Panoramic view of the Alexander Palace in 2010
|Design and construction|
The Alexander Palace (Russian: ) is a former imperial residence near the town of Tsarskoye Selo in Russia, on a plateau about 30 miles (48 km) south (around 30 minutes by train) from the erstwhile [imperial capital city of Saint Petersburg. It is known[by whom?] as the favourite residence of the last Russian Emperor (Tsar/Czar), Nicholas II (1868-1918, reigned 1894-1917), and of his imperial family; it served as their initial place of imprisonment after the first of two Russian Revolutions in February of 1917 that overthrew the Romanov during World War I (1914-1918). The Alexander Palace is situated in the Alexander Park, not far from the Catherine Park and the larger, more elaborate Catherine Palace, begun in 1717 by the Tsarina Catherine (later empress-consort and then empress-regnant as Catherine I (r. 1725-1727)) and significantly expanded by the Empress Catherine the Great (r. 1762-1796). As of 2020 the Alexander Palace is undergoing renovation as a state museum housing relics of the former imperial dynasty.
The Alexander Palace was constructed in the Imperial retreat, near the town of Tsarskoe Selo, 30 miles south of the imperial capital city of St. Petersburg. It was commissioned by Empress/Tsarina Catherine II (Catherine the Great) (1729-1796, reigned 1762-1796), built nearby the earlier Catherine Palace for her favorite grandson, Grand Duke Alexander Pavlovich, the future emperor (tsar/czar) Alexander I of Russia (1777-1825, reigned 1801-1825), on the occasion of his 1793 marriage to Grand Duchess Elizaveta Alexeievna, born Princess Luise Marie Augusta of Baden.
The Neoclassical edifice was planned by Giacomo Quarenghi and built between 1792 and 1796. It was agreed that the architect had excelled himself in creating a masterpiece. In 1821, a quarter of a century later, the architect's son wrote:
An elegant building which looks over the beautiful new garden ... in Tsarskoe Selo, was designed and built by my father at the request of Catherine II, as a summer residence for the young Grand Duke Alexander, our present sovereign. In keeping with the august status of the person for whom the Palace was conceived, the architect shaped it with greatest simplicity, combining both functionality with beauty. Its dignified façade, harmonic proportions, and moderate ornamentation ... are also manifested in its interiors ..., without compromising comfort in striving for magnificence and elegance.
Alexander used the palace as a summer residence through the remainder of his grandmother's and his father, Paul's, reign. When he became emperor, however, he chose to reside in the much larger nearby Catherine Palace.
Alexander I gave the palace to his brother, the future Nicholas I, for summer usage. From that time on, it was the summer residence of the heir to the throne. From 1830 to 1850, extensive redecoration was carried out according to designs by D.Cerfolio, A.Thon, D.Yefimov, A.Stakenschneider and others in keeping with rapidly changing tastes. The appearance of the formal and private rooms of the palace during Nicholas' reign can be seen in exquisite watercolors by E. Hau, I. Premazzi and I. Volsky from 1840 to 1860. The famous Mountain Hall which had a large slide built in for the children of Nicholas I was built during this time. Nicholas I and his family lived in the palace from the early spring till the end of May and after a short period at Krasnoye Selo during manoeuvres returned to the palace to spend their time there until the late autumn. In 1842, the Imperial couple celebrated their silver wedding anniversary with a series of galas including a medieval jousting tournament. Two years later, the family mourned the death of Nicholas's daughter Grand Duchess Alexandra (1825-1844), who was born at the palace and lived the last few months of her life there. On 19 October 1860, the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna also died at the palace.
Alexander III and his Danish born wife Maria Feodorovna had their apartments in the right-hand or western wing of the palace near the gardens. Before their accession to the imperial throne, Maria gave birth to their eldest child, the future Nicholas II, at the Alexander Palace. In his diary, the then Tsarevich Alexander recorded the momentous event of the birth of his first child,
Around 12.30 my wife came to the bedroom and lay down on a couch where everything was prepared. The pains became stronger and stronger, and Minny suffered very much. Papa ... helped me hold my darling the whole time. Finally, at 2.30, the last minute came and suddenly all her suffering stopped. God sent us a son whom we named Nicholas. What a joy it was! It is impossible to imagine. I sprang to embrace my darling wife, and she instantly became cheerful and was terribly happy. I had been weeping like a child but suddenly my heart became light and cheerful.
The entire imperial family was present at the birth of Alexander and Maria's first child. In a letter to her mother, Queen Louise, the Tsarevna wrote,
.. this bothered me immensely! The Emperor held me by one hand, my Sasha by the other, whilst every so often the Empress kissed me.
After Alexander III's death, Maria Feodorovna would stay at the palace in their rooms while visiting her son (Tsar Nicholas II) and daughter-in-law (Alexandra Feodorovna). As the estrangement with Alexandra Feodorovna became more apparent, the visits of the Dowager Empress became fewer.
