Alexander Palace

Coordinates: 59°43′16″N 30°23′33″E / 59.721°N 30.3926°E / 59.721; 30.3926

The Alexander Palace (Russian: Александровский дворец) is former imperial residence in Tsarskoye Selo, near St Petersburg. It is primarily known as the favoured residence of the last Russian Emperor, Nicholas II, and his family. It is situated in the Alexander Park, not far from the larger Catherine Palace.

Palace under Alexander I

The Alexander Palace was constructed in the Imperial retreat of Tsarskoe Selo. It was commissioned by Catherine the Great for her favorite grandson and future emperor Alexander I of Russia on the occasion of his marriage to Grand Duchess Elizaveeta Alexeevna, born Princess Louise Mary August of Baden.

The graceful Neoclassical edifice was planned by Giacomo Quarenghi and built between 1792-1796. 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 facade, harmonic proportions, and moderate ornamentation ... are also manifested in its interiors ..., without compromising comfort in striving for magnificence and elegance".

An interesting story about construction is that when the crew was excavating to start the foundation, they ran into an underground river which today runs below the semicircular hall. 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 nearby Catherine Palace.

Palace under Nicholas I

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 1830-1850, 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 1840-1860. 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 October 19, 1860, the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna also died at the palace. Later Alexander III had his apartments in the right hand wing of the palace.

Palace under Nicholas II

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 always loved the palace and decided to make it their permanent residence after the Bloody Sunday which made the Winter Palace dangerous for them. They remodeled the former two-storey 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. This idyllic world was watched over by the sad and prophetic smile of Queen Marie Antoinette of France, portrayed with her children in a tapestry in the Corner Room. This had been a gift from the French President Émile Loubet during his visit to Russia in 1902.

Nicholas II abdicated the throne of Russia on March 2, 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,

The Palace after the Revolution

On the direct order of Alexander Kerensky, the Imperial Family were moved on the morning of August 1, 1917 by train to Tobolsk in Siberia. From that time and until the beginning of the Second World War, the palace was a museum. At the beginning of World War II the most valuable furnishing were evacuated to the interior of the country. The remaining parts of the collection, were hidden in the basement during the Nazi German occupation. During the war years, 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 Nazi German forces were leaving USSR, many of the suburban palaces were set ablaze. The Alexander Palace was spared. The palace was used as a depot for artworks coming back into the area. It was later decided not to turn it back into a museum and it was given to the Soviet Navy. It also functioned as an orphanage, although the children housed there managed to destroy parts of the second floor where the rooms of the Tsar's five children were located.

The Palace today

Until very recently the palace was seen as little more than an enhancement to the beautiful Alexander Park. Few knew that the formal halls had been preserved within, or that the Catherine and Pavlovsk palaces contained exquisite chandeliers, torcheries, formal portraits and many other works of art created specifically for those halls. Fewer realised that, in the left wing of the palace, decorations dating from the last Russian emperor had survived intact. To call attention to the site's importance and potential, when it appeared that the Soviet Navy intended to vacate the complex, Alexander Palace was included in the 1996 World Monuments Watch by the World Monuments Fund (WMF). In 1996, with funding from American Express, WMF helped with emergency renovations to the roof over the Nicholas II 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 in the left wing of the building.

Alexander Palace is now an exhibition space dedicated to the final years of Tsarist Russia. For this new use, certain elements of the Reception Room, Nicholas II's New Study and Alexandra's Corner Drawing Room have been recreated and provide a backdrop for exhibitions of historical costumes, weapons and objects of applied art to be found within the walls. In Nicholas II's Study, where the working environment of the last Russian Emperor has been recreated, hangs a portrait of Nicholas II's father painted by the great Russian artist, Valentin Serov. In one section of the palace, visitors can see clothing once worn by the last Imperial Family of Russia and uniforms related to the court of Tsar Nicholas II. Restoration is ongoing.

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