After decades of devastation, finally some hope for historic Kyselka spa

14-11-2012

At the turn of the 20th century, Lázně Kyselka, just outside Karlovy Vary in western Bohemia, was a fashionable spa resort. Today, it is a ruin on the verge of total collapse. Kyselka suffered decades of neglect followed by a chaotic privatisation of the 1990s that only brought more disregard for its historic value. But recently, at long last, new hope appeared for the derelict 19th century spa complex, after a deal was reached between the various owners of the premises to try and save it.

Lázně Kyselka, photo: Barbora KmentováLázně Kyselka, photo: Barbora Kmentová In a video clip calling for the renovation of Lázně Kyselka, Czech writer Jaroslav Rudiš promises to write a short story if work gets underway. Popular actor Jiří Mádl says he will put on his overalls and will come help for a day, while model and socialite Agáta Hanychová pledges to pour Mattoni mineral water all over her naked body in the middle of Prague’s Old Town Square.

The clip was part of a campaign to raise public awareness of the issue, though its real target was one man: Alessandro Pasquale, the CEO and owner of Karlovarské minerální vody, the Czech Republic’s largest producer of mineral water. The firm owns some of the buildings in the run-down Kyselka complex, and extracts its mineral water, Mattoni, in the spa’s immediate vicinity.

The company shares its origin with the spas. In the 1860s, Heinrich Mattoni, a native of the nearby Karlovy Vary, saw the potential of the area and its mineral water springs. He began bottling and selling the water and used the profits to extend the spa complex. By the end of the century, Kyselka had a new colonnade, several sanatoriums, hotels, restaurants and a promenade, most of them built in the historicizing romantic style popular at the time.

Lázně Kyselka, photo: Barbora KmentováLázně Kyselka, photo: Barbora Kmentová Under communism, both the spas and mineral water company were run by the state, and in the 1990s both were privatized. The spa complex changed hands many times but never found an owner with the means or the will to save it. In contrast, the mineral water company was an example of successful privatization.

The Italian family Pasquale, which bought it the early 1990s, eventually turned the firm into the market leader. It now has an 80 percent share of the Czech mineral water market; in 2003, Karlovarské minerální vody posted a net profit of more than 34 million US dollars, although in 2010, the profit was down to just over 4 million dollars. The firm’s headquarters are located in an expensively renovated Baroque palace in the Old Town of Prague and the company sponsors several major events such as the Czech Lion film awards, the Magnesia Litera prize for literature, and the Prague International Marathon.

Alessandro Pasquale, photo: Czech TelevisionAlessandro Pasquale, photo: Czech Television But over those 20 years of building up its position, the firm invested very little, if anything, into the Kyselka spa. It directly owns parts of it, and is rumoured to indirectly own the rest. I asked the company’s CEO and owner, Alessandro Pasquale whether he felt responsible in any way for the sorry state of the spa.

“Responsibility for the state the buildings are in now? No, I don’t feel any responsibility. They are in that state because of 40 years of communism and 20 years of bad privatization, and zero maintenance, brought them to this state. The buildings we own, even though they are not in perfect state, are in a very much different state. They are in no risk of collapse; the difference is obvious.”

But even the structures the firm admits to own are in a very bad condition. These include a former hotel, an apartment building, and a spring building and bottling facility – all registered 19th century monuments. In September this year, the regional authorities fined the company 1.8 million crowns for having neglected them. Mr Pasquale blames this on difficulties with getting approval for renovation from monument preservation agencies, and on people campaigning for the renovation of the spa.

Mattoni Villa, photo: Barbora KmentováMattoni Villa, photo: Barbora Kmentová “It’s a problem of the length of the procedure. On top of this, every positive step by the authorities leading towards approving our projects gets heavily – without any ground – attacked by the association which makes the very scared.”

The association Mr Pasquale mentions is a group that in 2009 began pressuring the mineral water producer to pay for the spa’s renovation, an investment that would require around one billion crowns. But the calls of the Association for the Protection and Development of Cultural Heritage of the Czech Republic, as its full name is, fell on deaf ears. Karlovarské minerální vody argued the firm does not have the money, or the obligation, to renovate something they did not own. In fact, Mr Pasquale said he didn’t get why people were not grateful for his firm’s saving at least part of the legacy of original owner Mr Mattoni.

