Collapse & Creation By Committee – Lviv’s Ratusha: A City & Its Lost Symbols

It is a truism in government that if you want to avoid getting something done than form a committee. And so it was regarding the state of Lviv’s Ratusha (Town Hall) in 1826. In that year, there was concern that the Ratusha – which stood in the middle of Ploscha Rynok (Market Square) – suffered from structural problems. A committee was formed to study the problem, which they did with chilling incompetence. Like so many committees, they came to the conclusion that doing next to nothing was the preferred option. They even went so far as to proclaim that the Ratusha was in good enough shape to last another hundred years. They were soon proved deadly wrong.

Calamity – An Icon Comes Crashing Down
The committee’s lone recommendation involved opting for minor, superficial upgrades to the exterior, a sort of architectural beautification project. Unfortunately, adding decoration to the facade turned out not to be the answer for more critical problems. Once that decision was made, the committee then started to haggle over the cost of the proposed cosmetic surgery. These proceedings were suddenly interrupted by a town official who rushed in to the meeting and informed the committee that the Ratusha had just collapsed. Several people had been killed, including the city’s beloved bugler. Lemberg (the official name of the city during that time as it was under Austrian rule) was in shock. The committee looked foolish and self-serving.

Model of the Lemberg Town Hall as it looked in 1826

Model of the Lemberg Town Hall as it looked in 1826 at the time of its collapse                (Model: Lviv History Museum; Image: zobacz zasady)

It is both ironic and telling that the officials had chosen not to hold their meeting in the town hall, which subsequently collapsed. Perhaps they had their own doubts about the structure’s foundational weaknesses, if so, than they had been complicit in a crime of willful neglect. What had caused the collapse? The Ratusha was basically three different buildings of varying dimensions that had been fused together into one. This seemingly unwieldy, yet quite elegant design, included a tower that had been added in the previous century. At its tip was a crowned lion set atop a dome, the tower underneath had a gallery of eight pillars shaped like lions. It was this tower which collapsed sending nine stone lions, along with the rest of the tower crashing 58 meters (190 feet) on to the square. Following this cataclysm, the remaining part of the Ratusha was deemed beyond repair.

Lemberg Ratusha Collapses

An engraving of the Lemberg Ratusha’s Collapse in 1826

Monstrosity – A Huge & Hideous Chimney
The city officials in Lemberg were now tasked with the construction of a new Ratusha. Quite understandably public confidence in the city’s leadership was lacking at this point. It was here that another truism of government came into play, use a crisis as an opportunity. The city’s leadership took the opportunity to have the next Ratusha designed in a very different style than its predecessor. It took eight years to erect what was to be the new and supposedly improved town hall. Structurally the new building would turn out to be fine. After all it is still standing today, nearly two centuries later. Aesthetically though, the new Ratusha was lacking. Here was an opportunity to impose an Austrian influence upon the most celebrated public space in the city. The result was a huge structure of overbearing prominence at the center of the square, conspicuous by its girth rather than style.

The new Ratusha was done in Viennesse Classicist style, reflecting Austrian ideals. Soon citizens of Lemberg were heard to quip, that the new town hall was “a huge and hideous chimney.” Huge it was and still is today, with no less than nine floors and 146 rooms. The best that can still be said about its design is that it is really nothing special. Not good, not bad, just sort of there. Perhaps if the rest of Rynok Square and the historic center of Lemberg had not been so strikingly beautiful, no one would have much noticed. The best thing about the Ratusha as it stands today is the view from the top. After climbing an exhausting three hundred stairs, visitors get an incredible bird’s eye view of the city. It says something about the building’s aesthetics that it’s most memorable aspect comes from the top. There visitors are looking away from rather than at the building. From this vantage point, the Ratusha is hardly noticeable. Then again what would more could be expected from the same city leadership that had failed to anticipate the calamitous state of the previous Ratusha. They of course had been the main decision makers when it came to the new one.

Ratusha (Town Hall) in Lviv

Ratusha (Town Hall) in Lviv – locals once referred to it as a huge and hideous chimney (Credit: Lestat (Jan Mehlich) –

Sculptures Can Be Recreated – People & Personality Cannot
This version’s structural qualities have been problematic as well. In 1851, less than two decades after it had been erected, the new Ratusha’s clock tower collapsed. Fortunately, this did not mean the wholesale replacement of the entire structure. The clock tower was soon replaced. The newest version of the Ratusha has stood the test of time, as two World Wars, communism and fascism have failed to make much of a dent in the building. One of the nicer more noble adornments on the present Ratusha, are two lions holding shields set on each side of the entrance to the building. Having the lions only a few steps from the square ensures that there will be no repeat of lions crashing to their ruin, as happened one hundred eighty-eight years before. The lion is the symbol of Lviv and something of a legendary guardian of the city, but in this case the city has safeguarded its lions, at least those ones made of stone.

Lion holding a shield with the coat of arm of Lviv outside the Ratusha (Town Hall)

Lion holding a shield with the coat of arm of Lviv outside the Ratusha (Town Hall) –           (Credit: Бахтина Дарья)

The lions could be replicated in stone, but the flesh and blood bugler never returned to the Ratusha after the last one’s fatal fall in 1826. Historically the bugler’s role included watching the horizon from on high, in order to warn the city of any would be invaders. The bugler also kept watch for fires, sounding the alarm if one was spied. The bugler’s call had been part of the daily ritual of life, providing the sound of security each hour for decades on end. When the new Ratusha was completed, the bugler position was left vacant. As the years, turned into decades, the bugler was all but forgotten. Modernity made the bugler’s traditional role obsolete.

Lviv's Old Town as viewed from the tower at the top of the Ratusha (Town Hall)

Lviv’s Old Town as viewed from the tower at the top of the Ratusha (Town Hall)                 (Credit: Attila Varga)

Last Call of the Bugler – A City Loses A Symbol
In a sense the bugler was the last casualty of the fall of the old Ratusha. The bugler’s role was individual and superseded officialdom. The bugler never needed to form a committee while making split second decisions that might decide the life and death of the city. Instead a bugler relied on instinct to discern signs of danger. It is a pity that the city committee did not ask the bugler’s advice when they decided that the old Ratusha was in good repair. The bugler might have informed them otherwise, but then again, the committee might have to take action and be decisive, the very opposite of why committees are formed. In this case, as in so many others inaction and indecisiveness had fatal consequences.

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