Josef Hlávka: one of the greatest Czech philanthropists

Josef Hlávka

This week marks exactly 100 years since the death of Josef Hlávka, an architect, builder and the biggest Czech philanthropists of all time. This year, it has been 104 years since Hlávka established a foundation in support of education, science and art. When he died, he bequeathed all his property to the foundation. It was probably the only case in Czech history that someone left his entire fortune to charity. Yet, nowadays, many people don’t even know who Josef Hlávka was.

He was born in the small town of Přeštice near Plzeň in 1831 into the family of an ordinary clerk. His parents soon discovered that he was a gifted child and they provided him with the best possible education – Hlávka graduated from the Technical University in Prague as well as from the famous Academy of Plastic Arts in Vienna. He was aware that his parents sacrificed a great deal to finance his studies and, as Milan Černý of the Hlávka foundation says, he was extremely diligent:

“He was extremely hardworking, and very economical. He was a self-made man. He wasn’t just an architect and builder with a university diploma. When he started his practice as a builder, he also worked as a mason’s apprentice. He wanted to learn the trade and wanted to obtain the experience of a mason, because he had to advise masons at the building sites.”

Hlávka learned the bricklaying craft in the firm of a Viennese builder of Czech origin František Šebek. The owner grew fond of his hard-working employee and when he retired, he did a most unusual thing: he handed his prospering firm over to Hlávka – for free. The young man did not disappoint his former employer. The company flourished and Hlávka soon became a respected and wealthy businessman.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many buildings in Prague that would remind us of Josef Hlávka’s constructing and architectural skills, as most of his plans were carried out in neighbouring Austria. There is a large block of tenement houses in Vodičkova Street, which serve as the seat of the Hlávka foundation, but the most impressive Hlávka building here in Prague is the neo-gothic maternity hospital, which serves to its purpose to these days. Since 1875 almost one million babies have been born in this building.

In Vienna, on the other hand, Josef Hlávka is mainly remembered as an architect. Milan Černý explains:

“In Vienna he is remembered as one of the most successful architects and builders of the 1860s. Over a period of ten years, from 1860 to 1870, he built about 150 buildings there designed by him and some of his colleagues. Some of these buildings exist to this day. But his biggest achievement is the Vienna opera which he built at the behest of Emperor Franz Joseph I. The Emperor was very pleased with the result and presented him with a special award: a mason’s tools made of silver, which are now to be seen in Hlavka’s museum in Lužany.”

Ten years of hard work, however, took their toll on Hlávka’s health. At the age of only 38 he fell seriously ill and his legs were paralyzed. Although bound to a wheelchair, Hlávka continued to work as hard as ever. Among other things, he bought and renovated a Renaissance chateau in the west Bohemian village of Lužany and moved there with his wife and mother:

“It was a very old building dating back to the 11th century but it was reconstructed according to Mr Hlávka’s plans. Today it’s practically a museum of the 19th century, because all the furniture and the equipment dates back to those times and basically nothing has changed.”

The chateau became a sort of cultural and social centre. Among the regular visitors to Lužany at the time were the Czech writer Julius Zeyer and one of the most famous Czech composers Antonín Dvořák.

It was at the time of his illness that Hlávka became actively involved in charity work and although he miraculously recovered eleven years later, he continued in his support of Czech artists and scientists. It is impossible to list all the activities he was involved in. Among others, he participated in establishing the Czech Academy of Science, Letters and Arts in Prague. And, most importantly, he built a student dormitory in the centre of Prague and donated money to support gifted students:

“Hlávka was very interested in educating the new generation. This was why he founded the so-called Hlávka foundation to help poor students. Students were provided not only with accommodation, but also food. It was modest food, but they were provided for. And they could concentrate on their studies. But there was a condition: the students had to have excellent results and they had to be Christians.”

It is said that Hlávka was very modest and he would rather provide for his foundation than to buy a new set of cooking pots for his mansion. As Milan Černý says, he was always willing to help, but only those who he considered to be really in need:

“He liked helping people financially. But there was a case in Přeštice when a young man came to him and asked him for financial help, but Hlávka told him: I won’t help you, I could but I won’t because I saw you lighting your cigar with two matches. That means you don’t know how to economize and for you I have no money.”

Josef Hlávka was married twice, but both of his wives died prematurely, leaving no children behind. Before his own death, Josef Hlávka did something that was unheard of in the history of this country: he bequeathed all his property, including the chateau and the tenement houses in Prague, to his foundation. It is estimated that today his fortune would be worth more than two million Czech crowns. The foundation, which bore the names of his two wives, Marie and Zdeňka, miraculously managed to survive the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Nazi occupation and even the years of Communist rule:

“After the Communist Coup in 1948 all the foundations in Czechoslovakia were closed down one after another. The only exception was Hlávka foundation. I suppose that was thanks to the former students who were accommodated at the Hlávka dormitories and who were able to finish their studies thanks to the support of Hlávka’s foundation. The foundation was nationalized and much of its property was lost. But formally the foundation continued to exist even during those times.”

The Hlávka foundation is active to this day. It awards successful students, provides scholarships and funds the publishing of scientific books, making sure that Hlávka’s name won’t be forgotten. This year, it is marking the 100th anniversary of its founder’s death with a special series of concerts, lectures and exhibitions.