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TACE - 01.03.2011

The Dramatic History of the Nestroyhof

From Beyond Everydayness - Theater Architecture in Central Europe
(2011. Prague, TACE)

By Warren Rosenzweig, February 2010


Nestroysäle

(Nestroy Halls)
Nestroyplatz 1, 1020 Vienna

• Architect: Oskar Marmorek

• Design: 1897–1898

• Construction: 1898–1899

• Artists: Firma Brüder Engel, main entrance portal; Ernst Hegenbarth, sphinx statues on corners of roof; and others (these and other exterior elements destroyed 1945)

• Opening night: Mid–November 1899, Anton Droszy-Caprice: Familie Bernstein (The Bernstein Family) and Eine blöde Erfindung (A Stupid Invention) – these burlesque sketches were featured performances in a variety show that included numerous solo performances

• Historical names: Varieté Reklame (Reklame Variety), early 1900s, Intimes Theater (Intimate Theater), 1905–1918, Theater Reklame / Jüdische Künstlerspiele (Jewish Artists Ensemble), 1927–1938, diverse, mainly commercial use 1950s–1990s, closed 1997–2004, occasional cultural events 2005–2007, Theater Nestroyhof Hamakom (Theater Nestroyhof “The Place”), since November 2009 (1)

• Alterations: 1975 converted for use as supermarket – internal walls and suspended ceiling added; 2001 suspended ceiling removed; 2009 converted for use again as theater

• Capacity of auditorium: 100 (2)

The Nestroyhof was built in 1898–1899 in the middle of Praterstrasse, a fashionable boulevard of theater and culture that connected the "Inner City" (3) with the popular amusement park, Prater, in the heart of Vienna’s Leopoldstadt. (4) It was designed, financed, owned, and occupied by Austrian Jews (5) and was part of a thriving cultural scene until its seizure by the Nazis in 1940. (6) The glass roofed, courtyard theater in the Nestroysäle contributed to a flourishing artistic and social movement that, by the 1930s, included numerous theater companies that performed in Yiddish, German, and other languages.

Jugendstil architect Oskar Marmorek, "the master builder of the Jewish renaissance," (7) first met Theodor Herzl in 1895, shortly before the publication of the latter’s Zionist manifesto, The State of the Jews. (8) Alongside Herzl and Max Nordau, Marmorek co-founded the World Zionist Organization and was elected to its executive board. (9) The friendship that developed between Marmorek and Herzl, combined with their common social and political goals, was to forge an intimate collaboration that would last until Herzl’s death in 1904. (10)

Like his celebrated contemporary Otto Wagner, Marmorek designed some of the most beautiful Jugendstil apartment buildings in Vienna in a distinctive and personal style. (11) Although the Nestroyhof was his first major Jugendstil venture, marking his departure from the Historicism that had dominated 19th-century Viennese architecture, it is a quintessential masterpiece of the new style and a work of innovation that stands at the forefront of fin-de-siècle urban design. (12) One of the earliest multipurpose buildings, it was conceived to integrate a medium-sized theater and other commercial premises, (13) offices, private apartments, and an underground event hall. (14)

While the pre-eminence of Jewish creative talent in mainstream Viennese theater was already manifest, the phenomenon of Yiddish theater was still relatively young when the Jüdische Künstlerspiele (15) opened in 1927 at the Theater Reklame in the Nestroysäle with a diverse program that soon became known for its creativity and ingenuity, but also for the contemporary relevance of its themes: "The youngest and most heterogeneous, so to say, ′modern′ Jewish stage in Vienna, founded a few months ago in the Theater Reklame, is the Jüdische Künstlerspiele." (16)

Even on the eve of the destruction of European Jewry, the company did not shy away from the social and political challenges of the day. (17) With increasing vigor, the spirit of protest was courageously staged, as in the 1937 mixed language production of Arnold Zweig’s Sent by the Devil, (18) which dramatized the ritual murder accusations against Jews in late 19th Century Hungary. The theater remained in operation through the Anschluss, until it was finally seized and shut down by the Gestapo. (19)

Unlike other Jewish theaters in Vienna, the theater in the Nestroyhof survived 20th Century destruction by a series of lucky accidents. After the war the performance halls served a variety of mundane purposes and were converted in 1975 into a supermarket. A low suspended ceiling was installed beneath the gallery level, cutting out all natural light and concealing the gallery with its boxes and wrought iron balustrades, the glass ceiling, sculpted reliefs, and other original detail. (20) For decades, thousands of unsuspecting grocery shoppers pushed their carts down the aisles and over the stage of the old Jewish theater.

