Conti hotel, Vilnius - The Pearl of the Old Town! - Historical Background

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Historical Background

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The Conti hotel is situated at the beginning of the Raugyklos Street, close to the former defense wall of the city, in front of its Rudninkai Gate, and at the very entry to the old Rudninkai suburb of Vilnius.

The old Rudninkai suburb grew and stretched along and southwest of the road to Rudninkuai, which since the 15th century housed the hunting estate of the grand dukes of Lithuania. The suburb derived its name from the name of the Rudninkai Gate. Notably, in response to intensified attacks of the Tartars on the Lithuanian lands and deteriorating relations with Grand Duke Ivan III of Moscow, the Lithuanian Grand Duke Alexander issued an order requiring the townspeople to build, from their own means, a defense wall around the city of Vilnius. The wall was completed in 1522. For long decades the Rudninkai Gate served as an exit and entry point to Vilnius for thousands of traders, craftsmen and travellers as well as flocks of pilgrims. The Rudninkai Gate was destined by history to become the most important gate, an official representation of city. It is at this gate where dignitaries - Lithuanian grand dukes, Polish kings, heads of Vilnius districts and foreign diplomats - were welcomed on their arrival to Vilnius. On these occasions, the gate would be very richly decorated and the guests would receive a truly spectacular and theatrical welcome. Thus, it is not by accident that when Lithuania was incorporated into the Russian Empire at the end of the 18th century, the Rudninkai Gate became the first to be hurriedly swept off the face of the earth by its new owners.

In 1672 through 1685 the basement of the Rudninkai Gate served as a prison, and even female debtors could be found among its inmates. The conditions in the prison were austere. The sources maintain that the prison had blocks and chains for prisoners.

The Rudninkai Gate, together with the Medininkai and Subacius gates had the greatest defensive power potential.

In 1600, St. Stephen’s Church and a shelter home were built in the Rudninkai suburb to commemorate the victims of the plague. The church was architecturally modest, but featured a very peculiar style of the Lithuanian mannerism and reflected the traditions of the Gothic defense architecture. On the grounds of the church, a cemetery was started and used until its closure in 1865. Architect Laurynas Stuoka-Gucevicius (1753-1798), the most prominent representative of Lithuania’s mature Classicism, was buried at the south wall of the church. The memorial plaque, which had been imbedded in the wall of the church, disappeared after World War II. In 1752, nuns settled here, and, in 1864, the convent was converted into a prison.

In the 19th century, the Rudninkai suburb was still dominated by rural homesteads with one-storied wooden houses. Brick houses could be found only in the area of the Pylimas Street. The spacious courtyards of the estates housed different auxiliary premises: stables, carriage houses, barns, breweries, bakeries, etc. The estates also had orchards and vegetable gardens.

Behind the former defense wall, the city of Vilnius began to expand rapidly only in the last decade of the 19th century. In the early 1860’s brick and more densely concentrated wooded houses stretched only as far as the Vingriai lane and the streets of Pylimas and Raugyklos, but at the end of the 19th century, a whole lot of new quarters and streets sprang out in the south west of the city. This urban area came to be called Naujamiestis (the New City). At that time, the Smolenskas Street marked the end of the Naujamiestis district. The district had rather wide and straight streets that divided the suburbs into regular rectangular sections, which at that time was referred to as "the system of American urban development". True, this part of the city did not evoke much aesthetic admiration, as the brick houses had little artistic value, and the small wooden huts looked miserable.

The possessions and premises on the streets of St. Stephen and Raugyklos, which were then called Didzioji Stepono (St. Stephen’s Greater) and Mazoji Stepono (St. Stephen’s Minor) had different owners, but Jews dominated. They had a synagogue erected in 1903 in Islamic style on the Pylimas Street.

From the 19th century to the break of World War II, the St. Stephen and Raugyklos streets accommodated a variety of trading and crafts companies, however, there were no hotels.

It is worth mentioning that at St Stephen’s 29 and 31 (prewar numbering ordinance) the Tiskeviciai counts owned a bath, a mill, a lumber mill, warehouses, workshops, and bakeries, and since 1932 Abraom Benski had a beer bottling and sales company at St. Stephen’s 38.

Before World War I and during the interwar period, the premises at St. Stephen’s 37 housed St Francis De Sales society Temperance and Labour (Santurumas ir darbas), a shelter house for girls, a girls crafts school, and a primary school; and in the close vicinity, at St. Stephen’s 41, a monastery of Salesian priests was set up.

As for the Raugyklos Street, it deserves a mention that Mejer Berger’s factory of fruit wine, carbonated water and lemonade as well as a beer bottling company had been operating at number 17 since 1898. At Raugyklos 19, between the two wars Vulf Burshtein had an electricity-powered mill that employed 3 people. Since 1905, at Raugyklos 21, there was a lithography printing house owned by Juzef Klembocki and his son; and near by, at Raugyklos 23, there was Kleckin’s printing house.

Vilnius was versatile and multicoloured - rich and poor, ornate and modest, Lithuanian and Slavic, Jewish and German, but always cosy, fascinating and picturesque.

Historical analysis and article by Mr. Eugenijus Ivaškevičius

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