The Last Imperial Palace Constructed in St. Petersburg
Waterfront estates on the Neva have always been prized property reserved for SPB nobility making it no surprise that this prime location was chosen for the future home of Emperor Alexander II’s son, Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich of Russia.
Before the property belonged to the Grand Duke, it belonged to the French Embassy from 1807 until 1839. The French Ambassador was smitten with the place saying that the emperor gave the French “the most beautiful house in St. Petersburg after the Duke’s palace, of course”. During the French invasion of Russia in 1812, the French were not so welcomed in the city and Russian officers would race by the palace on horse and toss stones at the window, betting who could knock over the statue of Napoleon that sat in the window.
After the French left the premises, the place became a ‘reserve’ palace for guests of the emperor before becoming the Grand Duke’s residence in 1872.
The palace consists of 356 rooms with a building attached to the back (the Hoffmeister building) for servants, tutors and stables in the courtyard. Advanced technology was built into the palace such as electricity, an elevator, water heating, ventilation, a telephone and an acoustic pipe that made it possible to communicate with the children’s quarters from the main living quarters. Everything is still standing today. Regular citizens now live in the Hoffmeister building at 27 Millionnaya Street.
The first floor of the palace is where the family’s main private rooms were located. The left side is where the Oak hall dining room was and the billiard rooms and Duke’s bedroom were on the right side. The 2nd floor was where the Grand Duchesses rooms were located and the children’s rooms occupied the 3rd floor.
Vladimir was witty, ambitious and a bit intimidating due to his coarseness and temper. He met his wife, Maria, in 1871 while travelling in Germany and they fell in love although she was already engaged. Even though she broke off her engagement, they still couldn’t get married because she refused to convert to Orthodox religion (although she did later in life). Their wedding was postponed for 2 years until the emperor finally consented to their marriage. The Grand Duke was a devoted family man who was close to his 2 kids.
On the right is a picture of the grand staircase above which you can see the initials of Vladimir and Maria (VM) still intertwined above the stairwell. Unlike many of the other palaces, their mark on the palace still remains intact.
The palace is home to a number of different interior styles as was popular at the time.
Raspberry lounge – Reception room
Louis XVI – Living room
Persian room – Smoke room
English gothic – Small dining room
Small dining room
Moorish style – Boudoir
The Grand Duke was a serious military guy, but he knew how to have a good time. His place was one of the main centers for social life at that time. Especially since Maria and the wife (and Empress) of the Duke’s brother (Alexander III) had a rivalry. They set up a separate court and the palace saw many musical and literary nights and balls. Many of these events were held in the Music Hall pictured below.
Socialites that they were, Vladimir and Maria planned out one of the most famous balls in all of St. Pete; the Alexis Mikhailovich costume ball in 1883. Alexis Mikhailovich was the first Romanov ruler and the style of dress during that time was what you most likely imagine when you think of Russian royalty – thick, Russian style dress with fur-trimmed clothes and hats. In order to really bring this ball to life, the Grand Duke and Duchess had a special room made just for this party in the style of Russian Folk as it would have been in the time of Alexis Mikhailovich.
Pics from the ball: on the left is Maria but the right is not the Grand Duke but another socialite, Alexander Polovtseva.
The Oak Hall
After Vladimir’s death from cerebral hemorrhage in 1909, Maria and the children continued to live here until 1917 when she left the city for Kislovodsk leaving the palace to their eldest son. She managed to get out of Russia in 1920.
May of 1917 the palace was taken over by the Committee of Prisoners of War along with the Russian Red Cross Society. Over the next several years, a number of organizations were located here, but in 1920 the palace became the Scientist’s House (named by Maxim Gorky). For this reason, the interior is better preserved than many of the other palaces.
The Oak Hall went from a family dining room to a meeting hall which is still used today to hold concerts, conferences and official meetings.
The Grand Duchess Maria had to leave behind all of her valuable possessions when she fled. One of the most interesting tales from the Vladimir Palace is that of her tiara (aka the Vladimir tiara) which is now worn by the Queen of England. The jewels were smuggled out of Russia supposedly by either a British secret intelligence agent or a British antique dealer (according to the palace guide). The tiara was later sold to the Queen’s mother and inherited by Queen Elizabeth later in life. You can read more about that story here.