Can Europe Make It?

The dying beauty of old Bucharest

In order for Bucharest to reclaim its role as a leading European capital, it has to undergo a major process of rehabilitating its invaluable patrimonial buildings. This is impossible without the authorities contributing. 

Raluca Besliu
13 July 2015

The Solacolu Inn, Bucharest. Wikipedia/public domain.Bucharest, the capital city of Romania, is a city dying for an identity. In its heyday, during the interwar period, it was dubbed ‘little Paris’ due to its resemblance to the French capital. The city was severely traumatised, however, by the megalomaniac vision of former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who was determined to wipe out the architectural legacies of the monarchy and bourgeoisie in order to build a new communist city.

The few parts of Bucharest from the late 18th and 19th century that managed to survive Ceausescu’s questionable architectural vision are threatened by the current collusion of real estate agents and local authorities, interested more in buildings’ profitability rather than their historic, aesthetic and social worth. Purposefully forgotten, or intentionally damaged in the hopes of inevitable collapse, many of Bucharest’s old building which encapsulate the city’s past glory and unique architecture - a blend of oriental and occidental motifs - and represent valuable pieces of history, stoically await their fall, giving the city its contemporary beauty of decay and oblivion.

One of the buildings carrying out its slow sentence is the Solacolu Inn, a historic monument on Calea Mosilor, a notable street in Romania’s capital. Part of the Ottoman legacy, inns began to appear in Bucharest during the 18th century to satisfy the needs of international merchants seeking a place to rest and deposit their merchandise. There were three types of inns: monasterial (manastiresti), boyar ones (boieresti), and lordly (domnesti). As Calea Mosilor witnessed a rise in commerce during the 19th century, the number of inns built there increased.

Rectangular in shape with thick walls and one gate protected by heavy doors, the inns could only be opened from the inside to protect thieves and other intruders from entering. The patio was surrounded with arched shops and sleeping rooms on the first floor.   At the time, there were over ten inns on Calea Mosilor. Very few remain standing today.

Among those left is the Solacolu Inn. The Solacolu Inn was constructed by the Solacolu brothers,themselves merchants from Istanbul, in the mid-19th century. The inn attracted wealthy tradesmen and elite foreign visitors. The building carries an international historic value, as it hosted Lyuben Karavelo, a key leader in the Bulgarian National Revival of the 19th century, which preceded Bulgaria’s Liberation after the Russo-Turkish War.

In 2003, the Solacolu Inn was returned to the original owners’ descendants. In Romania, the owners of historical monuments benefit from lower taxes, but are responsible for restoration. The people who entered in possession of the Inn emphasised that they wanted to return it to its former glory, but lacked the funds to do so. The local authorities in Bucharest stressed that they could not invest in rehabilitating a private property. As a historic building cannot be torn down, the Solacolu Inn, one of Bucharest’s architectural jewels, was left to turn into a ruin, to the point of either collapsing to the ground or being declassified as a historic monument. The building’s decay process was accelerated in 2010, when part of the roof collapsed.

There are, however, ways in which this historic monument could be spared. In an interview with Romania Curata, Roxana Wring, the president of Pro.Do.Mo Association, stressed that the Mayor’s Office can expropriate the Solacolu Inn to save it, just as in cases of public utility. Serban Sturdza, the president of OAR Bucharest, argued that the Mayor’s Office could compensate the owners and restore the build or help the owner financially for the rehabilitation process and construct a business plan to recuperate its investment. Another solution would be filing a criminal complaint against the owners, who are not fulfilling their legal obligation to restore and maintain the patrimonial building. The complaint can be initiated by any interested party, from the Mayor’s office to heritage nonprofits and neighbors.  The police then conduct a penal investigation whose results are presented to a court, which can adopt a complementary measure to restore the building.  

Similarly, Casa Macca, a state-owned patrimonial building, administered by the Romanian Academy, is also awaiting its collapse. The house was built at the end of the 19th century for Petre Macca, a hero of Romania’s Independence War, and his wife, Elena, who left the house to the Romanian state. It initially housed the Antiquities Museum, then becoming the ‘Vasile Parvan’ Archeology Institute. In the 100 or more years that it has belonged to the government, the house has not been restored even once. 

As opposed to the Solacolu Inn, which preserves the memory of Romania’s Ottoman past, Casa Macca bears witness to the Romanian capital’s Europeanisation effort which started during the rule of Romania’s first king, Carol I, in order to elevate it to an architectural aesthetic worthy of a European capital. According to Monica Mărgineanu Cârstoiu, a researcher at the Institute and the president of a nonprofit organisation focused on protecting patrimony, Casa Macca is emblematic for a group of houses built at the end of the 19th century, as it combines both baroque and classical elements, symbolic pictures and neo-gothic furniture.

Many restoration promises have been made by Bucharest’s multiple mayors and the Romanian Academy for Casa Macca but none have been carried through. The most comprehensive and valuable restoration project has been ready since 1996 and would cost around two million euros, but has yet to be approved and implemented.

Even newer buildings are on the brink of collapse. Cinema Dacia, an interwar building inaugurated in 1930 to house a theatre and one of the oldest cinemas remaining in Bucharest, is on the brink of collapse. A roof which is falling in and windowless panes have yet to fully erase the majestic beauty of interior past luxury of this building full of Art Deco elements. Half dilapidated bas-reliefs of true artistic value still decorate the cinema’s exterior. Cinema Dacia is a historic monument that could be restored as a building of public and cultural utility, but the authorities show no sign of interest.

The tragic fate of these three buildings is by no means singular in Bucharest. Day after day, historical buildings of tremendous value silently fall to the ground, depriving Bucharest and Romania of important pieces of history and leaving new architectural scars on the city’s deeply mutilated face.

Instead of reclaiming Bucharest’s pre-communist architectural history in order to build a new identity for the city, authorities and owners alike are purposefully enabling or causing this destruction, much to the dismay of Bucharest’s general public. While patrimony groups and individuals often protest against demolition, their voices remain unheard, as the Mayor’s office brazenly declassifies and destroys architectural patrimony or allows for it to decay without taking measures.

According to a report published on the Mayor’s website, the capital’s authorities have already inventoried dilapidated buildings in need of restoration and even identified their owners. Based on the Façade Law, the latter are supposed to renovate their house within a year, before the officials take over the restoration work and subsequently seek compensation from the owners.

However, the Municipality has been systematically failing to approve the regulation to implement the restoration work since 2011, preventing any progress being made on the matter. In order for Bucharest to reclaim its role as a leading European capital, it has to undergo a major process of conversing and rehabilitating its invaluable patrimonial buildings.

This is impossible without the authorities stepping up to take responsibility, pass and implement the needed legislative measures and hold building owners accountable in the process.  

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