A Rich Habsburg Inheritance

  • A Rich  Habsburg   Inheritance
Issue 5, September 2008.

This September Lviv will step back in time to an age of imperial spendour as the city celebrates its Habsburg past with a season of Austrian cultural highlights. This new event reflects a fresh bond between Lviv and Vienna that is rekindling the old Habsburg tradition of regional regeneration.

For most Lviv citizens, the Habsburg period is just a name, or perhaps a legend. There is little to suggest that Lviv was a particularly prosperous city in the 19th century, at least by European standards, but because the subsequent eras were such bitter periods in Ukrainian history, the Habsburg Empire has come to be viewed as somehow benign and beneficial. This is partly thanks to the freedoms and sway Ukrainians were eventually able to enjoy under the Habsburg’s federal system, but it is also partly acknowledgement that a very large part of what makes Lviv so special today is thanks to the diligence and excellence of the early modern Habsburg system. In honour of their Habsburg heritage Lviv citizens are expected to renamed a street in the city Viennese Street, and this homage to the Habsburg past looks likely to continue for some time yet.

As Lviv gradually rediscovers its fashionable high society roots and the city gentrifies itself, it is inevitable that people will start to point to the longer European link the region enjoys instead of focusing exclusively on the more recent Soviet experience. Seeing yourself as a European in today’s Ukraine has become something of a status symbol in itself, and Lviv’s European culture gives it enormous kudos. It is also often a factor in allowing European businessmen to set up operations in the region, commenting that the European architecture of the city helps them to feel at home. In the days of the Habsburg Empire Lviv was known as Lemberg, the graceful capital city of Galicia, the north-eastern province of the realm. Even then, as part of an empire which had stretched down to the shored of the Adriatic Sea Galicia was a backwater.
At the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference one British diplomat is said to have actually made the embarrassing  blunder of confusing Habsburg Galicia with the Spanish province of the same name, but he would not have been alone in knowing little about the largely rural and distant border region. After a brief period of independent rule, the Kingdom of Galicia had been absorbed into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and later the Polish monarchy in the latter Middle Ages. When Poland was portioned for the first time in 1772 Lviv came under Habsburg rule for the first time. The Viennese Emperors had as far east as they could, and for 150 years Lviv served as the easternmost capital of the empire, as if destined to be forever a borderland buffer zone. Nobody  knew this at the time, however, and Lviv was the recipient of enormous government funding over the coming  decades as the city was developed in line with Viennese ideas of what a regional capital city should look like.

The Archetypal Habsburg Hub

Today’s Lviv has become synonymous with Ukrainian nationalism, but in reality 19th century Lviv was in many was the archetypal Habsburg city, populated by a diverse ethnic and national mix of communities that reflected the multi-ethnic make-up of the Habsburg crown’s patchwork domains. This multi-national population turned Lviv in a proud imperial city and created an ambience that remains tangible in the gentle Austrian architecture and thoughtful coffee shop culture of today’s Lviv. The empire conjures up images of cream cake and coffee in a cultured setting, and doesn’t really seem like occupation. It is not uncommon to refer to the Habsburg period as a Golden Age of religious tolerance, booming trade and great construction works. This is not to say that Ukrainians were always at odds with the Habsburgs. When the first university opened in Habsburg Lviv in 1784 instruction was offered in Latin, German and Polish, and it was only three years later that Ukrainians were allowed to create their own Rutherian faculty.

The men who built Lviv

Lviv under the Poles had, by the middle of the eighteen century, come to be a period of stagnation and poverty, perhaps best exemplified by the tale of how the visiting Austrian Emperor Joseph II found himself trapped in a huge pothole outside the city gates when paying a visit in 1783, less than ten years since he’d taken control of the province itself. This personal encounter with the harsh realities of life in post-Polish Lviv may well have focused the Emperor’s mind on the task at hand – certainly the Austrians set about renovating their new position and bringing it up to scratch. Much of Lviv’s distinctive early modern city centre dates from this prolonged burst of Habsburg building throughout the 19th century. Much of the work was selected following open tenders that attracted some of the most talented architects of the era, and this system also helped create the incredible eclectic ensemble on display in central Lviv.

An Eastern Outpost

For the past two decades Lviv has been viewed almost exclusively as a isolated Western outpost in a vast Soviet ocean, but 150 years ago the country had been part of the pre-eminent central European empire and had been very much part of the European cultural world. In Habsburg days the population felt itself propelled westward by the cultural impulses of their pan-European lifestyles, whereas in more recent times the pull has been eastern . Lviv will now have a key role to play on a psychological level as the country attempts to make headway along its path to European integration. Lviv can help win the battle both at home and abroad if it can balance its European heritage with its patriotic aspirations.