The palace is most famous though for the role it played in the reign of the last tsar, Nicholas II. He and his wife Alexandra Feodorovna always loved the palace and decided to make it their permanent residence after the events of Bloody Sunday, which made the Winter Palace dangerous for them. They remodeled the former two-story ballroom into the Maple Room and the New Study and added rooms for their children on the floor above. To the horror of the court, Alexandra, and her architect Meltzer, chose a then-modern style of decoration, Jugendstil or Art Nouveau, considered by the aristocracy to be "middle class" and less than "Imperial". One of these most famous rooms is Alexandra's Mauve Room .
During the reign of Nicholas II, the palace was wired for electricity and equipped with a telephone system. In 1899, a hydraulic lift was installed connecting the Empress' suite with the children's rooms on the second floor. Furthermore, with the advent of motion pictures, a screening booth was built in the Semicircular Hall to show films.
During the stormy years of war and revolution, the monumental walls of the Alexander Palace sheltered the Imperial Family from the outside world. Pierre Gilliard, tutor to Nicholas II's son, had free access to this inner sanctum. In his memoirs, the tutor later described that the family life at Tsarskoe Selo was less formal than at other residences. Apart from a few exceptions, the court did not reside at the palace. The Imperial Family would gather informally around the table at mealtimes without attendants, unless relatives were visiting.
Nicholas II abdicated the throne of Russia on 2 March 1917. Thirteen days later, he returned to the Alexander Palace not as Emperor of Russia, but as Colonel Romanov. The Imperial Family were now held under house arrest and confined to a few rooms of the palace and watched over by a guard with fixed bayonets. The regime of their captivity, worked out by Alexander Kerensky himself, envisaged strict limitations in the life of the Imperial Family: an isolation from the outer world, a guard during their promenades in the park, prohibition of any contacts and correspondence apart from approved letters. Gillard noted,
In their spare time, free from studies, the Empress and her daughters were engaged in sewing something, embroidering or weaving, but they were never idle.... During daytime walks all the members of the family, excluding the Empress, were engaged in physical work: they cleaned paths in the park from snow, chopped ice for the cellar, cut dry branches or old trees, storing firewood for the future winter. With the arrival of the warmer weather the entire family worked on an extensive kitchen-garden....
Due to an increasingly precarious situation in St. Petersburg, the leader of the provisional government, Alexander Kerensky, made the decision to move the Romanov family out of the palace into internal exile in Tobolsk in far away Siberia. There had been calls for the prisoners to be housed in the prison at the notorious Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul in St. Petersburg. To avoid this on the morning of 1 August 1917, a train took the family away. They were never to return.
Not long after the departure of the Romanovs for Siberia, a museum was established within the Alexander Palace. It operated until the beginning of the Second World War. At the beginning of the war, the most valuable furnishings were evacuated to the interior of the country. The remaining parts of the collection were hidden in the basement.
During the Nazi German occupation, the palace was used as headquarters for the German military command. The area in front of the palace was turned into a cemetery for SS soldiers. Artistically and historically unique collections were partially destroyed. As the German forces were leaving the Soviet Union, many of the former imperial palaces were set ablaze. The Alexander Palace was spared.
After the expulsion of the German forces, the palace was used as a depot for artworks coming back into the area. The neighbouring Catherine Palace had been looted and mostly destroyed. For a time it was planned to restore the interiors of the Alexander Palace, but this decision was reversed. As interest in Nicholas II and his family was discouraged by the Soviet regime, so too was interest in the palace that had been their residence. The new plan was to create a museum to Pushkin. With the exception of the heavily damaged Reception and New Study, the private rooms of the imperial family were altered to plain exhibition halls. The museum plan was then shelved, and the palace was handed over to the Soviet Navy. Many of the palace's former collections still existed, but were relocated to other museums such as the Pavlovsk Palace. The Alexander Palace was seen as little more than an enhancement to the beautiful Alexander Park.
When it appeared that the Soviet Navy intended to vacate the complex, the Alexander Palace was included in the 1996 World Monuments Watch by the World Monuments Fund (WMF). With funding from American Express in the same year, WMF helped with emergency renovations to the roof over the Nicholas II left wing of the palace, comprising approximately one-third of the building's total roof structure.
In the summer of 1997, a permanent exhibition was opened dedicated to the imperial family. Certain elements of the Reception Room, Nicholas II's New Study and Alexandra Feodorovna's Drawing Room were recreated to provide a backdrop for exhibitions of historical costumes, weapons and objects of applied art. A portrait of Alexandra Feodorovna by Friedrich von Kaulbach was returned to its original position. Clothing worn by the last imperial family and uniforms related to the court of Tsar Nicholas II were also placed on display. Much of this clothing only survived because it had been used as packing case wadding for more precious objects when the palace was evacuated in World War II.
In 2010 the three largest public rooms in the middle wing were reopened, following partial restoration: the Semi-Circular Hall, the Portrait Hall and the Marble Drawing Room. However, despite the best efforts of curators, limited restoration funds, dispersed collections, and the absence of the palms and flowers - from now vanished imperial hothouses - that had once lushly decorated several of the rooms, meant that the presentations were somewhat sparse and of varying quality.
In 2014 the Russian government finally allocated significant funds to enable a more complete and authentic restoration of the quarters of the imperial family. This will include the Art Nouveau Maple Room, and the celebrated Mauve Room of Alexandra. In September 2015 the palace closed to the public for this major multi-year project.