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They say that the history of a city is written in its buildings. The buildings are the witnesses of the events that took place in the history of a city. There are buildings in our city that we pass every day, stood there forever and are part of our daily lives. Have we ever thought about their stories? Who built them and lived in them? In this article we will present eight emblematic buildings of Athens, the stories of which few of us know.
Villa Ilissia (today the Byzantine and Christian Museum): Villa Ilissia which now houses the Byzantine and Christian Museum, is one of the most beautiful buildings created in Athens during the first years of its historical journey as the capital of the newly formed Greek state. It was one of the six buildings ordered to the architect Stamatis Kleanthis by Sophie de Marbois-Lebrun, Duchess of Plaisance. The Duchess, a great admirer of the ancient Greek civilization and the Greek Revolution, decided in 1837 to settle permanently in Athens, after the unfortunate death of her daughter. The construction of Villa Ilissia began in 1840, just outside the city limits, a short distance from the Royal Palaces (the current Parliament), which had begun to be built in 1836. Villa Ilissia was located between the banks of the river Ilissos, which today it is covered, in order to be used as the winter residence of the Duchess and it is actually a complex of buildings. The main building, the residence of the Duchess, lined externally with marble, consists of two floors and a basement. It is a building that is distinguished for its simplicity and strict symmetry. The construction of Villa Ilissia was completed in 1848. It was inhabited by the Duchess until her death in 1854. Later the complex came to the Greek State, housed for three years the Military School and then other military authorities. In 1926 Villa Ilissia was granted to house the Byzantine and Christian Museum.
Psychas Mansion (today the Italian Embassy): Psychas Mansion, where the Italian Embassy is currently housed, is one of the most beautiful urban mansions that began to be built in the mid-1870s opposite the Royal Palaces. This particular one, built around 1885, belonged to the wealthy banker Stefanos Psychas, who commissioned the famous German architect Ernst Ziller to design his private residence. The Greek Prince Nicholas (1872 – 1938), the third-born son of King George I, lived in the mansion in 1902, after his marriage to the Grand Duchess of Russia Eleni Vladimirovna. It was then known as the “Little Palace” (Petit Palais). Following the resignation of King Constantine (1922) and the deportation of Prince Nicholas to Europe, Psychas Mansion was leased by the Hotel Great Britain as a separate branch with an annual rent of 4,000 pounds. The building then had a capacity of 60 beds and it is estimated that in 1924 it accommodated 3,320 travellers. In 1933 it merged with Great Britain and a few years later was sold in order to house the Norwegian Embassy and afterwards the Italian Embassy. The Mansion is a building of high aesthetics and belongs to the works of the mature architectural period of Ziller. The neoclassical porch of its entrance, a typical example of masterful design by the German architect, combines the Ionic order in the ground floor columns with the Corinthian order in the upper floor columns.
Pallis Mansion (today the Public Store): Pallis Mansion at the corner of Syntagma Square, was built around 1910-1911 by the famous architect Anastasios Metaxas. At this location was the oldest house of the Pallis family, an early neoclassical building of the previous century, which was demolished to make way for the new luxury mansion. Filippos Palis, who commissioned the new house, was a doctor, son of Alexios Palis, doctor and professor at the National University of Athens. When the Pallis family left the building, it housed the Ministry of Communications and, after World War II, the Omega Technical Schools. On October 18, 1944, from the balcony of the building, George Papandreou, Prime Minister of the Government of National Unity, delivered the speech of the liberation of Athens from the German Occupation. During the 1960s it hosted on the ground floor the cafe “Dionysos” with guests well-known members of the Athenian theatrical scene, due to its proximity to the famous Kyveli Theater. In the 1990s it was the only one of the old mansions in the square, after all the rest had been demolished in the name of the new city and was declared a listed building. In recent years and with the permission of the Ministry of Culture, its appearance was restored and important interventions were made inside to serve the needs of the flagship of the Greek department store Public.
Serpieris Mansion (today the former Agricultural Bank main branch): Serpieris Mansion is one of the few surviving mansions in Athens from the end of the 19th century. The building was completed in 1884 and was the residence of the Italian businessman Ioannis Baptistis Serpieris (Greek name of Giovanni Battista Serpieri). The Italian mining businessman Serpieris was born in Rimini, Italy in 1832 and died in 1897 in Athens. His arrival in Athens relates to the concession to him by the Greek state of the exploitation of Lavrio Mines. His company began its operations in Lavrio in 1864. During his management, he was often accused of horrific working conditions, which led to frequent accidents and illness of employees. In 1875 he decided to build a private residence in Athens. He had to find a plot of land that corresponded to his economic and social status. Therefore, he chose the area opposite the Academy of Athens, which at that time was a series of plots where marblers and stonemasons worked. The mansion was designed to accommodate more than one use. It was not just to be the residence of a great businessman; it was also a place of large gatherings and a means of social promotion. In 1929, the Mansion was purchased by Agricultural Bank in order to become its main branch. Today the building is empty and there are rumours that it is going to be transformed into a hotel.
