A Statement of Little Paris Charm: Bucharest’s CEC Palace
On Bucharest’s most chic street, centric Calea Victoriei, standing like a dreamy damsel on a day out awaiting her aristocratic barouche, the CEC Palace, with its harmonious silhouette and glass top, conjures up perfectly the belle époque Bucharest: the “Little Paris of the East”.
In its case, the function preceded the place: the state-owned banking institution called Casa de Economii şi Consemnaţiuni (House of Savings and Deposits) was legally established in 1864 by Prince Alexandru Ioan Cuza, it developed rapidly in the 1870s, when it financed Romania’s Independence War , and it needed a large headquarters of its own. The new building was erected on the site of a former church, St John the Great, demolished in 1875, and its foundation stone was laid by King Carol I and Queen Elisabeth in June 1897. French architect Paul Gottereau, a graduate of the Paris École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts  and designer of the Cotroceni Royal Palace too , together with a team of Romanian experts including famed engineer Anghel Saligny, were entrusted with the project. Three years later, in 1900, the royal family inaugurated the completed building.
Watching over the imposing entrance, on either side of a clock, two Greek gods add their mythological mark to the general eclecticism of the palace, fashioned in the style of French academicism, with classical and baroque features: Mercury, the god of commerce, and Demeter, the goddess of fertility and abundance, both sculpted by Romanian artist Athanasie Constantinescu . Inside, impressive mosaic and marble stairs made with materials from Dobruja, elegant chandeliers manufactured in Vienna, beautiful frescoes crafted by Greek-origin painter Mihail Simonidi. Of the latter decorations, the one painted on the ceiling of the 8-metre-high Council Hall, the building’s most stately room, with walls covered in walnut and cherry wood carved panels, was awarded the Silver Medal at the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1900 .
Last but not least, the monumental palace is a lucky building: bombardments during World War II spared it, and the big earthquakes that devastated Bucharest in 1940 and 1977 left it untouched, except for some minor damage in its majestic glass and wrought iron central dome, which was, for decades, the largest in the country.
In recent times, the CEC Museum was opened in the building’s main lobby in 2005, showcasing original documents of transactions carried out in the early days of the institution, banking products from the 1880s, piggy banks, safes from the interwar years, promotional stamps, memorial medals, badges and postcards . Apart from the museum space, however, public access to the CEC Palace is restricted, with just occasional events taking place here, such as the celebration of Crown Princess Margareta’s 60th anniversary in 2009.
A potent magnet to tourists wandering around the old city, the CEC Palace looks, if only it had a will of its own, determined to keep alive the charming, light, airy spirit of belle époque Bucharest, with its atmosphere of pleasurable encounters.
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