The last supermarket tenant moved out in 1997 and the space remained empty and sealed off from public access. It was rediscovered in 2001 when an opening in a section of the wall between the suspended ceiling of the former supermarket and the glass roof of the theater revealed the hidden architectural treasure. In the same year, as artistic director of the first Jewish theater company in Vienna since 1938, the author of this text initiated talks with the Office of Culture to discuss municipal support for the re-establishment of the Jewish theater in the Nestroyhof as an intercultural center for the performing arts. (21) In summer 2003 the Jewish Theater of Austria launched its "Nestroyhof Initiative" (2003–2008), a public campaign that generated local and international media attention and support for the restoration of the theater and raised questions concerning "cultural restitution" and, indirectly, legal justice. (22)

The suspended ceiling was finally removed in spring 2003, reintroducing daylight and making the main hall fully accessible again for the first time since World War II. The Nestroyhof was placed under landmark protection on 1st December 2004. From 2005 to 2008 the halls were occasionally used for public events. Having blocked the efforts of the Jewish Theater of Austria for years, the government appropriated its basic proposal in 2009, when the Office of Culture and the federal government awarded large grants to a newly formed group to present performances, exhibitions, and other events on a regular basis. The Jewish Theater of Austria was unwelcome to participate in the realization of its own cultural concept and the questions of justice raised by the "Nestroyhof Initiative" were again swept under the carpet.

Copyright © 2010 Warren Rosenzweig
This article and accompanying notes first appeared in print in Theater Architecture in Central Europe. (2011. Prague, TACE)

Footnotes

1. First used as a song and performance hall from November 1899 to April 1900 by Ernst Friedrich Mayer, Karl Steidler, and Emanuel Adler-Müller, the site was host to a succession of production companies until 1938. In the early 1900s, Theodor Stark established a concession called Varieté Reklame. Karl Kraus rented the theater hall in 1905 under the name Trianon to present, on 29th May and 15th June, two private performances of Frank Wedekind’s Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box; the second of the “Lulu” plays) in which both Kraus and Wedekind also appeared as actors alongside many prominent actors of the day. From 1905 to 1918 the space was home to the Intimes Theater, opened under the direction of Oskar Friedmann. Its German language program featured contemporary, international playwrights and included writers and performance groups that portrayed Jewish life, such as Osip Dymov or the Studentenclub Theodor Herzl, which performed Yiddish dramas in German in 1909. From 1927 to 1938, under the name Theater Reklame, the main hall was home to the Jüdische Künstlerspiele under the direction of Jakob Goldfliess and Abish Meisels. The company opened on 6th October 1927 with Unzer gloybn (Our Faith) by Sholem Asch and established one of the foremost Yiddish ensemble theaters in Austria until it was closed by the Nazis in 1938, soon after the Anschluss. The theater was also host to visiting performances by acclaimed international artists and ensembles such as Molly Picon, Maurice Schwartz and his Jewish Art Theater, the Vilna Troupe, the Pastor-Siegler Yiddish Theater of Bucharest, and the Habima of Tel Aviv.

2. Capacity has changed over time: 311 in 1905, 329 in 1923, 282 in 1935, and 100 in 2010.

3. “Innere Stadt” or first municipal district.

4. Literally “Leopold-Town,” the second municipal district was also known as the Jewish quarter.

5. The architect was a co-founder of the international Zionist organization for Jewish national independence. The construction of the building was financed by his father-in-law, the banker Julius Schwarz, who owned the property until February 1920, when it was sold to Anna Stein. The latter lived in the building until shortly before it was confiscated by the Nazis in 1940. Until WWII, the tenants who were to occupy the commercial premises and entertainment halls were Jewish, as were likely most of the people who resided or worked at the Nestroyhof and those who visited it daily.

6. At the time of this writing, the building still remains in the hands of the offspring of the five brothers who took possession of it through Aryanization (Nazi confiscation) during the war. See www.nestroyhof.org.

7. “Den ersten Baumeister der jüdischen Renaissance.” Herzl to Marmorek, in a letter dated 18th May 1897. Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem.

8. Der Judenstaat: Versuch einer modernen Lösung der Judenfrage [The State of the Jews: Attempt at a Modern Solution to the Jewish Question], Vienna 1896.

