Today most of the Romanian Black Sea shore is, with the exception of the Danube Delta area, a mostly uninteresting flat plain, dotted with large industrial facilities and grey communist era hotel and residential developments. However, the country had between 1913 – 1916 and 1918 – 1940 a southern rocky seaboard with spectacular vistas, which is now part of Bulgaria. In the inter-war period Queen Marie of Romania built there, in the port city of Balchik (the ancient Greek colony of Dionysopolis, founded in c7th BCE), her most remarkable holiday palace, endowed with a magnificent garden and a multitude of guest houses, over a period stretching a decade, from 1927 to 1936. Some of the best Romanian architects of the time contributed with their creations, such as Emil Gunes or Henriette Delavrancea Gibory. Taking the queen’s example, many well to do Romanians also erected summer residences of a superb architectural quality that are still in large part in place and well looked after. The coast around Balchik faces the south and is protected behind by a series of rocky hills and cliffs from the cold winds and winter weather that come over the open Pontic steppe from as far as Siberia and menaces most of the rest of the country.

The inter-war period has thus been a glorious time for Balchik, which saw the wealthy spending summers in the luxury of their seashore villas, and the emergence of a remarkable painters’ and writers’ colony that took advantage of the glorious southern sunlight, appealing coastal landscape and enjoying the picturesque and welcome of the local community that was in important part Turkish, Tatar and Bulgarian.

Balcic - villa Tenha Yuvah - Diana Mandache collection

Balchik – villa Tenha Yuvah (Turkish for “Quiet Nest”) within the Royal Palace grounds – Diana Mandache collection

Queen Marie and her family spent many a great summer holiday at her palace and gardens in Balchik, taking pleasure fast boat rides along the shore. Everything exuded the happiness and well-being peculiar of that period of history, much the same as other European aristocrats, wealthy individuals or famous artists enjoyed places in the Mediterranean or the Gulf of Mexico.

Romanian Royals enjoying a boat ride, Balcic - Diana Mandache collection

Romanian Royals enjoying a boat ride, Balchik – Diana Mandache collection

Remarkable for Balchik and the times when Marie put it on the holiday map as an idyllic place, was the worlds apart contrast of life and aspirations with the Soviet Union’s Black Sea shore communities, over the not far away border. Balchik’s flourishing years as a royal resort overlap with Stalin’s party purges, the killing and sending to prison of countless wretched souls. Romania in less than a decade after Marie built her seaside palace became one of its first victims.

This post was initially published on Diana Mandache’s weblog under our joint authorship.

Late Neo-Romanian style doorway assembly

Late Neo-Romanian style doorway assembly, house buit in the early-1930s, Cotroceni area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

I divide the evolution of the Neo-Romanian architectural style in three main phases. The early one lasted from its initiation in 1886 by the architect Ion Mincu with his edifice in the national style, Lahovary house, until 1906 when the Royal Jubilee exhibition took place, showing to the public its grand pavilions, many designed in an elevated unitary manner that “canonised” the style, which marked the beginning of its mature phase. It reached an apogee after the country’s victory in the Great War and subsequently in the 1920s decade, when was adopted all over the territory of interbellum Romania. The late 1920s, and the 1930s decade saw the increase popularity and in the end prevalence of the international styles Art Deco and Modernism, which induced a crisis of expression for the Neo-Romanian, thus marking its late phase. The national style managed to strive through an imaginative synthesis with the Art Deco and also Mediterranean inspired forms, resulting in extremely interesting designs. The evolution of the style practically ended with the instauration of communism in the winter of 1947, under the impact of the ideologically driven architectural priorities of the new political regime. It continued to have echoes for another two decades especially in vernacular forms and in motifs used on post-war edifices.

