By the time of Greek Independence in 1832, Athens was a shabby and fairly unimportant market town. Although the ancient monuments reminded visitors of glories past, much of the architecture was Ottoman in character, with winding lanes and top-heavy houses built around central courtyards.
The new King, a Bavarian with ambition and a romanticised idea of ancient Greece, brought to Athens a team of architects with the goal of reviving the classical Greek architectural model. The most notable of these were Danish architect Theophil Hansen, Saxon Ernst Ziller and Greek Stamatis Kleanthis.
In the ensuing decades, the meandering streets were replaced by orthogonal grids, while existing buildings were torn down and replaced by grand, neoclassical edifices intended to express the continuity of ancient Athens in architectural form.
As wealthy Greeks from all over the Hellenic world descended on Athens, they sought to build their opulent villas as close as possible to the Royal Palace (today’s National Parliament). By this time, neoclassicism had firmly established itself in the minds of Greeks, and these ambitious merchants and bankers could rely not just on foreigners, but on a new generation of Greek architects who had now been brought up on neoclassicism. Among them were Alexandros Nikoloudis, Panagis Kalkos, Panos Karathanasopoulos, Anastasios Metaxas and Lysandros Kaftanzoglou.
This new generation of Greek architects continued working in the neoclassical model, but often added unique structural and stylistic elements. The result was a uniquely ‘Greek’ style of neoclassicism that was noticeably different from elsewhere in Europe.
Athens was developing its modern identity, and turning into one of the most beautiful cities in Europe in the process. In the 1920s, the modernists arrived, adding their own spin to Athens’ growing character, though that’s a story for another time.
So what happened? For a detailed explanation of the conditions that led to the large-scale destruction of Athens’ neoclassical architecture, see my article here for the BBC.
Even today, it’s hard to square the ebullient creation of 19th century Athens with the joyless destruction of neoclassical architecture beginning in the 1950s and continuing until today.
We have lost so much beauty, so much cultural heritage and a sense of our own recent history. Athens today is, more often than not, an ugly place. But even worse than that, it is an anonymous place, stripped of its identity, history and culture by the uniform concrete monstrosities that once stood for progress.
We are fortunate enough to have photographic evidence of what Athens once was, and we can perhaps imagine an alternative present in which sense prevailed, and Athens’ neoclassical masterpieces were saved.
“It is no question of expediency or feeling whether we shall preserve the buildings of past times or not. We have no right whatsoever to touch them. They are not ours. They belong partly to those who built them, and partly to all generations of mankind who are to follow us.” – John Ruskin
“The story is old, I know. But it goes on…” – Morrissey
The crown jewel of coastal Athens, and perhaps the most awe-inspiring of all of Athens’ post-Independence constructions, the Aktaion was meant to evoke the grand hotel-palaces of European cities such as Paris, Rome and Naples. The hotel was commissioned by wealthy banker-politician Ioannis Pesmazoglou and designed by Panos Karathanasopoulos.
The four-storey hotel had 160 luxurious bedrooms, several grand banquet halls, a restaurant, a patisserie, lounges, casinos, theatres and dance halls, private gardens and a private beach. The hotel attracted the cream of Greek society, as well as foreign dignitaries. For a fleeting moment in the early 20th century, the docile Athens suburb of Neo Faliro might as well have been Monte Carlo.
The hotel began to decline in the inter-war period, when it was used to house Greek refugees arriving from Turkey in 1923. It was heavily bombed during WW2 and lay derelict and crumbling until it was finally torn down on the orders of Aristeidis Skylitsis, the Junta-appointed Mayor of Piraeus, who was also the wrecker of several other works of architectural beauty in the area.
Today the location of the former Hotel Aktaion is occupied by a private hospital, cut off from the coast by a dense network of highways. The Athens Riviera stretches from this spot all the way down to the cliffs of Sounion, but nothing along its contiguous, concrete sprawl approaches the majesty of this former grand lady.
