While not infrequent in luxurious Petersburg interiors, the exotic Moorish style was first used in the façade of "House Muruzi" (Dom Muruzi) on the corner of Liteyny Prospect and Panteleymon Street. Designed by architect A.K. Serebryakov, the building belonged to Prince Alexander Muruzi. His father, of Greek origin and an official in Constantinople, had been beheaded by the Turks for passing classified information that enabled the Russians to conclude a timely and advantageous peace with Turkey on the eve of Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812. When Muruzi's wife and children arrived in Petersburg eight years later, the tsar provided them with rank and money that he had promised the unfortunate Prince. As a result his son was able to purchase the plot on Liteyny Prospect in 1874; the house, completed in 1877, cost 800 thousand rubles. The orientalist Moorish style, it may be said, corresponded to its owner's exotic family history. In 1890, House Muruzi was bought by retired general Oscar Reyn who owned it till 1917.
The Moorish façade and original owner's background were not the only exotic aspect of the building and its history. Long before Prince Muruzi, another nobleman had a house on the same corner and whose story became the stuff of legend — Nikolay Rezanov who helped found the Russian–American trading company in 1799 that established colonies in Alaska, Hawaii, and California. In 1805, he sailed to then Spanish–controlled California, winning both a trade treaty in San Francisco for Russia, as well as the hand of the 15–year old Concepción Arguello (Conchita), the beautiful Spanish governor's daughter. But Rezanov died in 1807 before he could enjoy the fruits of either success. Based on his story, the poet Andrey Voznesensky and Aleksey Rybnikov wrote the rock opera Yunona i Avos (1980).
The new building's many bay windows, niches, and balconies were adorned with terracotta columns, arches, arabesques, and stylized Moorish inscriptions. Architectural journals praised the consistency of the building's style, as well as the practical nature of its Moorish designs for St. Petersburg's climate (they would not be damaged by heavy snowfall), and declared the house to be among "Petersburg's foremost palaces."
The house, with its five stories, fifty–seven apartments and seven shops, was a dokhodnyi dom, one of the many "profitable houses" built in St. Petersburg at the time. Unlike many other such buildings, however, where the ornate, eclectic façades that attracted clientele concealed cheaply constructed interiors, House Muruzi boasted equally elaborate and luxurious interiors as façade.
Inventories made in 1879 and 1890 show that its residents enjoyed hot–water heating, modern plumbing, electricity and twenty–eight bathrooms. The corner second floor apartment that housed Prince Muruzi and his family was decorated in lavish Moorish style.
Entering the apartment from Liteyny Prospect, one went through large iron doors bearing a marble plate with his surname in bronze letters. Once into the house and up the marble staircase–one of five in the house, each adorned with wall clocks, mirrors and carpets–to the second floor, one would enter a twenty six–room apartment resembling a Moroccan palace with vaulted painted ceilings, supported by elegant marble pillars and decorated in geometrically patterned carving and molding, gold leaf, sculpture, and damask–covered walls. The apartment even had a fountain and winter garden. Looking out onto Liteyny Prospect and Panteleymon Street, it was one of several spacious apartments on the second and third floors that faced the street, all of which were occupied by senators, professors, generals, and well–known lawyers. Among them was Alexander Pushkin's son, a lieutenant–general and the poet's namesake.
The Muruzi apartment building also housed wine, flower, tea, tobacco shops, and a tailor. The tea shop belonged to the famous Brothers K. & S. Popov. Cigarettes were sold at the store that belonged to the famed tobacco company Saatchi and Mangubi later bought by the Bogdanov Company. Nikolay Abramov's very popular gingerbread (pryaniki) shop was there too. One of its ads read:
|От Питера самого
До Уральских гор
(English translation) From Petersburg itself
To the Urals
Have created a furor!
Consider the women's demonstration passing in front of the shop, most likely in 1917.
The artist Mstislav Dobuzhinsky recalled his childhood strolls along Liteyny, especially looking into its storefront windows. He remembered a hairdresser on the ground floor of House Muruzi which belonged to the fashionable "coiffeur" Jean–Baptiste Géren, where Dobuzhinsky had his first professional haircut.
It is largely due to the inhabitants of the building's lesser apartments, however, that the house is still a cultural landmark today. The 19th century writer Nikolay Leskov moved into a small three room flat, number 44 on the fourth floor overlooking the courtyard, in 1879; the Saturday evening gatherings of his many acquaintances marked the beginning of the building's tradition of literary gatherings. More famous, and certainly of greater significance for early Russian modernism, were the gatherings held in the apartment of Dmitry Merezhkovsky and Zinaida Gippius at the turn of the twentieth century. The couple had moved into the house in 1889, living there till 1913. Initially they occupied the four–room apartment no. 20 on the fifth floor that looked out onto Transfiguration Cathedral on the eponymous square; in 1904 they moved into a six–room apartment on the third, where her sisters Tatiana and Natalya lived with them. They were both students of the Academy of Arts, Tatiana of painting.