The street gate and doorway assembly presented above belongs in its design outline and period when it was built to the late phase of development of the Neo-Romanian style. The wrought iron gate is inspired from Brancovan style church or altar doors, but expressed in coordinates close to Art Deco. The two gate posts are also derived from church or medieval citadel towers, conforming with the national-romantic message of the style. The door itself shows a series of square panels pointed each by a central disc, which can be understood as the outline of an ethnographic solar disc or an interpretation of a Greek cross. The wall surround of the door is basically an adaptation of a church door opening in reduced to essence coordinates of the Art Deco style. The doorway assembly dates from the beginning of the 1930s, and as the time progressed into that decade, the expression of the Neo-Romanian forms in an Art Deco “ambiance” became even more prevalent and captivating as a form of architectural language.

Art Deco sunbursts

Art Deco sunbursts

Art Deco-like sunbursts in the summer of 2012, Grivita – Domenii area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

I am a great fan of the cheerful Art Deco panels that depict sunbursts, rainbows or southern seas themes. In that spirit I have put together a real sunburst photographed last summer in Grivita – Domenii area of the city, a quarter that is still preserving its inter-war charm when it was built up in large part in the Art Deco style, then much in vogue in Bucharest, and the emblem of an insurance company, ornament that dates from the Art Deco era, located in the town centre. Looking at the natural sunburst is easier to understand the message, optimism and confidence exuded by the Art Deco panels of Bucharest and the culture of that beautiful time in the history of architecture.

Art Deco sunbursts

Art Deco sunburst as part of the composition of an inter-war Romanian insurance company emblem, University area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

Church royal chair featuring King Ferdinand’s cypher

Church royal chair with King Ferdinand’s cypher, Mantuleasa church, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

A number of Romanian orthodox rite historic churches in Bucharest and other places of importance throughout Romania contain ceremonial chairs, named “thrones”, dating mostly from the period of the Hohenzollern – Sigmaringen dynasty (1866-1947) destined for the use of the metropolitan/ patriarch and of the chief of state who at one time or another visited, consecrated or re-consecrated that building. The chair destined for the sovereign (there were two chairs if he was accompanied by his spouse) usually displays the cypher of the crowned head who first visited the building, assisted or gave his blessing to those important ceremonies, sometimes also containing other hallmarks of Romanian royalty, such as the crown or coat of arms. A royal or princely cypher is a monogram of the reigning ruler, formally approved and used on official documents or displayed on public buildings and other objects of public use or owned by the state, such as postal boxes or military vehicles, etc.

The image above shows an interesting example of a royal chair from Mantuleasa church in Bucharest (a beautiful Brancovan style monument, restored in 1924 – ’30, in the reign of King Ferdinand and his descendant, King Carol II), photographed during a recent Historic Houses of Romania tour in that area. The chair displays Ferdinand’s cypher, a stylised back-to-back double “F”, as he was the monarch who officially inaugurated the restoration works. On top of chair’s back there is also an interesting representation of Romania’s state crown, the famous steel crown made from the melted metal of a canon captured in the 1877 Independence War. The whole assembly is rendered in the mature phase Neo-Romanian style, with ethnographic solar discs and acanthus/ vine leave carvings, constituting an interesting ceremonial furniture example expressed in the national design style. King Ferdinand’s cypher is a rare sight nowadays, the chair presented here bringing back memories of this remarkable sovereign, who strove all his life to keep a reserved and dignified public profile.

Church royal chair featuring King Ferdinand’s cypher

Church royal chair with King Ferdinand’s cypher, Mantuleasa church, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

A number of Romanian orthodox rite historic churches in Bucharest and other places of importance throughout Romania contain ceremonial chairs, named “thrones”, dating mostly from the period of the Hohenzollern – Sigmaringen dynasty (1866-1947) destined for the use of the metropolitan/ patriarch and of the chief of state who at one time or another visited, consecrated or re-consecrated that building. The chair destined for the sovereign (there were two chairs if he was accompanied by his spouse) usually displays the cypher of the crowned head who first visited the building, assisted or gave his blessing to those important ceremonies, sometimes also containing other hallmarks of Romanian royalty, such as the crown or coat of arms. A royal or princely cypher is a monogram of the reigning ruler, formally approved and used on official documents or displayed on public buildings and other objects of public use or owned by the state, such as postal boxes or military vehicles, etc.