Vienna Art Academy graduate Julius Gohberger (1840 — 1905) is one of the key figures in the story of modern Lviv. He was director of the city’s building projects for much of the later 19th century. Inspired by different styles, Mr. Gohberger was eager to create whole streets of interesting buildings and alternative buildings where you can contrast baroque with rococo, or Roman and Gothic. Some of the best examples of Mr. Gohberger’s work are to be found at St. Anna school (Built in 1876. Located on the corner of Horodotska Str. with 2 Leontovycha str.), St. Mariad Magdalena school (11 S. Bandery str.), and the Mitskewich School (built in 1893 at 15 Teatralna Str.).
Lviv also owes a lot to the Director of the Viennese Academy of Aplied Arts Petro Nobile, who worked wonder’s on the governor’s palace during reconstruction works in 1840, but in reality it would be impossible to name all the great Habsburg craftsmen who created the architectural splendour of modern Lviv. Among this Central European cityscape the monuments to the Habsburg epoch stand on every corner. The university building crowns the splendid order of the south side of the city centre, with its big city side streets and artistic outcrops, but the real gem is the opera house, located at the end of the city’s strolling paradise Prospekt Svobody. Lviv Opera House was named last year as one of the seven wonders of Ukraine, but it is a monument that is plagued by the legend of its creator. Built over three years at the turn of the 20th century, the design for the new opera house had been chosen by an independent jury, who favoured an ambitious plan to create room for an opera house in a prime location by covering over the Poltva river and using revolutionary new techniques to build the opera house without digging tradition foundations but by relying on a concrete base. The author of this plan, a brilliant Polish architect Zygmunt Gorgolewski, was a graduate of the Berlin Building School who had already been responsible for numerous prominent state buildings throughout central Europe. His audacious gamble appeared to have backfired when the building appeared to start subsiding within months of its completion. There were fears that the entire construction could collapse into the river below, but this never happened, of course. The opera house stabilised and has been a source of local pride ever since. Tragically, according to local legend, the news that his greatest work was sinking sent Mr. Gogolewski into a deep depression, which local lore insists ended with him committing suicide. Other versions insist that he and died of heart failure or other natural courses, but the story continues to do the rounds, a suitably macabre addition to the wedding cake beauty of the opera house in the best traditions of Lviv irreverence.

A thoroughly European operation from top to bottom

The opera house itself is a classic example of an 19th century European operation, with Austrian giants Seimens providing the electric lights Polish mechanics providing the stage. A Belgian company, meanwhile provided linen for the curtains in the foyer and throughout the theatre. -When it opened on October 4, 1900, Lviv Opera House was very briefly the focus of the cultural world. A string of regional dignitaries and opera legends attended the grand opening. The opera has hosted many spectacular nights since then, and remains a centrepiece of any city tour.
Viennese visitors to Lemberg in the 19th century often commented on how at home they felt. Much like today’s Lviv, Austrian Lemberg was a fast-growing and developing city. It was a place where a dynamic culture of change made it possible for new and innovative techniques to be implemented. It is no surprise that 19th century Lviv was one the first cities in Europe to have electrically powered street lighting, mains gas supplies, telephone lines and electric trams. The first recorded football match in Ukrainian history took place in Habsburg Lviv (Lviv beat Krakow, for the record), while the city was often the host of major regional trade fairs, which were the 19th century equivalents of Euro 2012 and did much to boost Lemberg’s reputation as a city that was at the very cutting edge of modernity.

Putting Lviv on the European railway map

Habsburg rule also coincided with the development of rail travel, with Lviv immediately plugged into a central European rail network that inked it to Paris Prague and Berlin. Lviv’s majestic railway station dates back from this period and still offers a hint of the massive pride felt in the wonders of industrialised mass travel for the first time in human history. After the standard Habsburg architecture competition, a plan by Wladyslaw Sadlowski was finally chosen in 1888. The first class waiting rooms are said to have been directly modelled on the interior of an
Englishman’s London clubhouse, this being the apparent benchmark of the time. It has since heavily influence  later train stations in Prague and Vienna itself, another example of the trend-setting role Lviv often had in Habsburg times.
During World War II the terminal building suffered extensive damage, but local activists managed to persuade the Soviet authorities to allow the rebuild the structure while remaining faithful to the original plans.