Athens Municipal Theatre
Designed by Ernst Ziller and opened in 1888, this neoclassical masterpiece was one of the city’s most beautiful buildings, though beset by problems from the outset. The banker Andreas Syngros (who had funded the construction) panicked that he wouldn’t get his investment back and insisted that the ground floor be converted into retail spaces he could let. The proportions of the theatre were too small, the King fell asleep at the inaugural performance and audience members complained that the plays were in a language they couldn’t understand (French). The theatre’s influence was further diminished by the opening of the Royal Theatre (today’s National Theatre) a few blocks away – another Ziller design.
In the 1920s, it housed Greek refugees from Asia Minor, which caused damage to its interior. In 1940, Athens Mayor Konstantinos Kotzias decided to demolish it and create a square in its place, which was subsequently named after him. Plateia Kotzia is today one of Athens’ least offensive squares, but the loss of this neoclassical marvel is still felt.
One of Athens’ quirkiest buildings, Villa Margarita was designed by Greek architect Panos Karathanasopoulos to resemble a German castle. It was completed around 1900, and had 32 rooms, several towers and a large estate of palms, pines and other shrubs. It was bought a few decades later by businessman Efstathios Lampsas, who named it after his step-daughter. During WW2, the Danish Embassy was based here. After the war, much of the Villa’s estate was expropriated to widen the surrounding avenues, giving it an oddly truncated appearance. Later on, its owner sold it to a bank which demolished it amidst protests. The subsequent building does little to inspire.
Located on the corner of Syntagma Square and Amalias Avenue, the Negrepontis Mansion harks back to a time when Athens’ political centre was replete with gorgeous works of distinct beauty. The mansion was built in 1870 for the Louriotis family, but was later bought by politician Miltiadis Negrepontis, after whom it is named. It underwent several extensions but the focal point remained its beautiful porticoed atrium.
At the time, it was part of a gracious ensemble of buildings that made Amalias Avenue one of the most popular spots for the Athenian ‘volta’ – the daily evening stroll. It served as the residence of King Constantine I and his wife, until the Royal Palace (now Presidential Mansion) was built on Irodou Attikou Street. It then passed to the Greek state and was used to house the Ministry of Shipping until 1940. The Negrepontis Mansion was sadly demolished in the late 1950s and replaced with an anodyne apartment block.
One could imagine the building tastefully expanded and turned into a hotel or apartment building, instead its destruction is symbolic of the mad, post-war scramble to demolish beautiful old buildings for a quick profit.
Stand in the centre of Syntagma Square and rotate yourself 360 degrees. What’s the ugliest building you see? It’s a tough decision but – much like a car crash – it’s hard to look away from the sombre, grey-glass monstrosity that sits on the corner of Vasilissis Sofias Avenue and Panepistimiou.
Prior to its current state, the plot of land housed the resplendent Papudov Mansion, built in the late 19th century for the Russian banker Aristeidis Papudov, of whom little is known. What started as a two story home, grew after WW1 with a series of tasteful extensions, turning it into a grand building fit for a ministry or organisation (indeed, it housed the Greek Police headquarters until the 1960s).
Greed and hubris overpowered any sense of perspicacity and the building was bought by an insurance company which intended to demolish it and build a luxury hotel. Interventions by the Council of State held off the wrecking ball until 1970 but, alas, the desire to destroy was simply too strong. A hotel was built in its place, which failed rather quickly. Today, this sad, pitiable husk houses a bank branch and some offices of the Foreign Ministry.
Pavlos Kalligas Mansion
A beautiful building in the vicinity of Syntagma Square commissioned by politician Pavlos Kalligas in the 1840s. It underwent some late 19th century renovations by Ernst Ziller and again in the 20th century by modernist Emmanouil Vourekas. It housed several businesses, most notably the offices of the newspaper Eleftheria. It was knocked down in the late 1950s and replaced with a hideous apartment block.
Another Syntagma gem, with a subdued neoclassical style in harmony with the urban landscape around it. It was built by Panagis Kalkos for the publisher Andreas Koromilas and later housed a café and shops on its ground floor. It was razed in the early 1960s and replaced with an unremarkable apartment building.