9. Marmorek had also served on the board of directors of the Jewish community and was an outspoken opponent of popular antisemitism. On 7th April 1909, two days before his 46th birthday, suffering from physical illness and depression, disheartened by discrimination, he took his own life at the gravesite of his father in the Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery). The irony of his choice of the site is tripled when one considers that Marmorek himself had designed his father’s tomb in 1900, adorning it with a foliate, metal cupola, overtly reminiscent of the gilded ‘cabbage’ dome of the Vienna Secession. Built in 1897, the same year as the First Zionist Congress, as well as the election of Karl Lueger as Mayor, the Secession is probably the most prominent icon of the Jugendstil movement in Vienna. In this light, Marmorek’s suicide may be interpreted as a final tribute both to his ethnic and creative heritage, a repudiation of antisemitism, and a last salute to the new architectural style for which the Nestroyhof stands as a ‘pièce de résistance’.

10. In his final major testament to Zionism, the utopian novel, Altneuland (Old New Land, 1902), Herzl modeled the character of “Steineck,” the fictional architect of the State of the Jews, on his friend and associate, Oskar Marmorek.

11. Other extant examples of his work include the Villa Wrchovzky in Grinzing, the residential and office buildings at Windmühlgasse 30 and 32, Schottenfeldgasse 65, and Lerchengasse 3-5 (“Zu den drei Lerchen”), Rüdigerhof at Hamburgerstrasse 20, and other buildings in Austria, Hungary, and Germany.

12. An example of aesthetic and functional innovation is found in the way the architect delivered natural illumination to the halls on each floor through the inclusion of a circular atrium that channeled the light from the roof to the foundation of the building. The light passed through the round, glass ceiling of the main lobby and continued through a similar section of glass in the lobby floor directly into the basement hall. The sumptuous, rotunda-shaped foyer is typical of Marmorek’s combining of lush, decorative, relief detail with a diverse selection of building materials (e.g. glass, iron, stucco, and stone tiles) and mixed architectural forms (e.g. the lobby flaunts a luxurious, semi-circular, inner balcony). A distinguishing technical feature is the foundation of the building, which rests on a 30 cm high, concrete base. By this means, the basement was kept dry and the building was protected from the periodic flooding of the nearby banks of the Danube Canal that typically resulted in damage to neighboring buildings. The Nestroyhof was the first work to reveal the architect’s “virtuosity in overcoming challenging topographical and urban conditions.” (See Jan Tabor in Markus Kristan, Oskar Marmorek: Architekt und Zionist 1863–1909 [Oskar Marmorek: Architect and Zionist 1863–1909], Böhlau Verlag, Vienna 1996, p. 162.)

13. For example, a café and a cinema. Like the theater, the cinema was confiscated from its Jewish proprietor, Eleonore Breitner, in 1938. Reopened under new ownership after WWII as the Nestroy Kino, it was closed permanently on 31st October 1975.

14. Tanzbar Sphinx (c. 1907–1938). Fragments of wall and ceiling murals with Egyptian motifs are still extant.

15. Jewish Artists Ensemble.

16. Die Stimme, 5th January 1928. In Brigitte Dalinger, Quellenedition zur Geschichte des jüdischen Theaters in Wien [Source Edition for The History of Jewish Theater in Vienna], Tübingen: Niemeyer 2003, p. 46. (All translations in this text are by the author.)

17. “Jewish theater should serve as a mirror of Jewish life in our time. It should use art to undermine the arguments of the enemies of the Jews and expose their cruelties.” Artistic director Jakob Goldfliess, quoted in Die Stimme, 3rd September 1937.

18. Die Sendung Semaels: Jüdische Tragödie in fünf Aufzügen. Written in German, the play was produced in Yiddish, while one of the actors, Leo Reuss, performed his part in German. Reuss had been raised in Vienna and had later established a distinguished career in mainstream theater in Berlin. He fled Germany in 1935 following the enactment of the Nuremberg laws and tried to secure work as an actor in Vienna. In 1936, disguised as an ‘Aryan’ under an assumed name, he was briefly engaged at the Theater in der Josefstadt, but his true identity was soon discovered. In 1937 he joined the Jüdische Künstlerspiele.

19. Some of the ensemble’s best-loved artists, such as Laura Glucksmann, Ben Zion Sigall, and Herman Weinberg, were to die at the hands of the Nazis. Others, including Jakob Goldfliess, Klara and Abish Meisels, Samuel Harendorf, and Doli Nachbar were able to emigrate in time.

