The history of the building
St.-Petersburg is justly known as an open air museum. The city’s theatres, each of them with its unique architectural style, are an essential part of its cultural heritage. Among them, in Galernaya street in the city center, shines a small cozy mansion house which belonged to Baron Sergei Pavlovich von Derviz at the end of the 19th century.
The history of the mansion saw several stages. It has been von Derviz home theater and performance venue of Vsevolod Meyerhold, a Soviet-era community centre and the theatre of Yuri Alexandrov.
Originally the mansion was owned by Artemy Volynsky, a famous statesman of the first half of the 18th century and the Cabinet minister under the Empress Anna Ivanovna, who was executed in 1740 for participating in a plot against Duke Ernst Johann von Biron. Then the house belonged to Volynsky’s daughter, who married Count Vorontsov. For some time the house belonged to merchants Schneider and Balabin and later to Prince Repin. In 1870 the architect F. Miller restyled the facade and added another building.
In 1883, a young Baron, a descendant of an old German Wiese family, Actual privy councillor and Chamberlain Sergei Pavlovich von Derviz (1863-1918) hired the architect Peter Schreiber to rebuild the normal apartment building into an impressive palace of the modern era. The architect rebuilt the house, paying special attention to the interior where the modern style intermingles with the Empire style and Elizabethan Baroque mixes with Classicism, suddenly disappearing in the luxury of splendid Moorish style. The life of the Baron von Derviz is full of mystery. A professional musician, a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory, he owned mines and estates in the Kiev, Ryazan and Orenburg provinces, was closely involved in charity work and was elected an honorary member of the St. Petersburg Drama Society. Then, suddenly, for some reason, all his property was in trusteeship. Influential statesmen S. Vitte and K. Pobedonostsev were involved in settling the matter. As a result, the property was cleared of all the encumbrances and the Baron’s reputation was saved. Soon, however, Baron von Derviz retired and, selling out all his real estate in St. Petersburg and Moscow, moved with all his family to Paris, where his trace was soon lost.
In 1902 two more floors were added to the building from the side of the river, so the property did not look like a mansion any more. In 1909 the house in Galernaya street together with part of the building on the English Embankment was bought by N. Shebeko, Grand Equerry and the Chairman of the St. Petersburg charity society for poor children. His mother was a niece of Alexander Pushkin’s wife Natalia Goncharova and was friends with Princess E. Yuryevskaya, the secret wife of the Emperor Alexander II. The new owner partially reconstructed the building with the project designed by the architect A. Maksimov and this image has remained until now.
The peak of theatre life of von Derviz mansion fell into two periods: the beginning of the 20th century, the era of Vsevolod Meyerhold, and the beginning of the 21st century, the era of Yuri Alexandrov.
In October 1910, Meyerhold created The House of Interludes, where he worked as Dr. Dapertutto. This stage name was invented for him by the famous poet M. Kuzmin for pure practical reason: formally being a civil servant, the director was not allowed to work in other theatres under his real name. For several years this stage name became the symbol of Meyerhold’s clone.
Meyerhold actually lived on two floors. On the top floor he was the director of the Imperial Theatres staging performances in the traditional drama style and trying to revive the aesthetic memory of the great theatre eras which was still alive in the art the old actors of the Alexandriisky Theatre. Yet, on the bottom floor he performed laboratory experiments breaking with the established drama language and developing the idea of a Theatre of the Future. As a result, in the early twentieth century the small stage of von Derviz mansion became one of the major testing grounds for the theatre revolution. Meyerhold saw his House of Interludes as a community of various artists, a kind of an art club where they would generously bring their "living creative impulses." He dreamt of exchanging new ideas freely with almost no border between creative discussions and artistic experiments. On posters and in programmes his cabaret was presented as “the fellowship of actors, writers, musicians and artists”. At that time, Meyerhold was looking for like-minded artists who were not burdened with stereotypes of drama training. The first programme of The House of Interludes had nothing to do with usual theatre performances. Meyerhold decided not to invite for his shows well-known actors. He needed young actors who recently graduated from drama schools and were able to abandon the usual forms of theatrical existence.
The repertoire of The House of Interludes included "Dutchwoman Lisa", “a pastoral with songs and dances" adapted by M. Kuzmin, "Columbine’s Scarf", a pantomime described by Meyerhold as a "tragic farce" and "Black and White", a satirical buffoonery which contrasted with the songs by M. Kuzmin, both innocently naive and deeply serious. Of all the cabaret crowd, all these serious, not very serious and merely frivolous people, Meyerhold was the only one who had a clear conscious goal: searching for a new drama language. He made a lot of efforts to develop his The House of Interludes.
Performances by Dr. Dapertutto marked the beginning of a new directorial approach. Here Meyerhold worked not only for the present day, but also for the future, when his ideas would be perceived completely and read correctly.
Despite the brilliant stage experiments, The House of Interludes ceased to exist due to financial problems at the end of 1911. It was only nearly 90 years later that von Derviz mansion began its new era as a theatre.
Like the Meyerhold’s The House of Interludes, The St. Petersburg Chamber Opera was also created in the "ground floor". Bur there was a difference: Yuri Alexandrov, then a director of the Mariinsky Theatre, adopted no stage name
After the revolution of 1917, the mansion was plundered and was used for various purposes in the following years. At first it hosed a Bolshevik party District Committee, then the Metalworkers’ trade union and the Estonian House of Education. Later the front side on the Neva Embankment was used as a tuberculosis dispensary and the outbuilding in the yard was occupied by a sobering-up station. In 1946 the rooms overlooking the Galernaya street (then called Krasnaya, or Red street) were given to the club of the Admiraltesky shipyard workers. The club had a romantic name Mayak meaning the Lighthouse. For years, the mansion was languishing, only by some being able to preserve a part of its unique interiors.
In the early nineties, a difficult time in Russian history, the Mayak club had to rent out their premises. Who knows what would have happened to von Derviz mansion later, but in 1998 the building was given to The St. Petersburg Chamber Opera, the State Chamber Music Theatre.
The mansion needed serious repair badly, but the troupe that at last found their own home, own stage, still decided to play their performances here. They were trying to convince the city authorities that the building was in disrepair, until one day a large piece of stucco collapsed into the auditorium. A 10-kilo lump fell from the ceiling but fortunately no one was hurt.
As a result of Yuri Alexandrov’s efforts, restoration work began in 2000. The floors and electrical wiring were partially renewed, new window glasses and doors were installed and the ceilings were reinforced. The White hall, the stage, the grotto, the lobby and dressing rooms were restored. The curtain with Baron von Derviz family coat of arms was recreated. A lot of efforts were made to return the rooms to normal condition. When clearing the ceiling of the baroque White Hall, the renovators discovered beneath the layer of paint an amazing plafond depicting three swallows flying in the blue sky with white clouds.
Over the years of restoration, the luxurious interiors of the mansion were recovered from devastation and repaired including the Moorish Room with its gilded ornaments, the Maple Room decorated with picturesque panels, the Winter Garden designed as a bizarre grotto, the Red Room, an example of the Italian Renaissance, and other rooms. The restoration is still far from being completed. At the moment the theatre management is trying to restore the former beauty of the interiors in the second part of the mansion that faces the English Embankment. Some of these interiors have already been restored. Thus, due to the Herculean efforts made by Yuri Alexandrov, St.-Petersburg regained one of its most beautiful palaces, the pearl of European Art Nouveau in its original form.