The Lucerna Palace

The Lucerna Palace

The Lucerna Palace, long considered a beacon of Czech national pride has been celebrating its centenary this year without too much of the fanfare usually reserved for such occasions.Situated off Wenceslas Square in the very heart of Prague, and established by civil engineer, designer and builder Vasclav M. Havel in 1907, it was the first multi-purpose arcade of its kind ever to be built in this country.

Walking through the main skylit concourse, past the incongruous mixture of shops, coffee houses, cinema and music halls you get a great sense of being time locked somewhere between the prosperous Secession period and the modernist styles of the First World War era. But not only did Havel, the grandfather of ex-president Vaclav Havel, take inspiration from his travels around Europe, he looked to America as well, as local historian Richard Biegel from Charles University explains:

“You can find many styles of exterior and interior of this palace, but in general, this is a modern building with concrete construction, with a decoration of a little art nouveau. You can find also motifs of neo-baroque. In general, it’s inspired by the cinema world of Hollywood at the beginning of the century, because Vaclav Havel was a great admirer of American cinema, and the family Havel were the founders of great cinema ateliers on the Barrandov Hill. And because of that, I think you can see the interior, the whole concept of Lucerna like a great cultural and business complex like some realization of some dream inspired by America.”

Kino Lucerna was the first modern permanent cinema in Bohemia and it became known as ‘The Grand Dame’ for its salubrious interior, and it was here that the Czech first talkie ‘Obraceni Ferdyse Pistory’ was screened in 1931.

Louis Armstrong in Lucerna  (1965),  photo: CTK
Soon Lucerna had become the hub of all social and cultural life in Prague, and throughout the years, many famous people like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker and Vlasta Burian performed here. According to Richard Biegel it was all very significant:

“In the Sixties and Seventies many interesting personalities concerted there. It was very symbolic at the time of communism; some symbols of the free world concerted there. I think it had a strong experience also for them. For example, Louis Armstrong was so touched with the atmosphere of Lucerna that he continued to a theatre called Semafor where he was improvising with musicians.”

Having fallen into disrepair during 40 years of oppressive communist rule, the Lucerna was finally handed back to the Havel family in 1991. Neither Vaclav Havel, or for that matter, his brother Ivan were particularly keen to accept their inheritance, as only a few years earlier the building had been declared to have been in a ‘catastrophic state’ and on the verge of collapse. Ivan’s wife, Dagmar, however, still felt it had a future and managed to persuade her husband to hand over his 50 per cent share to her. Vaclav eventually decided to sell his share to the controversial Chemipol Reality Group. Yet despite these problems, according to Dagmar, the Lucerna is just as important now as ever before:

“Lucerna Palace is very important as a national heritage, mostly for the people who are connected to Prague. For many years, it was the only space where the important big concerts or dancing could be. So most of the people, all the middle generation are connected to the Palace. They had their meetings here; they met their girlfriends. So Lucerna is certainly in their heart. For the young generation it is still with the Lucerna Music Hall where many important concerts take place.”

Damgmar Havlova in the Lucerna Palace,  photo: CTK
Despite the need for renovation, Dagmar Havlova believes Lucerna’s charm extends way beyond the bricks and mortar.

“Lucerna has a special spirit. Lucerna is not important by the architecture or by something which can be explained scientifically, it is really the spirit of the building, spirit of the space, spirit of the people who like it.”

A statue designed by contemporary artist David Cerny of St. Wenceslas sitting on the belly of a decidedly dead horse never fails to grab plenty of attention from passers-by.

Dagmar Havlova again:

“It’s one of the most important tourist points because of the statue. I have an agreement with the author that we have this horse until a certain time which is limited by time when the Czech will be a monarchy, because we feel now, with this funny democratic system, everything is upside down.”

It’s now 100 years since the foundation stone was laid down here, what would you say have been the most important events so far?

“I can’t say that some special event was more important. They have plenty of events nearly every day and it is difficult, I am not able to compare.”

Vaclav Havel with his brother Ivan,  photo: CTK
When Lucerna was handed back to the Havel family in 1991, what was the situation like back then?

“As I said, everything is upside down. Even the family was not able to make a clear decision. Around Vaclav were many advisors, so finally it happened that up to now it’s not clear about the future of Lucerna. This year we celebrate 100 years of the building, but we can mention, not celebrate 10 years from the time Vaclav sold his half to the very controversial Chemipol which make the Lucerna huge problems, and up to now the ownership is not solved. I hope that it won’t influence Lucerna for a long time. The situation is that my company operates Lucerna without any problems so Lucerna is full of life. The only problem is that while ownership is not solved we cannot have a significant loan from the bank to start the big reconstruction. But we partly improvement and Lucerna is fine.”

So what would you like to see happen in the future?

“The new plan is to have a restaurant on the roof, because the roofs are not open to the public now. There are terraces, beautiful terraces and I think it will be wonderful to have green terraces.”