Jiří Vidím – Owner of a hotel with a history

Unitas House

Jiří Vidím, a former teacher, entered the hotel business almost at the very moment that communism fell in Czechoslovakia, and seized the opportunities that freedom brought. For two decades now he has been running Unitas House, a hotel in downtown Prague with a fascinating history.

Unitas House
The complex it is part of was originally owned by an order of nuns, but for several decades it was occupied by the notorious Communist era secret police, the StB. Among those they held and interrogated there was the dissident, and future Czech president, Václav Havel. When we met, Jiří Vidím discussed Mr. Havel’s connection with his hotel. But first I asked him how he had initially got into the hotel industry.

“In 1988, I read in the newspaper, Rudé právo, an advert. It was from a Czechoslovak-Austrian joint venture company rebuilding the Hotel Palace in Prague 1, looking for staff. Actually, their condition was that the staff shouldn’t have any experience, so-called experience, from the old way of managing a hotel. They were looking for brand new people.

“The hotel was opened on September 28, 1989. That day there was a demonstration on Wenceslas Square of Charter 77, and a hundred metres from this demonstration the new hotel was being opened. So the honourable guests arrived all wet, because the police were spraying the demonstrators with water cannons.

“It was a sign for me that something was going on, something big. And then it came, in November. But when the hotel opened occupancy was 20 or 25 percent.”

There must have been then, after the revolution, a huge influx of visitors?

“During the revolution even. There were broadcasters – the BBC, CNN, teams coming. And the only place they could go to was the Hotel Palace. There were only two hotels, the Intercontinental and the Palace, which corresponded, slightly, to the standards they were used to.

November 1989 in Prague
“Naturally then, in the first months after the changes, Prague became very attractive. Most people discovered Prague as a new destination. Prague was at that time a shabby but on the other hand a very charming place. People were looking for something like the history of Europe, 30, 40, 50 years ago.”

You were telling me earlier you had a fateful meeting with a guest, who was a well-known Irish-American businessman and philanthropist.

“Yes, everybody has a meeting of his life, and this was one of mine…”

I should say that his name was Chuck Feeney – he’s a very well-known businessman.

“Yes, his name is Chuck Feeney, Charles Francis Feeney. He lives in the United States, travels around the world, and his philanthropic activities are known in many countries…”

And he was also philanthropic to you.

“Yes, he was behind my education, my business education. He invited me to Ireland, to Dublin, to the Trade Management Institute. I studied business management and the hotel business there.

“Then he proposed to me to start a company with him, because he was very keen to do something in the new…republic. So we started a company called Hibernia. We started to import different products and before Christmas 1990 we opened the first Western-looking shop in Prague 1, close to Lesser Town Square.

Unitas House
“There was a hairdresser’s salon there and we found the guy who was the owner of the building, which was very unique at the time. This gentleman leased us the hairdresser’s salon and we converted it in 10 days. We went to Germany to buy lights and we opened the shop, selling watches and all different small products.

“It was a huge success and people were buying everything. But then I decided to go back to the hotel industry, because I didn’t want to be a retailer.”

Now you’re running a few hotels, including the one we’re in right now, which is on Prague’s Bartolomějská St. If I understand it right, the building belongs, or belonged, to an order of nuns who got it back in restitution?

“Exactly. This building – actually, it’s a complex of buildings, five in total – was restituted by the Order of Grey Sisters, which is a Czech order, in 1990. The sisters built this place in the 19th century. At that time, they were a very mighty order with 1,000 sisters, working in hospitals.

“But then in 1950 they were expelled from here and jailed in a special place in North Bohemia and the state secret policy came into this building. They had their cells underneath it, and interrogation places.”

And when you first came here, there were still police working here. Bartolomějská St. was notorious as the downtown headquarters of the police, under communism.

“The place where we are now was still occupied by the police. We took only the front part of the building. The police were in the rear part and were slowly moving out. It took at least a year and a half to get the building empty.”

Václav Havel and Prince Charles visit Unitas House,  December 22 1992,  photo: Unitas House
Now it’s a hotel, but it was previously a hostel, and there was one room where Václav Havel was frequently kept.

“That’s right. Actually, where exactly it was is unknown to me and to many other people. Now at the former cell P6, the Václav Havel cell, there is a small plaque saying Václav Havel was jailed here.

“The reason why we chose this particular cell was that Prince Charles came here in 1992… he had a foundation in London called the Prague Heritage Fund and he wanted to support three monuments in Prague. One of them was the church of Saint Bartoloměj [Bartholomew], which forms a part of his complex, and used to be a shooting training place for the police.

“He came here with Václav Havel. They went down to the prison, and Prince Charles asked Václav Havel where exactly he was kept jailed. I think Mr. Havel was confused at that moment, and he just pointed to this door. It could have been another door, but the fact of the matter is he was jailed here a few times.

“From what I’ve heard, it was called ‘prevention’. Anytime comrades like Brezhnev or any others came to Prague, these people like Václav Havel, supporters of Charter 77, got jailed for prevention reasons, as they called it.”

Cell P6,  photo: Unitas House
I think I saw on British TV in the early 1990s that feature the supposed cell of Václav Havel, here in your building. Was there a lot of interest from visitors in that room?

“Yes. I have clippings from many big newspapers, the Times, German newspapers, French, Scandinavian, even Russian, telling the story of a guy who runs a pension in a place that was formerly interrogation cells. That was only part of the truth, because the pension was much bigger, occupying the ground floor and the first floor.

“I think that we saved these cells. Because when I came here, it was 1992, these cells hadn’t been used for three years and there was humidity, rot. When I saw Prince Charles being so interested in these cells, it crossed my mind – if Prince Charles is interested others might be too.”

Can people still stay in the former cells?

“No. The building needed a total reconstruction, so we agreed with the sisters to do so in 2007. The building was completely renovated, rebuilt in fact, and most of the cells are closed. But number 6, P6, remains as it was, and our intention is to open a little museum with all the newspaper articles written about the sensation at that time.”

Did Mr. Havel ever come back here in subsequent years?

Unitas House
“Yes, he did, twice. There as a Czech filmmaker shooting a film called Citizen Václav Havel Goes on Vacation. There was a story that any time he said he was going on holiday, he got jailed here.

“So he came here, it was in 2004. At that time he was not sure which cell was the right one. Maybe he was jailed in a couple. But he was absolutely sure it was this place. On that occasion, P6 was occupied by guests so he couldn’t go in, and they shot the interview with him in another room.”