Early work by architect Jan Letzel discovered at Brno cemetery

Photo: Archives of Radek Ryšánek

The Czech architect Jan Letzel is remembered today above all for his design of what later became the Hiroshima A-Bomb Dome, a memorial to victims of the 1945 bombing. Having spent much of his short career in Japan, Letzel authored only a few works in Bohemia and Moravia. But recently, a tombstone designed by the famous architect was recently discovered in a cemetery in the south Moravian city of Brno.

Photo: Archives of Radek Ryšánek
A romantic date in a Brno cemetery led to the discovery of an unknown work by the Czech architect Jan Letzel, whose 1915 design of the Commercial Exhibition building in Hiroshima, Japan, survived the city’s atomic bombing. Art historian Radek Ryšánek, who discovered a tombstone designed by Jan Letzel, at Brno’s Central Cemetery, explains.

“I had a date here in the cemetery with my girlfriend, and the stone has a very unusual shape so I had a closer look and I discovered the attribution on the reverse side of the tombstone. So I found out it was Jan Letzel’s work, and I tried to find out more.”

The tombstone marks the grave of Klára Květoňová, a young woman who died in 1910. Radek Ryšánek says that little is known about why Letzel designed this particular tombstone – especially since he was not in his native land at that time.

“It’s strange because Jan Letzel was in Tokyo since 1907, and this is his very early work. The influence of Japanese culture is very significant here.”

Photo: Frank Gualtieri / PD
Jan Letzel, who was born in the northern town of Náchod in 1880, spent most of his short career in Japan. Leading Czech architectural historian Zdeněk Lukeš says the tombstone is indeed a rare find.

“It’s very interesting to find an unknown work by the famous Czech architect Jan Letzel. The motif of the Torii gate is also great as we don’t known any other examples of this type of sepulchral architecture.”

Only two known works by the Czech-born architect still exist in the Czech Republic to date. Two spa pavilions in Mšené, some 50 km north-west of Prague, and parts of the decoration of what is today the Hotel Evropa, on Wenceslas Square of the capital. Interestingly, Letzel used Japanese motifs in his designs even before he had a chance to work in Japan.

“In 1905, he was responsible for two pavilions in a small spa in Mšené. It’s very interesting because both buildings are decorated in Art Nouveau but very close to typical Japanese motifs. For instance, the wooden structure of the building was influence by old Japanese architecture and also the decoration is very close to Oriental motifs.”

Jan Letzel,  photo: PD-Japan / Wikimedia Commons
Jan Letzel moved back to Prague not long after Czechoslovakia was established in 1918. But due to his poor health, he did not finish any other designs before his death in 1925. However, Zdeněk Lukeš believes that some of his early works are perhaps still waiting to be discovered.

“It’s possible because we know that many projects for corporate buildings were anonymous, especially in the beginning of their careers, so we can still discover may more designs by these architects, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th century.”