Gatchina - the Versailles of Paul I

The period from 1783 to 1801 constitutes the brightest and most significant pages in the history of Gatchina: it witnessed the “flowering”, the prime, of the Gatchina palaces and parks.

G. S. Sergeev: The Muses handing Paul I the plan of Gatchina Palace. 1798
G. S. Sergeev: The Muses handing Paul I
the plan of Gatchina Palace
For thirteen years Paul tried to spend the greater part of the year at his “beloved” Gatchina, far from the “hateful” city of St. Petersburg. In remodelling the former country seat of Grigory Orlov, the heir to the Russian throne wished to create a magnificent residence worthy of a future Emperor. His participation in the project as customer, his “personal tastes and inclinations”, his knowledge of architecture and other arts, all played a decisive role. They left their impression on the whole “spirit” of the construction, so much so that one may with justice speak of Gatchina as “Paul’s creation”.

Paul’s court architect was the talented, energetic and efficient Vincenzo Brenna. It was under his guiding hand that Paul’s plans for reconstruction were elaborated. In his works Brenna combined severe classicism with elements of Baroque luxuriance – which was quite in accordance with the heir to the throne’s tastes.

For a short period the architects N. A. Lvov and A. D. Zakharov also worked at Gatchina. Their impressive buildings served to beautify the town and the parks.

A large quantity of the plans for the parks, and for various structures built during the period of Paul’s reconstruction, has survived. Part of them was included in the so-called “Kushelev albums” prepared and presented to Paul in 1798 – documents of exceptional historical and artistic interest, illustrated with watercolours depicting “Paul’s Gatchina” by G. Sergeev.

Watercolour by G. S. Sergeev. Kushelev album. 1798
Watercolour by G. S. Sergeev. Kushelev album. 1798
S. F. Shchedrin. View of the Gatchina palace and park
S. F. Shchedrin. View of the Gatchina palace and park

The beauty of the Gatchina parks in the period of their “flowering” has been magnificently preserved for us on canvas by a court artist, the Academician S. F. Shchedrin, one of the founders of the Russian school of landscape painting.

By the end of the last decade of the 18th century the three basic parks making up the complex – Palace Park, Priory Park and the “Menagerie” Park – had already taken shape. Work continued, too, on the development of the existing system of waterways: new dams were built to regulate the flow of water through the lakes and ponds, canals were dug for water supply and for drainage, bridges and landing-stages were constructed. The concept of a “landscaped park” was developed to its fullest extent. In Palace Park, the landscaped portion began to be called “the large English garden”, and an area remodelled in formal style received the appellations of “botanical gardens” and “Silvia Park”.

Special attention was paid, in the construction of the park and palace ensembles, to ensuring that new structures would harmonise with those already existing. Thus the “Island of Love” and the “Long Island”, the ensemble of the Eagle Column and Pavilion, the area of the Birch House, and so on, came into existence.

To enable the park to be viewed from various points and on various levels, artificial terraces were constructed, earth was piled up to form hills, jetties and balconies were built. Bridges and gateways also served as viewing platforms.

In connection with its reconstruction the Palace park was divided into different zones: an area for silent recreation, areas for various pastimes and attractions, areas for walking, riding and driving in carriages, and ceremonial gardens for solemn festivals and the reception of large numbers of guests.

The architectural structures of the Gatchina parks are an essential part of their landscaping. Among the pavilions dating from Paul’s time is the Birch House. Even though the “garden sports” of Count Orlov can only be pictured with the aid of descriptions and memoirs, this “surprise-house” still adorns the Palace Park on the right shore of the White Lake.

The Mask Portal and the Birch House
The “Mask Portal” and the Birch House
Restoration of the Birch House
Restoration of the Birch House

The Birch House was built at the end of the 1780s. It was created with the help of the Swiss artist and horticulturalist A. F.-G. Violet.