The Merezhkovsky salon was rivaled only by the famed Wednesdays at the Tower hosted by Viacheslav Ivanov and Lydia Zinovieva–Annibal. It was attended by Alexander Blok, a frequent visitor of Gippius, Vasily Rozanov, Fyodor Sologub, and Andrey Bely, who sometimes stayed in their apartment, philosopher Nikolay Berdyaev, artists Léon Bakst and Alexander Benois, and, of course, Dmitry Filosofov. The young poet and translator Vladimir Pyast (pseudonym of Vladimir Pestovsky), who lived in apartment 9, two floors below the Merezhkovskys, met Blok at one of their Sundays in 1905, with whom he became close friends. Apartment 9 housed the sixteen–room private lending library managed by Pyast's mother, A.A. Pestovskaya.
The lending library would host the gatherings of "The Poet’s Guild" (Tsekh poetov), founded by Nikolay Gumilev and Sergey Gorodetsky in 1911. Forerunner of Russian Acmeism, it was organized in opposition to the Symbolists, and included two of the greatest 20th Russian century poets — Osip Mandelshtam and Anna Akhmatova, Gumilev's wife.
Its economic and social structure changed radically after the 1917 revolution, with many of its former inhabitants abandoning their apartments. It was during this period that Gumilev became a more regular visitor of House Muruzi. Korney Chukovsky (Read his recollections of Blok), wandering into the abandoned building by chance in 1919, proposed one of the large apartments as the location for the literary studio of the new Soviet publishing house World Literature. It was founded by the People's Commissariat of Education on Maxim Gorky's 1919 initiative. One of the studio's functions was training translators for World Literature's project of publishing foreign classics in Russian translation. Its teachers, besides the aforementioned, were writer Evgeny Zamyatin (Read about Blok's funeral), critic Victor Shklovsky (Take a tram ride with him), and translator Mikhail Lozinsky among whose students were Nina Berberova (Join her for Blok's funeral), and Irina Odoevtseva. In her memoirs On the Shores of the Neva, Odoevtseva wrote that they gathered in the former apartment of a banker: "There was a concert room with a stage and metal furniture covered in yellow damask. On the very first day, a young student who after touching a chair in the apartment exclaimed: 'But it's made completely from silver. Solid silver!' Gumilev answered in an expert tone: 'You're mistaken. It's made of gold, not silver. Gold plated with silver,' thereby tempering ostentatious luxury'."
Gumilev returned to House Muruzi once more in 1921, this time to organize literary evenings called "House of Poets" — poets read their poetry, plays were staged, and the participants drank carrot tea and ate sandwiches. Akhmatova often came to these evenings, where she saw Gumilev for the last time. In August of that year he was executed and a few days later Blok died.
The poet Joseph Brodsky spent his youth after the Second World War on the same side of House Muruzi as the Merezhkovskys. Only his family occupied merely a room and half in a second-floor communal apartment of the formerly palatial Moorish building. Soon after the revolution, communal apartments became the norm, especially in big cities, with several families occupying a former large flat, sharing kitchen and bathroom facilities. Brodsky's description of the interior of his apartment might give us some clues to the Merezhkovskys', as well as their view onto the city outside:
Our ceiling was some fourteen feet high, if not higher, and adorned with the same Moorish–style plaster ornamentation, which, combined with cracks and stains from occasionally bursting pipes upstairs, turned it into a highly detailed map of some nonexistent superpower or archipelago. There were three very tall arched windows through which we would have seen nothing except a high school across the street, were it not for the central window, which also served as a door to the balcony. From this balcony we could view the entire length of the street, whose typically Petersburgian, impeccable perspective ended with the silhouette of the cupola of St. Panteleimon's Church, or–if one looked to the right–the big square, in the center of which stood the Cathedral of the Savior of Her Imperial Majesty's Transfiguration Battalion. ("A Room and a Half")
Regarding the view from his window, Brodsky wrote: "By the time we moved into this Moorish wonder, the street already bore the name of Pestel, the executed leader of the Decembrists. Originally, though, it was called after the church that loomed at its far end: Panteleimonovskaya. There the street would fling around the church and run to the Fontanka River, cross over the Police Bridge [sic – Panteleymonov Bridge], and take you into the Summer Garden. Pushkin once lived on that part of the street, and somewhere in a letter to his wife he says that "every morning, in nightgown and slippers I go across the bridge for a stroll in the Summer Garden. The entire Summer Garden is my orchard." This was the same itinerary that Merezhkovsky walked every day at the beginning of the century: with Transfiguration Cathedral behind him and the church of St. Panteleymon ahead, from which he would cross the Panteleymon Bridge to go to the Summer Garden studded with beautiful statuary.