The image above shows an interesting example of a royal chair from Mantuleasa church in Bucharest (a beautiful Brancovan style monument, restored in 1924 – ’30, in the reign of King Ferdinand and his descendant, King Carol II), photographed during a recent Historic Houses of Romania tour in that area. The chair displays Ferdinand’s cypher, a stylised back-to-back double “F”, as he was the monarch who officially inaugurated the restoration works. On top of chair’s back there is also an interesting representation of Romania’s state crown, the famous steel crown made from the melted metal of a canon captured in the 1877 Independence War. The whole assembly is rendered in the mature phase Neo-Romanian style, with ethnographic solar discs and acanthus/ vine leave carvings, constituting an interesting ceremonial furniture example expressed in the national design style. King Ferdinand’s cypher is a rare sight nowadays, the chair presented here bringing back memories of this remarkable sovereign, who strove all his life to keep a reserved and dignified public profile.

Images from the “Late phase of the Neo-Romanian style” architectural tour on 25 August ’12

Historic Houses of Romania – Case de Epoca tour, 25 August ’12: the late phase of the Neo-Romanian architectural style

I would like to share with you a small sample from the magnificent multitude of Neo-Romanian style houses that belong to the late phase of the development of this design peculiar to Romania, which were viewed and examined during the 25 August ’12 tour guided by the author of this blog. In basic terms it represents a synthesis between the Neo-Romanian and mainly Art Deco, or said differently- the national architecture of Romania expressed in the Art Deco coordinates of the period between the late 1920s and the mid-1940s. The modern construction technologies that emerged in the roaring twenties affording the development of light, airy structures expressed in the Art Deco and Modernist architecture, were quite antithetical to the traditionally heavy, built in brick and masonry, Neo-Romanian style edifices, as typical to its early and mature phases of the previous four decades. That led to a crisis within this indigenous architectural order, threatened by the high popularity among the public of the international modern styles, which were all the rage in Bucharest during the 1930s. The Neo-Romanian style managed to survive and even thrive, until the watershed of the Second World War, through fascinating syntheses especially with the Art Deco designs.

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Neo-Romanian style tree of life as birthday card

Neo-Romanian style tree of life, mid-1930s house, Icoanei area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

Two close members of my family celebrate their birthday in the second part of August. I thought that a fitting card for this beautiful occasion would be one of my architectural photographs depicting a remarkable rendering in the Neo-Romanian style of the tree of life motif. The card which I sent to my relatives contains the image presented above, where the tree of life is embodied by the flamboyantly decorated staircase window on the right. It depicts the origins of life represented by the three grains (holy trinity) at the base of the flower pot in the lower register, and then the springing up of life in waves of vine branches and grapes. The continuity and diverse events of life are rendered on the vertical sides of the wall opening, everything culminating in paradise, seen in the pair of majestic peacocks feeding from a grape in a cup supported by a cross symbol, grouped in the upper register. The window opening is occupied by a circular reticulation panel, which can be interpreted as the trunk of a tree: a palm tree perhaps, that has biblical connotations, or a rendering of  a medieval church window glazed with circular panes of blown glass. The opening is bordered by a beautiful rope, a ubiquitous motif in Romanian church architecture and peasant art. The top of the window is of broken arch type, typical of the Brancovan churches of the c18th in Wallachia, which is a motif borrowed from the Islamic architecture of the Ottoman Balkans.

I found during my fieldwork in Bucharest four such exquisite Neo-Romanian style three of life windows embellishing buildings erected in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s. One of them, in many ways similar with the one shown in this article, can be seen and read about at this link: Magnificent Neo-Romanian style “Tree of Life” panel. Another such window decorates Prince Nicolae Villa in Cotroceni, which unfortunately is now badly damaged in botched renovation works perpetrated by uncultured contemporary Romanian proprietors.

Adam and Eve in Art Deco and 1960s communist representations

The primordial couple, Adam and Eve, is a predilect theme in the visual arts. The architectural decoration is no exception in that regard. I found during my fieldwork in Bucharest two such representations, an Art Deco style bas-relief embellishing the pediment of a 1929 apartment house entrance, and a statue, part of the garden design of the garden of a mid-1960s communist block of flats, both shown in the photographs bellow.

