The American Ambassador's rented residence on the English Quay was located in a building built somewhere between 1845 and 1870 in the style of a 15th century rusticated Florentine palazzo. When it was built this style was new and fashionable. It was most often chosen for palaces, banks and insurance companies when a solid and fortified, castle-like look was sought.
Until the late 1820's the Imperial Government actively promoted the classical style for the construction of new buildings in St. Petersburg. This continued the vision first conceived by Catherine the Great of a classical utopia in the Imperial capital and its suburbs. The power of this Palladian vision of symmetrical design using the classical orders gave Petersburg the outward appearance it still has today; the style even had its own name - Alexandrian Classicism, named after Tsar Alexander I. The Tsarist government took an active role in the design of new building projects in the city and the Tsar himself reviewed, approved or disapproved of projects that did not follow this style.
This changed in the 1820's when eclectic styles of architecture became the rage all over Europe - hitting Petersburg via Berlin and London, where Tsar Nicholas I saw and approved of them during visits to his Prussian in-laws and Queen Victoria of England. Nicholas and his German wife fell in love with the Gothic, even suiting himself and his whole family in medieval armor and costumes for special outdoor events including Robin Hood-era jousts. Now, with official Imperial approval, Gothic, Renaissance and even Neo-Slavic styles were free to compete with the established classical in Petersburg. The exterior visuals of the city rapidly changed. Interiors followed suit and the palaces and mansions of Petersburg were decked out as the interiors of imaginary 15th French chateaus and medieval German castles.
Among bankers and men of power a ponderous but impressive style of heavily carved dark oak and sumptuous Renaissance details was very popular. In 18th and 19th centuries architects in Russia often designed both the exteriors and interiors of buildings - right down to the door knobs and furniture. Almost everything was done locally to custom order or was imported from abroad. There were no "Home Depots" and few fancy furniture stores in Petersburg. In 1900 this was certainly changing. Some stores - like Maples in London - began to sell furniture direct in Petersburg to the public. One could order a complete interior, including carpets, wallpaper, furniture and accessories, right from a single retailer who was usually English or Scottish in origin.
This room of the American ambassador's residence is done in the Renaissance style, but it also has a set of beautiful brass-inlaid neoclassical mahogany chairs from around 1810. The room has been electrified and the ornate central chandelier is adjustable - it could be moved up or pulled down - indicating this must have been originally designed as a dining room.
The first proposal for the electrical illumination of Petersburg was put forward in 1880, but it wasn't until 1883 that a project to light Nevskii Prospect was completed. In 1886 this system was powered by two stations which also provided electrical power to private and commercial customers; one was near Kazan Cathedral and the other floated on the Moika Canal. The Russian Orthodox Church protested the location of the Kazan station as being too near a church (electricity was still considered a potentially devilish force by some).
By 1887 there were 40,000 incandesent lights in St. Petersburg, but only 3,000 of these were private. This clearly shows the major role municipal street lighting played in the initial implementation of electrical power in the city. The power grid of the city grew rapidly, 13 years later, in 1900 there were around 286 electric power plants in St. Petersburg and three private electric utility companies who divided the city up by region. In 1904 one of these companies reported 9,401 individual customers(this would grow to 20,000 in 1908 and 78,000 in 1913), indicating a gigantic growth in power consumption. Ominously, all of Petersburg's electrical power plants were run on English coal brought to the city by ship. When WWI broke out coal supplies from England were completely cut off - forcing the import of coal by train from far-away mines in the Donbass region of the Ukraine.
Next photograph: Ambassador's Drawing Room in the American Embassy
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