“There are two types of Mr Mattoni’s heritage: one is the mineral water production, the other is the spa. The production is now prosperous, and that is thanks to my family. It was not a miracle. When my father acquired Karlovarské minerální vody in 1991, the company was in total distress and the brand was completely unknown regional brand. What Mattoni is now is the work of especially my father. So it would be nice to see some gratefulness for that work because we actually saved half of that heritage.”

Lázně Kyselka, photo: Barbora KmentováLázně Kyselka, photo: Barbora Kmentová The association’s campaign eventually became rather controversial as it had posters showing the state of some the buildings placed on trams in Prague and in some department stores where Mattoni mineral water is sold. The firm sued the association, and a court ruled that the posters had to be removed. Mr Pasquale said he was ready to help with the renovation as long as a “trustworthy subject” came forward to take over the project. But it became obvious by that time that any agreement between the company and the association was virtually impossible.

But this year a group of students in Prague got involved in the campaign to save Lázně Kyselka, and things finally moved forward. The group also approached Karlovarské minerální vody but its attitude was less adversarial than its predecessors; for instance, the students came up with the video clip with the public figures promising what they will do if the renovation of Kyselka happens. One of the people behind the new initiative is law student Matěj Chytil who has no doubts about Karlovarské minerální vody’s responsibility towards the entire complex.

“What we say is that they are obliged to repair their official party which they haven’t done. And we also say they should find a reasonable attitude towards the other half because in my view, the main difference is not that they own only one of them. They own both.

Lázně Kyselka, photo: Barbora KmentováLázně Kyselka, photo: Barbora Kmentová “The difference is that they bought the other half in 2006 in a devastated condition. So I think the degree of their responsibility is a bit different but it is the responsibility of an owner. You can say we can’t prove this but if you ask any corporate lawyer to look at all the documents, they will tell you these companies are similar.”

And Mr Chytil says Karlovarské minerální vody should look at the issue from a business point of view and realize it would be better for the firm to act.

“What we tried to do was to convince the CEO of the firm that it is good business at the moment to save it. Because if they don’t they will lose an awful lot of money. If you count all the money they put into PR and brand management and compare it to the money you would have to pay to save Kyselka, I think it’s very rational at the moment to stop the devastation of the brand by stopping the devastation of Kyselka. There have been some calls for a public boycott of the company but we haven’t called it yet. We are waiting with that.

Lázně Kyselka, photo: Barbora KmentováLázně Kyselka, photo: Barbora Kmentová And this approach seems to have done the trick. In October, Karlovarské minerální vody agreed to join a non-profit organization and endow it with 20 million crowns along with the real estate it officially owns. The firm which owns the rest of the devastated property, and which some believe is just a front for the mineral water producers, also joined, and vowed to donate all its properties there. The city of Karlovy Vary and the municipality of Kyselka itself also joined the NGO, which has applied for registration. If all goes well, the group says the first phase of the renovation should begin before the end of the year.

The man who made this happen is Vladimír Lažanský, a descendant of a Czech aristocratic family who has some experience with bringing historic buildings back to life. In 1996, he bought the run-down chateau of Chýše in western Bohemia, which once belonged to his family, and renovated it. Over the phone from his chateau, Mr Lažanský explains where the group is planning to get the funds for the renovation.

Lázně Kyselka, photo: Barbora KmentováLázně Kyselka, photo: Barbora Kmentová “If you want to turn a building into a museum, the infrastructure is very different from, say, a spa building or a hotel. I can now hardly come up with an estimate of the costs but it will be hundreds of millions of crowns, or even a billion. It will certainly be a long-term project and it will take years to fix the spas for sure.”

Mr Lažanský says the ultimate goal is to save all the buildings of the historic spa complex as well as little structures in the areas such as statues, fountains, and the like. Some of the buildings should serve as museums; others as exclusive accommodation for the guest of the spas of Karlovy Vary. But the campaigners – and many locals – say they will remain sceptical until they see some progress being made on the restoration of Lázně Kyselka.

14-11-2012