Bucharest’s erstwhile hub of social glamour: the story of Palatul Suțu
At night, it’s spellbinding. Its moonlit front yard, with its fine wrought iron gates and marquee, its interior resembling a drawing by Escher, with mesmerising interplays of chandelier lights, curvy staircases and huge Murano mirrors… You’d expect diadem-crowned princesses in vapoury gowns and gentlemen wearing musk perfume and impeccable tailcoats to start flowing in from velvet upholstered carriages or stylish belle epoque automobiles.
Indeed, this two-storey Neogothic building you must have passed by if you ever walked around downtown Bucharest was a hotspot of aristocratic social nightlife in the late 19th century, where the city’s elite came to shine at the most spectacular balls in town, at the time. The building was the flagship of Bucharest’s turn to the European spirit, a landmark of modern civilisation in an underdeveloped capital, the iconic proof of the country’s orientation towards the West.
It is called Palatul (Palace) Suțu because it was chamberlain Costache Gr. Suțu who commissioned Viennese architects Konrad Schwink and Johann Veit to build it in the 1830s, and German Romanian sculptor Karl Storck to design its fairytale interior around 1862. The land on which the palace was erected had been part of the dowry of Ruxandra Racoviță, a noble damsel whom Suțu married as young as 17. Their son, Grigore, and his wife Irina, a banker’s daughter, really took the place to its peak of splendour and glory after 1875.
As one of the few lucky guests invited to Grigore and Irina’s exclusive balls, you would enter the driveway surrounded by a courtyard full of exotic plants, pelicans and pheasants vaguely reminiscent of the Versailles gardens, get off your sumptuous carriage under the marquee, aided by a picturesque Albanian doorman, and be welcomed ceremoniously yet warmly by the hosts at the top of the entrance stairs. If you were a lady, a handsome cavalry officer would offer their arm and accompany you to one of the ballrooms upstairs, where people would waltz and make conversation in French. At special occasions you would be privileged to fête at the Suțus with King Carol I and Queen Elisabeta themselves!
Alas, after Grigore and Irina passed away, the palace, deprived of its owners’ liveliness and zest for high-class quality entertainment, gradually lost its social glamour and appeal. Gone were the balls and fancy partying, and in came the German occupation, with general Tülff von Tschepe und Weidenbac, the German governor of the occupied territories, headquartered there in 1916. Later on, two banks and the townhall disputed the place as their office, but failed to initiate the restauration work which, by now, the place needed badly. After World War II, the building was in such a bad condition that the communists considered pulling it down. They thought better, though, and in 1948 the place was declared a historical monument and was subsequently assigned to the Museum of the City of Bucharest. Finally, restauration took place in 1956-1958, and so contemporary visitors can still take in some of the palace’s beauty and interior design treasures by visiting the museum, which is open Wednesday to Sunday from 11am to 5pm. (Tickets cost 10 lei, i.e. around 2 euros.)
There will be no more balls inside, but if you really pay attention with your eyes and heart, you will feel some of the fine spirit which breathed life and brilliance into this place in times gone by.
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