The National Theatre fire of 12 August 1881

National Theatre on fire (1881)

The National Theatre in Prague, built almost entirely using money raised through public collections, was a world rarity. For some thirty years, people gathered funds "coin by coin". The fire that destroyed much of it in 1881 was therefore all the more devastating.

The National Theatre opened on 11 June 1881 to honour the visit of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria. It staged another dozen performances before the building was closed to enable work on the finishing touches. While the work was under way, a fire broke out on 12 August 1881, which destroyed the copper dome, the auditorium and stage of the theatre.

On the afternoon of that fateful day, plumbers had just finished installing copper lightning rods. Using portable stoves. At half past four, they finished the task and poured three loads of hot coals doused in water into the gutter. At five o’clock, it started to rain and more water flowed through the gutter. Several people noticed smoke and soon flames coming from the theatre.

National Theatre after the fire  (1881) | Photo: Jindřich Eckert,  AHMP/Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

Among the first to put out a fire on the roof was the sculptor Bohuslav Schnirch, whose Trigy adorns the theatre to this day. But the water stopped gushing a few minutes later. In the end, they only partially lowered the iron gate, under which the scaffolding for the plasterers stood, and the fire had already spread to the auditorium.

The flames were fanned by strong winds, and residual natural gas in pipelines also ignited. There were a number of similar unfortunate contributing factors. That is one of reason why there was so much speculation of foul play, including that ethnic Germans in Prague were behind the fire.

The fire destroyed the theatre roof, stage and auditorium, including the decorations for the upcoming premiere of Smetana’s Libuše. The vestibule, foyer, loggia and a number of rooms, such as the archive, cloakroom and theatre office, were preserved. Firefighters also saved many works of art. The first Czech mutual insurance company paid out premiums of almost 300,000 gold coins.

However, this of course did not cover the full cost of the damage, and the nation helped out. Within four weeks, over a million gold coins were collected, and within two years the “golden chapel” was restored to its full glory, even enhanced by electric lighting. The renovation was completed by architect Josef Schulz after Josef Zítek was pushed aside due to disagreements with the Building Committee; he never entered the National Theatre again. The restored theatre was then inaugurated on 18 November 1883.

National Theatre | Photo: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons,  public domain