Imperial St. Petersburg: Architectural Visions

Overview

William C. Brumfield. Mikhailovsky Castle. Park Façade.. 1984. Photograph.

From the baroque splendor of the Elizabethan age to the austere classicism of the following century, Imperial country palaces around St. Petersburg were built on a scale befitting a major European power. Designed to impress, the summer residences of the tsars projected an aura of Imperial sovereignty and grandeur. At the same time, the Romanovs’ family dachas reflected personal tastes of their owners, whose eerie presence is still felt in the decorative choices and structural features of these magnificent mansions.  

Ever since Empress Elizabeth moved her summer home to Tsarskoe Selo, twenty miles south of St. Petersburg, the baroque Catherine Palace was the official country residence of the Romanovs. To please the luxury-loving tsarina, Bartolomeo Rastrelli designed a stunning turquoise, white and gold facade, stretching for a thousand feet and extravagantly decorated with sculptures, stucco festoons and columns. Catherine II found the palace old-fashioned and invited the Scottish architect Charles Cameron to redesign the rooms in a sober neo-classical style. Cameron built several remarkable adjacent structures including the open Cameron gallery where the elderly Empress used to take walks during rainy weather. 

Catherine’s son, Paul I, abandoned the sumptuous Catherine Palace, spending his summers in his favorite Gatchina Castle and the nearby Pavlovsk Palace, which became a cozy home for his large family. In St. Petersburg, Paul I built the Mikhailovsky Castle surrounded with water barriers and accessed through a drawbridge. The unfortunate emperor lived in this seemingly impregnable castle for only forty days. He was assassinated in his bedroom by the officers of the palace guards in March 1801. Paul’s son, Alexander, occupied his own palace within walking distance from the Catherine Palace in Tsarskoe Selo, built for him by his doting babushka Catherine the Great. The Alexander Palace became the last family abode of the Romanovs. After the 1917 Revolution, Nicholas and Alexandra were kept under arrest there before being dispatched to Siberia and the Urals to meet their death. 

In September 1941, Hitler's armies reached the outskirts of St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) and occupied the former Imperial residences, plundering the art treasures and destroying the structures. The restoration of the palaces began immediately after the war, and within two decades the Imperial residences were restored to their former glory.