20. The gallery and balustrades run along all three sides of the auditorium.

21. Warren and Sonja Rosenzweig founded the Jewish Theater of Austria in 1999.

22. Is the government responsible for helping recover the Jewish theater as a landmark of cultural heritage and for protecting the site from future destruction? Was injustice surrounding the theft of the property redressed after WWII? Were the offspring of dispossessed former owner Anna Stein properly compensated? Is the current ownership legitimate? Breaking the silence of the current owners and critical of the cultural and political neglect of the Office of Culture, these and other issues were publicly debated for the first time. See also www.nestroyhof.org.

Image Captions

1. At present, the main hall does not contain a fixed stage. The use of the premises as a supermarket in the final decades of the 20th Century has left its mark on the internal architecture. For example, the original parquet flooring was removed and replaced with industrial floor tiles. Several doors and sections of masonry dating from the 1970s also remain, while the original stage, a stairway, and large sections of the gallery have been destroyed. At present, the space is used mainly for non-traditional performances. (Photo: Copyright © 2011 by TACE)

2. Until 1938, when the Theater Reklame was closed by the Gestapo, the Nestroy Halls were a popular center of domestic and international Jewish theater. Much of the original architecture of the indoor courtyard theater was inadvertently preserved when it was converted in the 1970s into a supermarket. The Jewish Theater of Austria, founded in 1999, campaigned for years for the restoration of the magnificent Judendstil theater and for clarification concerning the ownership of the building, which had permanently changed hands when it was seized by the Nazis during the Second World War. (Photo: postcard, ca. 1918, photographer unknown; private collection of Album Verlag, Vienna)

3. This picture was taken around 1905 when the Café Reklame served the entertainment and culinary interests of a privileged clientele in the main hall, which was later renamed the Theater Reklame.

4. The main portal, circa 1900. The richly decorated, main entrance with its elaborate glass arch showing a relief portrait of the great Austrian playwright, actor, and opera singer Johann Nestroy, was destroyed in 1945.

5. The original interior of the hall in the basement where the popular Sphinx dance bar was in operation from 1907 to 1938 has not survived. Fragments of wall paintings, showing stylized floral and Egyptian motifs remain, including the pyramids at Giza and a ceiling mural depicting the sun with its yellow rays that span from wall to wall. (Photo: Copyright © 2011 by TACE)

6. The main lobby of the building announces the theater housed in its courtyard. The semi-circular balcony, glass ceiling, mosaic flooring, and most decorative details are still intact and in good condition, but the original doors, including the portal that once led to the theater lobby, are no longer extant. Also missing is the translucent section at the center of the rotunda floor, which once served to channel natural light directly into the subterranean hall. (Photo: Copyright © 2011 by TACE)

7. The theater from the gallery level. Left: interior windows looking onto the gallery were installed in 2001, when the narrow airspace between the original glass ceiling and the suspended ceiling of the former supermarket below the gallery revealed a wealth of original architectural detail. Decades ago, the balcony boxes on both sides were walled in to create rentable premises on the second floor of the building. (Photo captured from a QuickTime VR by Lucas Elzea; Copyright © 2004 Jewish Theater of Austria)

8. Architect Oskar Marmorek′s drawing of the main façade of the building, 1900. The decorative elements and window design demonstrate the strong influence of the Vienna Secession that now dominated Marmorek’s style. Neither the ground floor with the shop window and decoratively
highlighted main entrance, nor the attic storey with a bulky glazed dormer window in the mansard roof, which was crowned on each corner with sculptures of winged sphinxes, survived the end of the Second World War.

9. Until 1938, Vienna boasted an active Jewish theater scene that reflected and critically examined Jewish experience in all its diversity while monitoring topical political themes, including the rapid rise of antisemitism. The Jewish Theater of Austria is the first initiative of its kind in Austria since 1938 and one of few in Europe today. Like the Jüdische Künstlerspiele that performed at the Theater Reklame in the Nestroyhof, its work examines Jewish and intercultural life as important aspects of Austrian and European culture. (Photo: Copyright © 2011 by TACE)