Now here’s a real headscratcher. Commissioned by politician-banker Ioannis Pesmazoglou and designed by Ernst Ziller, this was the largest building in Athens when it was completed around 1900. It’s a glorious work of art, topped off by a distinct conical turret. Its interiors too – stone floors and marble staircases – drew admiring notices from visitors at the time. Prior to WW2, the building housed the German Embassy and features in this notorious photograph of the Nazi Army entering Athens in 1941. After the war, the German Embassy was quietly relocated.
Now the headscratcher. Sometime during the 60s, the building was simply split in half, with the most beautiful half (that with the turret) being demolished and replaced with a bland modern apartment building. But why? Why the need to destroy a work of art just to squeeze in a few more flats? Today the truncated remains of the Pesmazoglou Mansion are a reminder of the many inexplicable decisions made in post-war Athens.
Jenny Theotoki Mansion
This eclectic mansion with its palm-lined front garden belonged to Corfiot Count Spyridon Theotokis and his English wife Jane Digby (known in Greece as Jenny Theotoki). It was designed by Stamatis Kleanthis and was renowned for the raucous parties thrown by the Count and Countess.
However in 1846 the parties stopped when their son Leonidas died from a fall at the age of 6. The marriage broke down amidst accusations that Digby was having an affair with Greek King Otto (she was) and they divorced. Digby then moved to Damascus, where she married a Bedouin sheik 17 years her junior and lived out the rest of her life, learning fluent Arabic and entertaining the likes of Sir Richard and Lady Elizabeth Burton, before dying of a fever at the age of 74.
The building was sold and demolished in 1956. In its place, the architect Spyros Staikos designed the Hotel Ambassadeurs, which flourished for a short period. It was eventually sold to the Athens Court of Appeals who occupied it until moving to a new building in 2000. For the past two decades the building has sat vacant and desolate.
Konstantinos Mourouzis Mansion
An elegant neoclassical building near Omonia Square. Built in 1868 by the architect Ioannis Sechos for the politician Konstantinos Mourouzis, it was torn down in 1958 and replaced by this ghastly hotel building.
Petros Kalligas Mansion
Designed by Ernst Ziller for politician Petros Kalligas (son of the aforementioned Pavlos) in 1887. With its central Ionic portico, it’s typical of the surviving neoclassical mansions along Vasilissis Sofias Avenue, which are now museums, ministries and foreign embassies. Knocked down in the 1950s and replaced by an apartment building by Konstantinos Kapsambelis in the popular “simplified classical” style of the time.
Ioannis Vouros Mansion
Designed in 1874 by French architect V. E. Poitrineau, this was the private residence of doctor and university lecturer Ioannis Vouros. Following his death, the building housed the popular Zacharatos café and patisserie for many decades. Demolished in 1963 and replaced by the Athens Plaza Hotel.
Little is known about this house in Kolonaki, which belonged to the prominent Dragoumis family from Macedonia. It was demolished sometime after WW2 and replaced by a sleek, modernist building by Greek architect Constantinos Doxiadis. Today it houses the Hellenic-American Union.
Georgios Gennadios House
A typically beautiful work by Stamatis Kleanthis, created in 1845 for the family of revolutionary and writer Georgios Gennadios. Gennadios also used it to house students of the local high school, of which he was headmaster. Following his death, the building functioned as a school until 1980 when it was demolished to create the offices of the National Bank.
Filellinon Street Mansion
Erected in 1886 on the once-beautiful Filellinon Street near Syntagma. The original neoclassical design was by Anastasios Metaxas; it later received some eclectic additions by Alexandros Nikoloudis, but was demolished sometime after WW2. The replacement is a deeply sad building that looks like it really should be put out of its misery.
The Tsopotos House was one of the most beautiful private residences in Athens, with its central structure clearly drawing inspiration from the Lysicrates Monument in Plaka. Commissioned by the wealthy Tsopotos family from Thessaly, this astonishing building lasted from 1870 until 1970, when it was torn down to build a tasteless office block.
Located on Patision Street, this mansion was the residence of Professor Nikolaos Saripolos and was one of the few neo-Gothic mansions built in Athens, reflecting the worldly tastes of the Athenian bourgeoisie of the time. It was completed around 1871, the architect possibly being Theophil Hansen. It was torn down in 1956 to be replaced by an ugly office block.