Spotlight The small Vršovice château – an old landmark rising slowly from the ruins
Standing atop of a small hill, with a tramline swooping around it, punctuated by a baroque Roman Catholic church on one side and a modernist Hussite church on the other, Rangherka, or the small Vršovice château, contains within its own story the history of the surrounding district as well. The original building was put up just as the then village of Vršovice began to grow and develop rapidly. Now, unlike the surrounding neighbourhood, it is a sad sight. The prominent neo-renaissance building is in ruins, with reconstruction having dragged on for more than six years, although the past year has seen the work finally intensify.
Since the 1880’s, it has belonged to the municipality of Vršovice. To find out more about what this area looked like at the time I went to speak to Michal Ezechel, the district historian working at the Prague 10 town hall, under which Vršovice currently falls.
“Around 1880, Vršovice had about 6,000 residents. In 1840, it had around 1,000 people. So, the growth of the population in those 40, 50 years was quite significant. And around the time when the Vršovice local administration decided to buy Rangherka in 1882 was a time of prominence.”
Forty years earlier, when the industrial revolution was bringing technological advancements to many parts of Europe, Enrico Rangheri decided to buy a plot of land in the village of Vršovice in order to advance his family’s silk business, which his father Giuseppe, a businessman from Lombardia, developed in the preceding half century in the area. Michal Ezechel continues:
“We don't known why Rangheri decided to buy this particular piece of land. But before he did, there were actual vineyard plots in this part of Vršovice since the 14th century. He bought this land in 1842. He built the original Rangherka here, but also he planted 200 mulberry trees. Maybe the southern slopes were the reason he bought this land.
"The Rangherka building was a factory for processing of raw silk and the breeding of silkworms. So this place went from winemaking to manufacturing. It was the first manufacturing business in Vršovice, and maybe actually in the surrounding regions outside of Prague.”
Although the name Rangherka pays tribute to the building’s first owner, the Château changed many owners in a short period of time after the departure of the Rangheri family. It also changed the way it looked a couple of times, and it wasn’t until the turn of the century that it acquired the look for which it began to be known as Vršovice’s small château.
“In 1866, the Žabek family bought Rangherka, and rebuit it based on the project by the architect Veselý. The building became a residence, now, with two turrets.
“The next transformation came in 1899-1900, when the town administration decided to rework the design. The front of the building was unified, the two turrets were taken down, and a new small bell tower was built in the middle of the roof. They also added large steps going down the slope in front of the building. This is when Rangherka began looking a bit like a chateau, which is how it got its name. So this is the final neo-renaissance reconstruction,” said Michal Ezechel.
But before it became the stately seat of the town hall, the city administration utilized the mansion both for public use and to help the town make a profit. Mr Ezechel explains:
“Originally they bought Rangherka in 1882 for a school. The number of residents in Vršovice was on the rise. First it was a school for girls, then a secondary school. Rangherka also, at some point, had holiday apartments. So when Praguers wanted to leave the city for the weekend, they would rent out apartments here in Rangherka.”
Even once Rangherka began to house the town hall, parts of the building were still rented out to a number of very different institutions, such as the parish offices, or, in the 1920s, a tuberculosis treatment center, a youth shelter, or even an alcohol rehabilitation center.
In the 1880’s not just the population of Vršovice was growing, but also its wealth: factories making machinery and, for example, mustard, as well as a brewery opened in the town. It was not surprising, then, that the local administration chose this specific prominent location for its offices – it exhibited a high status for an increasingly wealthy Prague suburb.
“The area around Rangherka is the oldest part of Vršovice. Across from it is the church of St. Nicholas, at the time the credit union was located there as well. So it was really the center of Vršovice during that period.
“Just the fact that they bought and renovated the building shows that Vršovice were doing quite well financially at the turn of the century. This was also reflected in the fact that the town of Vršovice near Prague was made a city in 1902. It even had its own train station, where the Emperor supposedly passed through in 1901, and tram tracks came from Prague,” Mr Ezechl told me.
Prague expanded rapidly after Czechoslovakia became an independent state. In 1922, Vršovice, along with a number of other former suburbs, became part of the new nation’s capital. Rangherka remained, though, the seat of the district administration. Under the communist regime, it served as the district administrative council until 1974. It was also used for more festive occasions, such as weddings.
A woman in her 70s, who I met near Rangherka and who has lived in Vršovice all her life, has warm memories from her youth:
“There were different offices there and also they held weddings in the building as well. My friend, actually, got married there. I lent her my fur coat for the occasion, that’s why I remember. It was close by, so I went to see it too.”
In the 1970s, the local administrative offices were moved to a massive new complex built specifically for this purpose on the busy Vršovická street, where the Prague 10 town hall is located to this day.
As a result, since the 1980’s, the small Vršovice chateau has been left to its own devices. Various sporadic attempts to maintain the building, such as the renovation of the terrace and steps in the 1990’s, have not helped. The building was falling into decay, until an upward looking economy in the early 21st century gave an impetus for more concrete plans.
The spokesman for the Prague 10 town hall, Jan Charvát, spoke to me over the phone and told me how the plans for reconstruction had developed:
“The Vršovice mansion was in a really bad state for a number of years. They were considering reconstructing it for almost a decade. We had decided to get the reconstruction going in 2005 and the works have actually begun last year. We expect the reconstruction to finish by the end of this year.”
The original contract that was signed in 2006 was for a hotel to be built inside Rangherka, but as communication with preservationists and funders dragged on, plans had to be adjusted. Now, the town hall and the national heritage institute are working together to return Rangherka to its former glory.
“Due to the economic crisis in Europe, we’ve decided to change the project, and now we are building a home for the elderly. Additionally, the building will include premises for events such as weddings,” clarified Jan Charvát.
Although the town hall has had these plans for a while, and many local residents would probably welcome them, most people I spoke to on the streets around Rangherka did not know. The elderly lady we heard from before, although she seemed to be staying on top of current affairs, did not know that there were any plans in place.
“I really don’t know what they will use it for, I have no idea. I haven’t seen any flyers or any information about it around here. They probably don’t know yet, right?”
I also spoke to Olga Richterová, a young lady who is working on bringing together different civic initiatives from Prague 10 in order to bring the local authorities closer to their constituents and also to convince the town hall to be more transparent about its decision-making. Olga feels strongly about not only how long the reconstruction of Rangherka has taken but also that Prague 10 residents had no say in it and received no information. She told me a bit about what her group wants to achieve:
“We would like the voice of the people to be heard. Currently the authorities are neglecting the opinions of so many stakeholders when they are making decisions. They are neglecting the fact that there are people living here in Prague 10. And these people are not asked for their opinions when public spaces are being transformed.”
I asked her what she would like Rangherka to be used for after the reconstruction is over:
“I would really like this place to become a community center - a place where people could meet, where various activities could take place throughout the day. However, I would like the decision to be based on analyses, on something more concrete than just impressions.“
A young man walking his dog in the area also felt that the space should be given to public use, although he had no idea what was being planned: “It should definitely house something for the public, instead of a restaurant or something like that.”
Mr Ezechel pointed out, though, that building a home for the elderly makes a lot of sense, especially in Prague 10, since it is one of the oldest districts of Prague in terms of its population, with pensioners making up almost 20%.
No matter what will be inside the small Vršovice chateau, the building’s location and its history will help it regain its prominent position in the neighbourhood once the scaffolding comesoff.
“It’s basically the center, or one of the two centers of Vršovice. It shapes the atmosphere, the spirit of the place. It’s a point of orientation so to speak,” adds Olga Richterová.