Adam and Eve in an Art Deco era representation, 1929 house, Cismigiu area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

The Art Deco era panel is, in my opinion, a fairly good artistic product, on classical or even Rodin-inan lines, inviting to philosophate about the symbolism of this couple in the conditions of the inter-war period, at the beginning of the Great Depression. I like the altar, with a base in three steps, and a three groove shaft, all conforming to the Art Deco’s rule of three, on which the two personages lean, engulfed within the radiation generated by the sacred fire. Adam and Eve in this instance look quite androgynous, which conform to the Greek classical norms of uncertain gender portrayal.

Adam and Eve represented as a pair of communist youth in a 1960s sculpture, Domenii area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

The couple from the mid-1960s statuary composition is also a rendering of the Adam and Eve theme, but in the communist ideology coordinates that pervaded the life and society of Romania of that period. It represents a pair of Romeo-and-Juliet age adolescents, not of an aristocratic outlook, but in what were then considered healthy, study outlines of the working class individuals. The 1960s was a period of thaw within the communist world, after the harsh Stalinist post-war years, and in Romania in particular that was reflected in good quality artistic and also architectural productions (see for example the remarkable Modernist designs of the hotels embellishing the Black Sea resorts). This statue exudes something from that more propitious atmosphere and in my opinion is of a better artistic standard than the Art Deco bas-relief described above.

Adam and Eve in Art Deco and 1960s communist representations, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

Glazed balconies of different eras

Bellow are three interesting images of glazed balconies/ verandas pertaining to the three main styles that characterize the architecture of Bucharest: Little Paris (last quarter of the c19th until the Great War), Neo-Romanian (late c19th – late 1940s) and Art Deco (1930s and ’40s). From what I found in my fieldwork, usually the glazed structures are not contemporary with the original building, but added as an improvement or embellishment in renovations works of the first or second decade after the edifice is put in place. The main attraction of a glazed structure, be it a balcony, doorway or light-well is in fact its exquisite ironwork, its frame, exemplified here in the second photograph showing the Neo-Romanian glazed balcony. Sometimes there are bits of original glass panes still surviving within the ironwork, which in the case of the historicist c19th Little Paris design comes in beautiful colours typical of the Victorian era coloured glass.

Little Paris style glazed balcony, 1890s house, Gradina Icoanei area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

Neo-Romanian style glazed balcony, late 1920s house, Cotroceni area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

Art Deco style glazed balcony, mid-1930s house, Dorobanti area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

Late Neo-Romanian style doorway awning

Late Neo-Romanian style doorway awning, early 1930s house, Dorobanti area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

This is a small doorway awning of a type belonging to the late Neo-Romanian style, which unfurled between the late 1920s until the end of the Second World War. That phase of Romania’s national architectural design is characterised by a reduction to fundamentals of its decorative register, often expressed in Art Deco and sometimes Modernist coordinates, in a medium that made ample use of modern construction technologies, such as reinforced concrete, steel and glass.  The outlines of the awning are clearly reduced to essential, especially the arched corbels, embellished with the rope symbol, a religious as well as an ethnographic motif. There are also representations of other ethnographic elements throughout the structure, in the same abstract vein. The whole assembly integrates itself quite harmoniously with the rest of the architecture of the house, making it an interesting late Neo-Romanian design.

Late Neo-Romanian style doorway awning, early 1930s house, Dorobanti area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

Late Neo-Romanian style doorway awning, early 1930s house, Dorobanti area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

Bucharest Art Deco building top

Bucharest Art Deco building top, ate 1930s apartment block, Patriarchy Hill area (©Valentin Mandache)

This building is not much to write home about if one looks at its street and lower levels, but the top is an entirely different story, as the picture above testifies. It gives the impression of a river fall or rapid through the multitude of right angle steps and vertical ridges that embellish it. The rule of three, inspired from Egyptian mythology, so popular in the era when the Art Deco style was in vogue, is evident in the “straps” delimited by the straight vertical ridges and the grouping of the assembly of steps on the top of the building. There is also an allusion to the ocean line theme through the porthole window at the centre, the two small flag poles that flank the vertical ridges and the general impression of a liner’s command bridge exuded by this building top structure.