This pavilion has become a peculiar symbol of conjugal love. According to tradition, this droll house was a present to Paul from his consort Maria Fyodorovna, who wanted “to bring a smile to the lips of notre cher Grand Duc”, as she affectionately referred to him in her letters. It should be noted that, at the beginning of their life together, relations between Paul and Maria Fyodorovna were marked by love, trust and mutual respect. It was in Gatchina that the Empress Catherine’s outcast son felt, for the first time, truly at home, relatively free and safe in the circle of his family and friends. The couple were saddened only by their separation from their eldest sons, for Catherine took the boys away from their parents and took their education in hand herself.

The Birch House differs from the other “country-style” structures in the originality of its architectural conception: “this bagatelle should be executed in wood, faced with logs sawn lengthways, giving it the outward appearance of a pile of firewood, gathered to supply winter fuel. No doors, windows or roof should be noticeable; the illusion of a woodpile should be complete…”

From a distance the Birch House does indeed look like a pile of birch logs. It is no accident that the house has another name - “the Bonfire”. At the end of the 18th century a broad field stretched out before it, where golden rye grew, dotted with blue cornflowers.

Today many surprises await the visitor to the Birch House - just as they did two hundred years ago. The contrast between the simple outer covering of the house and its exquisite interior never fails to astonish.

The interior of the Birch House
The interior of the Birch House
The ceiling of the Birch House
The ceiling of the Birch House

The small reception room of the Birch House is notable for the striking beauty and variety of its d?cor, in which mirrors play an important role. They add to the room’s brightness and also make the room’s modest dimensions seem larger. With the aid of reflections in the mirrors various illusions are produced. For example, in the corners of the room the mirrors are placed at right angles, so the images of the small tables (in the form of a quarter-circle) and of the bronze gilt vases on their brackets are repeated. In these vases Maria Fyodorovna used to place artificial flowers which she had made herself. The walls of the room are likewise adorned with garlands of flowers, liberally scattered by the artist’s hand.

In centre of the ceiling – as in the interiors of the palace – an artistic “plafond” has been placed, with images of the Zephyrs, the gods of the warm west wind, flying in the air, and in the corners allegorical figures of the seasons and the points of the compass.

At the far end of the reception room is an “alcove” – a small space containing a divan for resting on. It is reminiscent of a pleasant summer-house: the walls of the alcove are decorated with small square-shaped mirrors and a wooden trellis with painted flowers. The colours have been chosen so artfully that the garlands seem to be composed of living roses, of which the mistress of the house was so fond. Here Maria Fyodorovna would entertain her beloved husband and their guests with tea, fresh milk and cheese from their own farms, and fruit grown in the park orangeries. These refreshments would be brought in through a door concealed in the mirrored wall of the alcove, which was a source of fresh surprise and delight. The kitchen was located in a separate room within the house. Later, in the 1790s, the architect Vincenzo Brenna erected a stone gateway, the Mask Portal, before the house as a kind of screen. This majestic structure was built in strict classical style, with a colonnade of sixteen Ionic columns. From the Mask Portal a wide stone stairway leads in the direction of the White Lake to the Island of Love.

The plan for the Mask Portal. Kushelev album
The plan for the Mask Portal. Kushelev album
The Birch Gate. Kushelev album
The Birch Gate. Kushelev album

The entrance to the park near the Birch House was furnished by Brenna with a massive stone gateway. It received the name of “Birch Gate”, although it was made of stone from Pudost. The gate is in the style of an ancient Roman triumphal arch. Originally the two pylons of the gate were surmounted by viewing platforms, from which one might enjoy extensive views of the park, the lakes, and the Palace.

At the same time a part of the park near the Birch Gate was laid out in formal style, with a rectangular pond. The pond’s watery mirror reflected the blue sky and the young oak trees planted along the straight pathways.

The Mask Portal. 1950
The Mask Portal. 1950
Restoration of the Birch House
Restoration of the Birch House

During the Great Patriotic War the Birch House was completely destroyed. After the war a dance floor was constructed on its site. On the field in front of it the people of Gatchina practised sports, and nearby was a playground for the children of the town.

The rebirth of the Birch House began in 1976. The house was recreated according to old documents under the guidance of the architect A. A. Kedrinsky, who received the Lenin Prize for his contribution to the restoration of Russia’s historical and cultural heritage.
V. Fedorova
Photographs: G. Puntusova


Historical Magazine «Gatchina Over the Centuries»