About the Book

Beyond Everydayness - Theater Architecture in Central Europe is a collective volume of more than 35 theater historians, architects, curators, and art theorists who uncover historical, political, and cultural relations in the development of theater architecture in Central Europe from the 16th century to the present.
    The book presents detailed information concerning the history of 73 of the most important theater buildings in six countries of Central Europe: Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Each text is accompanied by a wealth of photographic documentation, as well as ground plans and sections on a uniform scale to facilitate comparison.
    Theater architecture is recorded in the book as a characteristic component of human culture and as a specific building type which, apart from often being itself a unique and artistically valuable structure, also creates a space for another kind of art – that of theater.
    The appearance of each theater was shaped, aside from the aesthetic standards of the day, also by social, political, artistic, and technical influences. Some of these were manifestations of international developments, while others represent specific phenomena of the Central European region, or of an individual country or town.
    The choice of buildings follows the features specifically associated with diverse historical periods. These features are outlined in nine more closely or more freely defined themes, which are anchored in time and which in various ways characterize the given periods.
    The nine basic themes are supplemented by four extensive appendices focused on phenomena that accompanied the theater architecture or that represent specific phenomena outside of the ‘main current’ of the development of theater buildings. The stories of the individual theaters are set in a broader context in six historical introductions. An outlook for the future is then presented by six interviews with selected experts.
    For information on how to obtain a copy of the book (published March 2011), please follow this link.
"Beyond Everydayness - Theater Architecture in Central Europe" is a collective volume of more than 35 theater historians, architects, curators, and art theorists who uncover historical, political, and cultural relations in the development of theater architecture in Central Europe from the 16th century to the present... (For further details, please see below, under the heading "About the Book".)
1. At present, the main hall does not contain a fixed stage. The use of the premises as a supermarket in the final decades of the 20th Century has left its mark on the internal architecture. For example, the original parquet flooring was removed and replaced with industrial floor tiles. Several doors and sections of masonry dating from the 1970s also remain, while the original stage, a stairway, and large sections of the gallery have been destroyed. At present, the space is used mainly for non-traditional performances. (Photo: Copyright © 2011 by TACE)
2. Until 1938, when the Theater Reklame was closed by the Gestapo, the Nestroy Halls were a popular center of domestic and international Jewish theater. Much of the original architecture of the indoor courtyard theater was inadvertently preserved when it was converted in the 1970s into a supermarket. The Jewish Theater of Austria, founded in 1999, campaigned for years for the restoration of the magnificent Judendstil theater and for clarification concerning the ownership of the building, which had permanently changed hands when it was seized by the Nazis during the Second World War. (Photo: postcard, ca. 1918, photographer unknown; private collection of Album Verlag, Vienna)
3. This picture was taken around 1905 when the Café Reklame served the entertainment and culinary interests of a privileged clientele in the main hall, which was later renamed the Theater Reklame.
4. The main portal, circa 1900. The richly decorated, main entrance with its elaborate glass arch showing a relief portrait of the great Austrian playwright, actor, and opera singer Johann Nestroy, was destroyed in 1945.
5. The original interior of the hall in the basement where the popular Sphinx dance bar was in operation from 1907 to 1938 has not survived. Fragments of wall paintings, showing stylized floral and Egyptian motifs remain, including the pyramids at Giza and a ceiling mural depicting the sun with its yellow rays that span from wall to wall. (Photo: Copyright © 2011 by TACE)
6. The main lobby of the building announces the theater housed in its courtyard. The semi-circular balcony, glass ceiling, mosaic flooring, and most decorative details are still intact and in good condition, but the original doors, including the portal that once led to the theater lobby, are no longer extant. Also missing is the translucent section at the center of the rotunda floor, which once served to channel natural light directly into the subterranean hall. (Photo: Copyright © 2011 by TACE)
7. The theater from the gallery level. Left: interior windows looking onto the gallery were installed in 2001, when the narrow airspace between the original glass ceiling and the suspended ceiling of the former supermarket below the gallery revealed a wealth of original architectural detail. Decades ago, the balcony boxes on both sides were walled in to create rentable premises on the second floor of the building. (Photo captured from a QuickTime VR by Lucas Elzea; Copyright © 2004 Jewish Theater of Austria)
8. Architect Oskar Marmorek′s drawing of the main façade of the building, 1900. The decorative elements and window design demonstrate the strong influence of the Vienna Secession that now dominated Marmorek’s style. Neither the ground floor with the shop window and decoratively 
highlighted main entrance, nor the attic storey with a bulky glazed dormer window in the mansard roof, which was crowned on each corner with sculptures of winged sphinxes, survived the end of the Second World War.
9. Until 1938, Vienna boasted an active Jewish theater scene that reflected and critically examined Jewish experience in all its diversity while monitoring topical political themes, including the rapid rise of antisemitism. The Jewish Theater of Austria is the first initiative of its kind in Austria since 1938 and one of few in Europe today. Like the Jüdische Künstlerspiele that performed at the Theater Reklame in the Nestroyhof, its work examines Jewish and intercultural life as important aspects of Austrian and European culture. (Photo: Copyright © 2011 by TACE)
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