Letter from Prague A bank with quite a history

26-10-2008 03:05 | Ian Willoughby

In recent years, for the first time in my life, I actually enjoy going to the bank, and not just because I have developed a rapport with the clerk who one day announced she was my “personal banker”. After a move of flat, I simply transferred my accounts to the most convenient branch – and, what do you know, that branch is housed in a masterpiece of inter-war Czech architecture with a fascinating history.

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CSOB bank on Na Poříčí StreetCSOB bank on Na Poříčí Street The Legion Bank (Legionářská banka, or Legiobanka for short) on Prague’s Na Poříčí Street was designed by the great Czech modern architect Josef Gočár. He is perhaps best known for the classic Cubist House of the Black Madonna on Celetná, which was completed in 1912.

A decade later, Czechoslovakia had been founded and Gočár adopted a more monumental, “national” style known as Rondocubism when he designed the Legiobanka, which opened its doors in 1923. He also enlisted the help of two of the greatest of Czech sculptors, Otto Guttfreund and Jan Štursa.

Guttfreund’s rich relief work on the façade features scenes connected with the military life, from painful parting from family members to returning from war. On pillars beneath the relief are four large sculptures by Štursa of the upper bodies of fighting men. The interior, meanwhile, has elements of Art Deco and furniture by Gočár, as well as a small fountain which I find strangely calming, especially if I have to wait a while for service at the bank.

The decision to found the Legiobanka was made by leaders of the Czechoslovak Legions in the Siberian city of Irkutsk in 1919. Independent legions of Czechoslovak soldiers were also formed in Italy and France during World War I, though it is those who served in Russia who are perhaps best remembered today, as their war went on for considerably longer. Between fifty and sixty thousand in number, they ended up getting caught up in the Russian Civil War, fighting with the Whites against the Red Army, before making their way home in 1920 via Vladivostok and later America.

Before leaving Siberia, their commanding officers had the idea of setting up a financial institution to serve former legionnaires on their return to Czechoslovakia. Previously a co-operative called Vojenská šporitelna (Military Savings Bank) had been established for the same purpose in Russia itself.

There have been claims that the Legiobanka wasn’t founded with the savings of returning soldiers alone. Some say that the Czechoslovaks had stolen a whole train carriage full of gold bullion that had belonged to Russia’s imperial family; some money was spent securing their passage home, with whatever was left over being used to help set up the bank. Indeed, the building’s very magnificence has been posited as evidence that the Czechoslovaks did steal the gold. However, the whole story has been dismissed by a number of historians.

In any case, as stories go it’s a humdinger. And the building, which today is home to a branch of the Belgian-owned high-street bank ČSOB, is by any standards quite a place.

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