Ekaterina Yuhnova made a private museum in her flat in a typical tenement house in St.Petersburg. Her mission is to promote this heritage to people interested in the history of their town.

By Maxim Silva Vega

A huge number tenement buildings were built during the second industrial revolution and experienced a surge in popularity in the mid-19th century through 1914. Those who could afford to do so commissioned the construction of these buildings in order to rent them out to the increasing number of people who were working in the city. These buildings make up the modern landscape of many European cities today. They are referred to in different ways which point to intent of their owners to rent them for additional income and to workers in cities. For instance, in Germany, they are known as "mietskaserne" or "rental barrack". In Poland, they are referred to as "kamienica" or "house made of stone". In Russia, they are called "dokhodny dom" or "building which brings income".

The exterior and interior of these buildings reflect different architectural styles from neoclassicism - to Art Nouveau. They housed many technical innovations such as private bathrooms and toilets, heating, and finally, electricity. In some European cities, you can see the original architectural elements readily and most notably this is true of Prague, Czech Republic. The bourgeoisie of the time built tenement housing in the hundreds. The buildings adjoin one another, street after street and neighborhood after neighborhood in Prague today.

I had the opportunity to live a full year in the Czech capital in a flat with an Art-Nouveau decor in which old windows, moldings and a beautiful front door were preserved. In Prague, over the last fifteen years, many of these houses have been renovated. The cost to rent individual flats has gone up substantially and quickly. They attracted foreign investors which convert entire buildings into hotels. Because Prague is rich and abound with these buildings it is easy to take them for granted as an architectural fixture of the city and moreover loose the marvel the interiors inspire to the appreciative eye.

Unfortunately, there are European cities where these buildings did not persevere over time. Berlin and Warsaw saw substantial destruction overall during World War II. As part of reconstruction efforts in the mid-20th century following the war, new buildings with a more modern architectural style were erected. Today, tenement buildings help make up city blocks that constitute an eclectic conglomerate of newer buildings and tenement housing.

The Polish city of Wroclaw was also half destroyed during the Soviet siege which took place in 1945, and entire streets were demolished. One of the city's neighborhoods, Nadodrze, suffered less than others. However, here the condition of the once magnificent "kamienicy" is rather deplorable.

These buildings have not been restored for two primary reasons. Mayka Zabogrzycka of the organization “Lokietka 5” whose mission it is to promote development of good-neighborliness and sustainable development points out that today's tenement apartments are owned both by private entities and the city. Reaching agreement on how to renovate has proven difficult among these stakeholders, staling the effort altogether of restoring these buildings. The second reason restoration has not taken place is because the city does not have the funds to invest in such an effort.

The former capital of Russia, St. Petersburg is another example of a city that has a rich architectural heritage involving tenement housing. While the facades of these buildings are put in order and shine, the interiors tell a different story. You might think that the walls were not painted since they were built! It is especially sad to go into the halls of the buildings where old doors were replaced by unpleasant iron ones, and stairways are stained and dirty. This desolate care of the buildings is part of is the legacy of the Soviet era which saw scarcity and promoted indifference or lack of resources to maintain housing. 

This is where Yuhnova has made a passionate effort to restore and highlight the original architecture of these buildings in St. Petersburg. Behind the beautiful stone facades of tenement houses you can often find newer materials and details instead of the old ones, which were destroyed during major repairs», says the Yuhnova. She authored a book «St. Petersburg tenement houses» - an in - depth encyclopedia of the way of life in these buildings. In the 1990s she began to take an interest in the history of these houses and provided tours for people interested in the history of their town.

"I looked for interesting buildings, with preserved beautiful gate grids and stucco moldings, outbuildings for coaches, rooms for wipers, horse stakes, galleries and arches, even special  metal devices for cleaning shoes from dirt at the entrance to the house", says Yuhnova.

During the Soviet period spacious rooms in St. Petersburg tenement houses  were divided into numerous small "communal" compartments. The apartments with two entrances were divided into two, three and sometimes four smaller apartments. The enfilade doors were laid, leaving the only entrance to the rooms from the corridor. In most part of tenement houses, original interiors, layouts and details were lost. "I am convinced that it is important to show and tell people how these flats looked in the beggining of the 19th century. This means that restoration and museumification of these apartments is necessary», believes Ekaterina.

One year ago Yuhnova decided to make a private museum in her own flat. Four generations of her family lived in this flat in a tenement house in Furshtadskaya street:  

"Our house was built in the late 19th century by the community of  the Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. Anna. Since that time our apartment itself was well preserved, and the sixth generation of our family lives in it. I was born in 1960. As a child, I found life in the beginning of the 20th century practically unchanged. Thanks to the inertia of everyday concepts, since my childhood I lived very comfortably under the old rules among old furniture. The only innovation by that time was in the kitchen – the apearence of a gas stove. All other improvements and changes occurred in front of my eyes: radiators for steam heating, a bath with a gas water heater…" 

Ekaterina decided that her private museum will represent an apartment of the beginning of 20th century in which «lived» the typical woman from the middle class who was working as the teacher at school.

«All apartment-museums are dedicated to famous persons, mainly men, are not they? And I wanted to show people how an ordinary Petersburg woman lived. And there is another characteristic that distinguishes my apartment from other similar museums: is a living apartment, not just a museum. Coming here, people feel like guests, not tourists. Here they are invited for tea with homemade jam; they can read old books or listen to someone playing piano..."

Sometimes Yuhnova makes parties hosted with older traditions where guests feel like in the 19th century.

«I invite you to see and touch everything here live. And I would like the owners of other ancient apartments to open them for visits by people interested in the history of the life of our ancestors, because it is quite obvious that the city administration is not doing nothing in this field. For over 100 years we have been loosing the original interiors of the ancient tanement houses. Really, they die out like mammoths. Let's try to save at least couple of  hundreds of such apartments. And it depends only on ourselves». You can find out more about the museum here.