Petr David Josek, Associated Press
BRNO, Czech Republic — It was completed in 1930, a Modernist masterpiece by legendary German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
But Villa Tugendhat's early history was rocked by the turbulence of the 20th Century: The Nazis seized it, then came World War II bombardments that smashed its windows. When the Soviet troops liberated Czechoslovakia, living space became a large stable. It has languished in disrepair ever since.
Now, a two-year renovation that cost $9 million is almost complete. In March, the glass-fronted building that houses a thick, honey-colored onyx wall, floor-to-ceiling windows, winter garden and clean white lines throughout will be open to the public. Czech officials are confident it will become one of the most popular tourism venues in the region.
"It's been a huge challenge," said Michal Malasek, whose construction company was tasked with the daunting challenge of refurbishing the villa while staying faithful to its design. "I have never worked on anything of such prestige."
Some 80 percent of the villa's original features have been preserved, making it "the most authentic Mies van der Rohe building on the European continent," said Iveta Cerna, an architect from Brno's municipal museum who has looked after the villa since 2002.
Good fortune played its part: An original bathtub, missing since the 1940s, was found in a nearby house; and a curved wall of Macassar ebony was discovered at a dining hall inside Brno's Law School where it had been taken to spruce up a bar built for Nazi officers.
Brno experienced a building boom in the late 1920s that reflected the growing confidence of the city in the independent Czechoslovakia, created in 1918. Grete and Fritz Tugendhats, co-owners of wool factories and part of a large German-speaking Jewish community in the city, were able to commission the home of their dreams from Mies van der Rohe.
"I truly longed for a modern spacious house with clear, simple shapes," Grete Tugendhat said in a 1969 lecture in Brno. Her husband died in 1958 and never saw it again after the Jewish family fled Czechoslovakia in 1938, a year before the Nazis took power.
Grete Tugendhat came back from her home in Switzerland to visit the house several times, first in 1967. She died in 1970. Efforts by the family to claim their former property back after the collapse of communism in 1989 failed.
After the war, the building hosted a private dance school before it was taken over by the communist Czechoslovakia in 1950; it served as a rehabilitation center for children with spine defects till the end of 1960s. The city of Brno has been its owner since 1980.
On a recent sunny day, workers were polishing the staircase of Italian white travertine that leads from the terrace to the garden. In the living space, the curved ebony wall was wrapped in cloth to prevent any damage. In winter months, when the sun is low and its beams are penetrating the onyx wall at the right angle, it changes its color in some parts to shine in orange and dark red hues.
"We know from Grete that Mies himself was surprised by this unique effect," said Cerna, the Brno architect. "(The house's) charm is in the changes. It changes with weather, it looks different each season of the year.
"I am always surprised by light condition here."
Combining a design of pure geometric forms with advanced technologies and exotic materials, Mies van der Rohe satisfied the owners' wish for innovation and originality.
The three-story building with a flat roof occupies the top of a steep garden that faces southwest. It is carried by a network of 29 steel, cruciform-shaped columns anchored in concrete.
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