The Melantrich building on Prague's Wenceslas Square will forever be associated with one of the most significant periods in Czech history. Leading figures in the Velvet Revolution, such as Vaclav Havel and Alexander Dubcek, addressed delirious crowds from one of its balconies in November 1989 on a day that will be remembered by Czechs for generations to come.
But if memories of Vaclav Havel and Alexander Dubcek on Wensceslas Square are still fresh and pristine, the Melantrich building whose balcony they stood on remained in a sad state of repair for many years. That is until it was finally taken over by the La Salle property developers in the year 2000. La Salle's chairman Nicholas Kirke explains how he managed to acquire this historic property:
"I was just walking down Wenceslas Square one day, and I saw a tiny notice saying that the building was up for auction. So eventually the auction came along - anyone could have gone there. The hall was absolutely packed because this was an interesting building, but anyone could have bought it. I was delighted with the price and so was my investing partner."
The Melantrich building was built in 1913 and has been a well known landmark on Prague's main thoroughfare for decades. But like many old historic buildings in the Czech capital, the communist era had not been kind to it. Nicholas Kirke says the building was a big project for his company to take on:
"It was a normal dilapidated, disintegrated, falling-down house actually. The rents didn't even cover the coal bill. Several tenants had run electric cables directly to the electricity supply. They were getting their electricity for free. The house was in an atrocious condition. The rear two-thirds of the building, which had been a printing factory and the Hvezda cinema, which many Czechs know, was virtually falling down. It was derelict. I quickly realised that we would have to demolish the rear two-thirds of the building and it was clear that we would have to keep the first piece largely as it was - for historical reasons"
Thankfully, the Melantrich building has now been fully restored to its former glory. Its historic façade has been completely reconstructed, and it was ceremonially reopened this week. Among other things it now houses a number of prestigious shops and a medical clinic.
Amazingly, although Mr Kirke is delighted to have played a part in restoring such an important building, he had not realised its significance until after he bought it:
"I didn't know a thing about it. I'd seen pictures of Mr Havel and Alexander Dubcek standing somewhere in Prague, but I didn't really know where it was. I didn't know I was buying the building with the balconies upon which they had been standing. I really didn't know much about the house. It came as a bit of a surprise and it was a pleasant surprise when I found this out."
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