Why are fairy tales so popular in Russia? A long time ago, when most Russians were illiterate, they invented thousands of fairy tales that were handed down from generation to generation. Listening to fairy tales was a favorite pastime not only for children but for adults too. They gathered in the evenings to listen to a good yarn while doing household chores. Born from this tradition came the Russian fairy tale houses. In this article, we will explore a few of the more famous “fairy tale style houses.”
Decorated with carved balconies, brightly covered lintels, and mosaic-covered facades, these Moscow mansions look like palaces straight out of Russian fairy tales. At the turn of the last century, Russia was gripped by a trend for reviving medieval Russian art and heritage sites. Artists and architects found a new appreciation for the uniqueness and artistic value of old Russian icons and architecture. They began to incorporate images and elements of Old Russia into their works, while at the same time re-imaging them.
Medieval Russian art was the strongest influence on the Russian avant-garde. In architecture, the emergence of this Russian style (also referred to as the neo-Russian style) was further bolstered by the lifting of strict regulations governing building design. Several exhibitions in Moscow and St. Petersburg featured houses and interiors inspired by medieval Russian architecture. Subsequently, buildings and entire neighborhoods built according to these designs began to appear in many cities in Russia and beyond. The Russian style consists of fashioning modern buildings on the wooden architecture of Slavic masters, sometimes deliberately exaggerating their most pronounced features.
Moscow has preserved several unique mansions that look like they came right off the pages of a book of Russian folk tales. Here, we highlight a few of them:
- The Lopatin Mansion- This house is decorated with a colorful mosaic and is located in the very center of Moscow on Bol Shaya Nikitskaya street. Before the Bolshevik Revolution, it belonged to Anna Lopatin, who ran a business that supplied seafood to Moscow. In addition to the owner’s apartment, the building contained apartments that were rented out as well as warehouses and administrative offices on the ground floor. Architect Alexander Kaminsky designed the building. He decorated its façade with an ornament made of small multi-colored bricks and ceramics resembling cross stitch, while the design for its arched windows was borrowed from boyar chambers. The third floor was added in the 1920s when the mansion passed into the hands of the Soviet authorities and was turned into a residence hall. These days it houses the Brazilian Embassy.
- The Tsvetkov House-1899-1901. This small house on Prechistenskaya Embankment was commissioned by the art collector Ivan Tsvetkov. He was a devoted admirer of Russian art and planned this mansion as an art gallery, having hired Viktor Vasnetsov to create its architectural design. The result was a house that was canonical “Russian” both from the outside and the on the inside. It features a domed roof above carved stone balconies, bright tiles on the lintels, rooms with massive censer-like chandeliers, and wooden chest benches. The view from the house opened to the Krasny Oktyabr confectionery factory in 1909. Tsvetkov donated the house and his extensive collection of paintings (including more than 1,800 canvases and sculptures) to the city while retaining the right to live in the house and rebuild the gallery. After his death in 1917, the building was turned into an art museum. In the 1930s the collection was distributed among regional museums while the house was converted into a residence hall. During the war, the building was home to the headquarters of the Normandie Fighter Regiment. It is currently used as a foreign diplomatic residence.
- The Pertsova House-1905-1907. This fairy tale house located on Prechistenskay Embankment is one of the most striking buildings in Moscow. It was commissioned by a railroad engineer named Pyotr Pertsov, who registered the house in the name of his wife Zinaida Pertsov. He became obsessed with the idea of building a mansion in the Russian style after visiting his friend Ivan Tsvetkov. A plot of land was available nearby, and this is where Pertsov built his apartment building. A huge fan of Russian art, he planned to rent out apartments in the building to artists, writers, and other members of the creative arts at a very modest price. The house was designed by the architect Sergei Malyutin, the designer of the famous Russian nesting doll. He deliberately included windows of varied sizes and asymmetric facades. The attic housed workshops, and inside there were elevators and even a telephone. The house became a popular meeting place for Moscow’s art scene. There was a cabaret in the basement, and passers-by would often stop outside this mansion to admire the intricate details of its façade. Since the 1970’s the Foreign Ministry has used the mansion.
- The Igumnov House, 1888– The owner of this mansion on Bolshaya Yakimanka street, Nikolai Igumnov, built it using old Russian chambers as an inspiration. Igumnov owned a gold mine which was worth an incredible amount at that time. (The plot of land in the center of Moscow on which the house stands costs only about 17,000 rubles). The building’s red bricks were ordered from the Netherlands, and each element of the façade—the windows, doors, balconies—has its own distinctive decor. The mosaic adorning the mansion depicts birds, flowers, and plants from fairy tales. The building’s roof was made in different shapes. In 1901 Igumnov left for Abkhazia and never returned to Moscow. After the Revolution, he voluntarily handed over the property to the Soviet government. Nowadays, the building houses the residence of the French ambassador.
- The Shckukin Mansion, 1893-1898-This house, located on Malaya Gruzinskaya Street, belonged to the merchant Pyotr Shchukin. He was an avid collector of old Russian art. As his collection grew, he decided to build a separate building for it in the Russian style. The main building had a wide porch decorated with a balcony, and multi-level pointed roofs. Inside, visitors found themselves in vaulted halls painted with floral designs. Several years later, another building was built next to the first one. It was also in the pseudo-Russian style but more spacious. Later, the two houses were connected by an underground passage. In 1905, Shchukin donated his house to the Historical Museum but remained curator of the collection until his death. Today the building houses the Timiryazec Biology Museum.
As you can see there was an actual movement to recreate the themes of Russian fairy tales in the architecture of some buildings. The fascination with this type of unique ornamentation has captured the attention of the world. Just looking at these jeweled, bedazzled buildings transforms you into another place and time where you can imagine yourself walking into a Russian fairy tale. We must give credit to the Russian architects for their creativity and ability to pass down their folklore to their citizens who will enjoy it for many years to come.