Kakourgodikeio (today Library of Holy Αrchdiocese of Αthens): The building of Kakourgodikeio (which means criminal court) is located in the centre of the bustling area of Psyri. In the capital of the newly formed Greek state, due to a lack of buildings, several Byzantine and later churches were recruited to house public services. The small church of Agia Eleousa in Psyri was not an exception. The church was built on an ancient altar during the Turkish occupation. It is characterized as a parish church, but it belonged to the family of Prokopios Makris, consul of England in Athens. However, his name remained in history because he was the father of the beautiful “Daughter of Athens”, Theresia or Teresa Makri. In 1810, the philhellene Lord Byron lived in the two-storey mansion of the Makris family on Agias Theklas Street and fell madly in love with the then 13-year-old Teresa and dedicated his famous poem to her. During the reign of King Otto, the Danish architect Christian Hansen has been tasked with transforming the church into a criminal courthouse. He chose to respect the sanctuary of the church, which is preserved to this day but built a two-storey building that follows the neoclassical style, without unnecessary ornaments. During the 20th century, the building changed use many times and was abandoned for long periods of time. Finally, in the 1950s it was granted to the Holy Αrchdiocese of Αthens and today it houses its Library.
Church Tower: The Tower or Residence Church is an 18th-century Ottoman building – the only one surviving of its kind in Athens – that belonged to Sir Richard Church, an Irish general and ardent philhellene. This idiosyncratic house in Athens, which survived the Turkish occupation in Plaka was originally owned by the English historian of the Greek Revolution of 1821, George Finlay. The house gives the impression of a tower with its quirky chimney and small windows, features of its Ottoman origin, and was a peculiar sight in its time, surrounded by the humble houses of the other Athenians. Church Tower was originally a garrison (“karakoli” in Turkish), a Turkish police outpost and was repaired after the Revolution. Sir Richard Church, after the fall of Messolonghi, came to Athens in early 1827 to help in the Greek Revolution. From the Third National Assembly of Troizina he was elected “commander-in-chief and director of the land forces of Greece” and was sent to Faliro to help Karaiskakis. Upon the arrival of Kapodistrias, Church was appointed leader of Western Greece. After the election of Otto as King of Greece, he was appointed Councilor of the State and after the Revolution of September 3, Senator. Today despite being declared protected by the Greek State, the building looks elongated and is full of graffiti.
Archontiko Benizelon : The historic building named Archontiko Benizelon is located in the most crowded street of Plaka. It is a typical example of the urban architecture of pre-revolutionary Athens and the ancestral house of Agia Filothei of Athens. It is also the oldest surviving house in Athens. It is a two-storey construction with a loggia, according to the standards of the post-Byzantine house, with a well in its front yard, while in the back yard it had an olive mill and a press, which survive to this day. The house belonged to the aristocratic family of the Athenian lord Angelos Benizelos, who came from a Byzantine noble house. Angelos Benizelos was the father of Regoula or Rigoula Mpenizelou, the later nun and Saint Filothei of Athens. Τhe Christian and humanitarian work of the nun Filothei caused the wrath of the Turks, who on the night of October 2, 1588, arrested and tortured her. She finally died of her many wounds on February 19, 1589. Today her relic is kept in the Metropolitan Church of Athens. The house was declared a protected monument and was restored with the care of the Holy Archdiocese of Athens under the supervision of the Ministry of Culture. Today it is open to the public on certain days
Finally a brief reference to a building in Plaka that might not have the historical or cultural significance of the previously mentioned ones, but it is known to almost every Greek family as the Kokovikos Residence from the classic Greek movie “Let the wife fear her husband“shot here in 1965. The house at 32 Tripodon Street dates back to 1800 and hosted the Turkish military administration. On the plot of the building, archaeologists discovered the base of a sponsored ancient monument.
I’m sure most of you who live in the city already know these buildings, so the next time you pass in front of them, be sure to take a closer look and remember their history.