Art Deco semi-cylindrical balcony

I found this small and exquisite Art Deco detail during one of my architectural history tours in Patriarchy Hill area of Bucharest. It forms part of the rooftop veranda of a house built in the late ’30s, on an ocean liner theme. In fact the shape of the balcony and the veranda fence are clearly inspired from a nautical theme, similar with the semi-cylindrical observation post/ cage on top of the bow of the big liners of that era. Bellow this more unusual balcony is presented in six different image processing sequences and filters, which I hope would better convey its nice proportions and architectural context.

Art Deco semi-cylindrical balcony, late 1930s house, Patriarchy Hill area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

Art Deco semi-cylindrical balcony, late 1930s house, Patriarchy Hill area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

Art Deco semi-cylindrical balcony, late 1930s house, Patriarchy Hill area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

Art Deco semi-cylindrical balcony, late 1930s house, Patriarchy Hill area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

Art Deco semi-cylindrical balcony, late 1930s house, Patriarchy Hill area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

Art Deco semi-cylindrical balcony, late 1930s house, Patriarchy Hill area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

King Carol I’s mosaic image

King Carol I’s mosaic image, The Romanian Athenaeum, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

The superlative building of the Romanian Athenaeum, which is rightly considered the architectural symbol of Bucharest, contains a series of five mosaic medallions, each about 1 m in diameter, depicting past glorious rulers of Romanian lands, on its iterior frieze behind the colonade supporting the pediment. The one at the centre is that of King Carol I of Hohenzollern Sigmaringen (1839 – 1914), the moderniser of Romania, under whose reign the country undertook an epic process of cultural Europeanisation and economic reform, after more than four centuries within the orbit of the Ottoman Empire. I believe that the mosaics are the creation of the famous painter Costin Petrescu, a proponent of the Neo-Romanian style within the graphic arts, who also painted the great circular fresco representing the history of the Romanian people, unfurling along the wall of the Athenaeum’s auditorium. The medallion shows the king in regalia, cloacked with a coronation mantle and crowned with the steel crown made from Turkish canon captured by his army on the battlefield during the Independence war of 1877. The medallion is, in my opinion, one of the most expressive representations of King Carol I, which fortunately was left untouched during the communist rule, conveying his energetic spirit and vision that made him such an all time popular and praised leader of this country.

King Carol I’s mosaic image, detail, The Romanian Athenaeum, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

Ethnographic veranda pole

Ethnographic veranda pole, early 1930s Neo-Romanian style house, Dorobanti area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

There was a certain trend within the Neo-Romanian architecture for using ethnographic motifs, which unfurled at its highest intensity between the late 1920s and the late 1930s, transcending its mature and late phase of development, expressed especially in wood carvings decorating structures such as verandas, stair balusters, balconies, doorways, etc.  The wooden veranda pole in images presented above and bellow is such an example, of exquisite quality, inspired from the peasant art of regions of southern Romania (Wallachia).

Ethnographic veranda pole, early 1930s Neo-Romanian style house, Dorobanti area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

Spanish inspired architecture in inter-war Bucharest

Spanish inspired architecture in inter-war Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

The image, shown in true (above) and inverse (bellow) colours, depicts an entrance corridor giving access from the street gate to the garden of a late 1930s grand house in Icoanei area of Bucharest, in one of the many Mediterranean inspired styles developed in those very prosperous  years for the economy of Romania, after the Great Depression and before the conflagration of the Second World War. The particular design of this edifice, designed by architect George Damian, models that of a Spanish medieval mansion, imagined under the Iberian burning sun, which is very fitting for the Romanian high summer climate, when temperatures can get close to 40 centigrades for weeks long, as is the case in this July 2012.

Spanish inspired architecture in inter-war Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

Spanish inspired architecture in inter-war Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)