To produce a work of art or architecture that becomes universally recognized as both outstanding and reviled involves a great deal of difficulty. To achieve such a degree of duality in an object of affectionate disaffection takes turmoil and tears, fantastical ability and preternatural passion on a level that defies belief. That was certainly true in the creation and construction of the third and final version of Constanta Casino (Cazinoul din Constanta). Nothing came easy from conception to completion. Obstacles were many and at times looked to be insurmountable. Political opposition from conservative politicians delayed construction for years. The French educated and inspired chief architect, Daniel Renard, was taken off the job and after a two-year hiatus reinstated. The foundations that were to hold the structure had to be laid no less than three times. Cost overruns were seven times the original budget and that did not include the immaculate amenities of decadent splendor which pervaded the interior.
When the grand opening occurred in 1910, the building was still a couple of years away from full completion. Because the Casino’s Art Nouveau style broke with traditional design and was scarcely influenced by Romanian architecture of that time, the finished product came in for exceptionally harsh criticism from both local and international observers. This was the culmination of seven years’ worth of fits, starts and a pseudo finish. Critics in the Constanta press referred to the Casino as a “hulking heap” and a “monstrosity”. One went so far as to say that it had been constructed “in honor of incompetence and bad taste.” Years later, the diplomat George Oudard, a Frenchman no less, called the building “pretentiously complicated.” It was a money pit to some, a spectacular success to others. Above all else, Constanta’s Casino was like all great architecture, instantly identifiable and uniquely memorable.
A Reputation For Excess – Structural Albatross To City Symbol
Initial criticism of the Constanta Casino was directed at its ostentatious décor and budget busting cost. The palatial confines of this money pit of a palace would have made Crosesus proud. The interior was laden with marble, rooms were outfitted with shimmering chandeliers, it had more in common with a royal palace than a public venue. A spectacular staircase allowed visitors access between two floors. The ground level housed a ballroom, while an upper level led to an auditorium. There was also a sweeping balcony that overlooked the Black Sea. Costs were prohibitive, but no expense was spared. Part of the promenade around the casino had to be reclaimed from the encroaching seafront and built up to avoid inundation. Furniture was chosen that matched the casinos other furnishings of ornate splendor. An ultra-expensive piano was purchased to go with an 18-piece orchestra. By the time it was finished, the expense of constructing and outfitting the Casino set a new standard for gilded excess in Romania.
The Casino was the largest building in Romania at the time and had an outsized effect on Constanta’s reputation. This was just what many of the building’s most ardent promoters wanted. All this came at the expense of a city which three and a half decades earlier had been an Ottoman provincial backwater. With the casino as both glittering jewel and profligate eyesore Constanta played host to a procession of aristocrats and nouveau riche. This began a truncated Belle Epoque (Golden Age) era for the city, lasting six years before Romania joined the Allied side in World War I. Prior to Romania’s involvement in the war, the casino went from monstrosity to monument in the eyes of those who paid it a visit. Its location right along the coastline brought an air of glamour and glitz to the city. The rich and famous from all over Europe came in droves. Locals also became increasingly fond of it as tourism began to boom along the Black Sea.
In a matter of a few years the Casino went from being a structural albatross to city symbol. World War I would change everything. In Constanta’s case, it came a bit later than to the rest of Europe, but the ramifications for the city and its astonishing Casino were dire. In the summer of 1916, when the height of summer tourist season should have been taking place, Constanta was hunkered down preparing for an attack that almost certainly focus on the port.
Dawning Of Darkness – The Full Force of Conflict
The port facilities put Constanta in the crosshairs of enemy efforts. With the Casino nearby, it was impossible for adversaries to miss. The splendid structure made an inviting target. Some hoped it would be saved by its role as a makeshift Red Cross hospital where Romania’s war wounded attempted to convalesce as German forces closed in around the city. In late August, the reality of war came crashing into the casino. German shrapnel collapsed much of the roof and badly damaged the floor. To make matters worse, the wounded and their caregivers could not take cover in time. Ten lives were lost. It would be over a year before the Casino reopened and that would be but partially. The wounds of war took many years to repair. It would be over a decade before the Casino was back to its former, splendid self. In retrospect, the interwar years were a respite from conflict.
The casino was busy with those gambling their fortunes or lives away. More than a few met with sadness at one of the seventeen gambling tables. A few even flung themselves into the sea rather than face a future where their wealth had all but vanished. The Casino’s magnificence helped masked much of the trouble looming once again on the European horizon. It would not be long before German military forces were calling into Constanta’s port for what was to become an extended stay. The Germans found the casino much to their liking, so much that they housed many of their soldiers inside. And when the war turned against Germany, its Romanian ally felt the full force of conflict bearing down upon its largest port city. Even though Romania managed to change sides in 1944 and align with the Allies, the Casino could not escape a dire destiny that saw it bombed and parts left in ruin once again. All the Casino’s golden ages were now gone. A new era was dawning under Communism, one that would eventually lead the Casino down into further darkness.