Fanta’s Café: Hidden gem of Prague’s main station is finally getting a facelift

Fanta’s café, photo: archive of Radio Prague

In the recent decades, Fanta’s café at Prague’s central railroad station has been more of a mythical place, known mostly to a select few. Visitors to the capital who happened to find out about its existence had quite a bit of trouble finding their way out of the communist station up into its oldest, and arguably most beautiful parts. The search, though, is rewarding. The tall, ornate dome from early twentieth century is breathtaking, especially after the not-so-modern main part of the station with its low ceilings and until recently notoriously bad lighting.

Fanta’s café, photo: archive of Radio Prague
Sadly, the Fanta building has been in disrepair for years and many architecture lovers lost hope that this art nouveau gem will ever get a much needed facelift. That is, until now. The Italian developer company Grandi Stazioni, who won a lucrative contract to refurbish and modernize the whole of the central station in 2005, has not begun work on the Fanta building as well.

With the new part of the station practically finished, with new shops and restaurants, more visible signage and modern ticket offices, the developer now wants to focus on drawing attention to the architectural gem of the place, says their spokesman Martin Hamšík.

“This is a very important goal – to show passengers and visitors that there will be a new attractive venue with a new attractive restaurant or café, because every day 80 thousand people pass through Prague’s main station, so we would like to stream this mass, or at least a part of it to the new Fanta building.”

The painstaking renovation work has begun on the café in February, with the venue now completely closed off to the public.

“The first phase involves the dome, which is in the middle of the Fanta building, which will be reconstructed, as well as the glass façade and we will reconstruct all the art which is inside, like allegorical sculptures and paintings on the walls, which is an exclusive example of art nouveau in Prague.”

The original neo-renaissance building of the Emperor Franz Joseph station with two angular towers was opened in December 1871. The building went through a massive art nouveau reconstruction in the first decade of the twentieth century, based on the designs of the architect Josef Fanta – hence the name of the building, which survived to this day.

But Fanta was not the only famous artists working on the then immensely modern project. The interior contains a whole collection of emotive Art Nouveau statues and reliefs which were created by the sculptor Ladislav Šaloun, who created a number of well-known monuments in Prague, including the Jan Hus statue on Old Town Square. The swooping dome and the interior were meant to impress those entering the building. And since this was then the main entrance to the stations, the various decorations on the walls were also meant to communicate with the passengers, says conservation specialist Tomáš Skořepa.

"It was a gateway to the world. In our day, we can compare it maybe to Prague’s airport, since it was the main place from where you departed, in order to enter the rest of the world. In the center of the ceiling there was the Prague coat of arms and on either side those of Vienna and Budapest – as the two capitals of the monarchy. And then there were coats of arms of other important cities, where the railway led at that time.”

Of course, the railway being the main mode of intercity transportation in early 20th century, the statues on the opposite side of the entrance hall were also meant to impress the visitors arriving in Prague.

“What they saw right away was the allegorical statue of Prague, which welcomed them. She has her arms outstretched, so she is really welcoming visitors.”

Prague’s main station, photo: Jiří Němec
Since Prague suffered only minor damage during World War Two, in comparison to many other European cities, most of the sculptures, reliefs and frescos in the Fanta hall survived in decent enough shape, but time and poor upkeep has taken its toll nonetheless. Grandi Stazioni now has the enormous task of returning this precious monument to its original state. At the same time, once the main renovation is finished sometime in the next few months, the space will be given over to a café or a restaurant operator, which requires a modern approach as well, says Martin Hamšík.

“The Fanta building has to be refurbished as it was built some 100 years ago, but the interior will be more or less modern and practical, because we plan to manage a restaurant there and it has to be adjusted for the needs of the passengers and visitors. But the interior design the tenant chooses has to fit into the Art Nouveau building.”

Insensitive reconstruction in the 1970’s and 90’s has left a lot of work for the modern conservationists. Careless paint jobs often covered up original craftsmanship, and now need to be taken off completely and redone. After years of neglect, many parts of the statues have crumbled and need to be replaced; water has leak it in and damaged frescoes and materials. But, the developer is still optimistic that they will be done with the task this fall.

“It is very specific work, therefore we cooperate with top professionals who do renovations of historical buildings and we closely cooperate with heritage protection and the owner of the building, which is Czech Railways (České dráhy).”

The Slav Epic at the National Gallery, photo: Štěpánka Budková
When Grandi Stazioni, which along with the renovation contract received a 30-year lease of the station, was thinking of how to use the Fanta building that since the 1990’s was a café, an idea was born that the Slav Epic, a series of 20 large-size allegorical and historical canvases completed by Alfonse Mucha in 1928, could be displayed there. The works, which Mucha himself wanted to be permanently displayed in Prague, was hidden away in a run-down chateau in Moravský Krumlov for 45 years, and it was only recent brought to Prague for an exhibit at the National Gallery. Since its final home is a highly debated topic in the cultural sphere, representatives of Grandi Stazioni opened negotiations with relevant authorities last year, which ended though without any results.

“I think the idea was very interesting and the art nouveau building would have perfectly fit together with the Mucha paintings, which come from the same period. And, as I was informed, Much and Mr. Fanta were friends and they respected each other, so it would be a perfect match, but unfortunately we didn’t agree with the city of Prague and I supposed that, as of now, this idea is closed,” laments Hamšík.

The Fanta building will probably not regain its previous prominence completely, even after the renovations are done and the new café or restaurant opens there in the spring of 2014. The main reason is, of course, that the extension of the building from the 1970’s will continue to serve as the main entrance both for pedestrians and motorists. The other problem with attracting more visitors to the old part of the station is that right at its doors runs one of the main thoroughfares in the capital – the Prague magistrála – a two-way freeway connecting western and eastern sides of the river and a number of major highways leading out of the capital. This results not only in pollution, which has been settling on the Fanta building’s façade for decades, but also almost impossible access for pedestrians from the other side of the road. Martin Hamšík says the developer would like to make it more accessible, but this is not something that will happen quickly.

Fanta’s café, photo: Brunswyk, CC BY-SA 3.0
“I’m very skeptical about it. The owner is the city of Prague and the road is very important for the traffic in the city and any change to it would cost billions of Czech crowns and take a lot of time. We hope that the city of Prague will help us somehow, for example to install lights, which would stop traffic so people could cross the street, but I think it is a matter of years.”

This should not restrain visitors and locals alike from visiting the renovated space of Fanta’s café starting next spring, taking a little break from the hustle and bustle of the station below and enjoying a bit of turn-of-the-20th-century atmosphere that certainly still lingers in these walls.