Transformed Prague suburb comes under the spotlight at Prague exhibition

Libeň, photo: Prague’s Municipal Museum

A lesser known quarter of Prague, somewhat off the tourist beaten track is under the spotlight at Prague’s main municipal museum. The area is Libeň which was transformed from a downriver district of fields, farms and vineyards by the industrial revolution and largely made over again from the middle of the 20th century.

Libeň,  photo: Prague’s Municipal Museum
Libeň is the second district of Prague selected as the subject for its own exhibition by managers of Prague city museums. This follows a highly successful first offering which looked at the former industrial hub of Smíchov.

Perhaps even more than Smíchov, the old photographs and postcards, many loaned from private collections, that represent so much of the Libeň exhibition are a mirror of a past that has been wiped out for good or, at best, finds an echo in a few remaining buildings and streets.

But surprising remnants of the past can be found. These are sometimes isolated chimneys or impressive industrial structures. They also, however, include a large baroque chateau not far from the centre of the district. The Libeň chateau’s main claim to historical fame is at the site where the Peace of Libeň was signed in 1608, paving the way for the emperor and Prague-based arts patron Rudolf II to step down in many parts of the empire outside Bohemia and be succeeded by his brother Mathias.

Archaeologist Michal Kostka is one of the joint organisers of the exhibition and has this to say about Libeň.

Libeň chateau
“It was originally a very nice and developing district of Prague in the 19th with a lot of preserved documents from its development in the 19th and 20th centuries. But the district changed very much in the 20th century. That is why we called the exhibition “Libeň : a vanished world,” because of these changes that happened in the 20th century. Nevertheless, the exhibition shows precisely what was destroyed and disappeared. It’s very rare that you can recognize the places. People can hardly recognize most of the pictures because Libeň changed so much and today looks very different.”

The area of low hills rising above the wandering and flood prone Vltava river was a popular spot for human settlement from the earliest times. The finds made there make it the second most important archaeological spot in the Prague area. Mr. Kostka again.

“The place, the territory of today’s Libeň was very popular and favoured during prehistoric times. So we have a lot of finds from this terrain, from this area. These came from the Old Stone Age, through to the Bronze Age, Iron Age and into early medieval times. And some of these, we have tried our best, are in the exhibition as well. They were mostly found almost exactly in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century when the district grew up and arose from today’s point of view.”

With industrialisation, the population of Libeň more than tripled between 1869 and 1900, reaching around 21,000. The heavy development and industrialisation of Libeň from the mid-19th century that unearthed so many finds occurred at a time when archaeology was taking its first real steps in the Czech lands. While the practices may look primitive and amateur from today’s perspective they did result in finds being saved, catalogued and some attempt made to map out their origin and context.

“There were two important Prague archaeologists: one is completely forgotten and one is the opposite, very well known. But he is well known not just because he was an archaeologist but because he was a writer of very popular books about the prehistoric times for children. He is Eduard Štorch.”

Štorch, a teacher, started writing scholarly texts for children before WWI and progressed to novels. In all, he authored around 20 novels from 1907 until 1950, progressing from descriptions of prehistoric man in the Czech lands to the arrival of the first Slavic tribes. The most famous of the books was probably the 1918 work, ‘Mammoth Hunters’. His forgotten fellow archaeologist was the priest František Petrera Rohoznický. His finds now form part of the Prague museums collection.

For today’s casual visitor, the centre point and first sight of today’s Libeň might well come after exiting Palmovka metro station. Many key sites are still within a few steps. Looking northeast from the metro is a now almost disused bus station in the square Bohumila Hrabala. It is named in honour of perhaps the most famous modern Czech writer who used to live in a now demolished house on a small courtyard from the 1950’s to 1970’s. The house made way for the bus station in the early 1980’s. Many of Hrabal’s stories were adapted by Czech filmmaker Jiří Menzel and have become classics, one winning an Oscar. The novelist himself has a bit part role in some of the films. Two of his works, ‘Weddings in the House’ and ‘The Tender Barbarian’ were set in Libeň.

An isolated demolition survivor nearby is the Jewish synagogue that served Prague’s second most important Jewish community. The first mention of the area’s Jewish community dates back to the mid 16th century. A Jewish cemetery to the west of the metro stop was first squashed by the building of a railway station, then by the building of Libeň bridge and finally buried under several metres of earth during the mid-1960’s. Plans in recent years to uncover it again have failed to come to fruition.

Of the Jewish quarter, which once comprised several streets, only two houses near the river now stand. Much of the destruction took place in the 1950’s and 1960’s following on from flood damage after the heavy inundation of 1890 and movement of the population away from the low lying land once they were no longer forced to live in a ghetto.

The main south-western entry into Libeň from the neighbouring district of Karlín is via today’s Sokolovská třída, a name which it has borne since 1948 to commemorate action by Czechoslovak units in the Red Army against the Nazis. The earlier name was Královská. Jan Jungmann, co-organiser of the exhibition, takes up the story.

“The name royal was a reference to the royal cortege which passed this way during the coronation of the last King of Bohemia, Ferdinand the Fifth, also called Dobrotivý or the good. He also lived for a certain time at Libeň chateau. The oldest photos of this area date from 1895 and show the one or two story houses from the period with the facades in what could be described as a baroque country style. The Sokol building constructed in 1910 was on the site of a barracks for firemen. Nearby is the church of Saint Adalbert which is an Art Nouveau building. It was originally conceived of as a temporary wooden church but has luckily survived until our times.”

Libeň developed into one of the industrial powerhouses of Prague and the whole Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was home to one of the oldest engineering works in the capital, the so-called Rustonka works. The name Rustonka came from an English businessman, Joseph John Rushton, who bought the works from a compatriot in 1850. It was here that the only shipyard on the rivers Vltava and Elbe building all iron craft was established. Many of the steam ships plied their trade on the nearby river, some of which are still in service. The Hapsburg royal family’s l yacht in the 1890’s also came from here. The nearby Libeň shipyard also built steamships and carried out repairs. That site is now earmarked for a large housing development following its closure as a shipyard in 1990.

Sadly, nearly all of the Rustonka buildings were destroyed just three or four years ago to make way for an office complex.

The district also hosted the Praga car factory from 1907 until the end of WWII. The company became the largest car manufacturer in the country in the 1920’s with trucks, buses and eventually army vehicles pouring out of the modernist high rise building. In spite of its architectural value, it too was knocked down in 2002 to make way for a multipurpose sports arena.

Libeň gasholder,  photo: Petr Vilgus,  Wikipedia
One unusual industrial building that still survives and has become adopted as a sort of local landmark is a large metal sphere erected in 1881 to store gas by a Brussels-based company. Although ownership passed to an English company two decades latter it was still locally known as the Belgian reservoir. After WWII the need for gas storage disappeared and in the 1950’s, the insides of the building were used instead by the Aviation Institute for aerodynamic tests. The building has now been listed as a national industrial heritage site.

The exhibition also sheds some light on the not very publicised phenomenon of the squatter colonies that sprang up on the outskirts of Prague in the 1920’s and throughout the depression. One in Libeň was called ‘the Valley of Fear.’ Old railway carriages were sometimes transformed into housing at such sites with the makeshift accommodation over time taking on an appearance of permanence with gardens and animals kept on site. Some of these colonies continued into the 1960’s.

The exhibition at the City of Prague’s main museum on Na Poříčí continues until March 6. The next district to be showcased will be Karlín.