The Building of the Varaždin Civic Theatre
The location, size and stylistic features of the theatre buildings are the most important architectural works of Varaždin historicism of the second half of the 19th century. It was built in 1873 according to the project of Hermann Helmer, later a prominent European architect of theatre buildings. According to his drawings and under his supervision, the building was built by the famous Zagreb builder Janko Jambrišak in cooperation with Varaždin craftsmen, as evidenced by the memorial plaque on the main staircase.
The Varaždin Theatre is the most valuable historicist building in Varaždin, a monumental building built in the Neo-Renaissance style in 1873 on the site of the former southern borough moat at the eastern part of Kapucinski trg/Square.
We can only speculate about the first theatre performances in Varaždin and the venues where they were held. There are no preserved written testimonies about them. Medieval church performances, if there were any, probably took place in the Varaždin churches of the time, the Franciscan church of St. John the Baptist and the parish church of St. Nicholas, or perhaps in the open spaces in front of them. It is hard to believe that during the Renaissance, during the wars with the Turks, there were any theatre performances in Varaždin. At that time, they could be held in the Varaždin feudal fortress whose co-owners were intellectually and financially rich enough to be their patrons and spectators.
In the Baroque era, during the 17th century, theatre performances were held in the building of the Varaždin Jesuit grammar school. Little is known about the theatre hall, and the first news about it dates back to 1673, when at the end of the school year the students staged a play titled Sveta Katarina / Saint Catherine.
We do not know where the theatre hall was located in the grammar school building and what it looked like. Today, the still existing brick building of the former Jesuit grammar school has been rebuilt several times, so its interior is completely different than at the time of its construction.
In the second half of the 18th century, theatre performances were held in the renovated building of the former chapel of the German Congregation in Varaždin, between the Jesuit church and the grammar school which was purchased and converted into a theatre by the Varaždin town almshouse.
At that time, the idea of constructing a theatre building arose in Varaždin. It was seriously dealt with by Count Franjo Patačić, who announced his intention to erect a suitable building in the space opposite the Sermage Palace. For this purpose, in 1768, he bought two land plots of on the north side of the square. A list from 1769 already calls that space Forum Theatri. Unfortunately, the lack of money due to the wasteful life he led, prevented the count from this intention.
In the 19th century, theatre performances were held in the ball hall, which was located in the western part of the former palace owned by the Counts Batthiany on the main square in Varaždin. The hall was built in the first half of the century when the Batthianys were no longer the owners. It could seat four hundred people, but already in the 1920s it was too small for the public dances held there.
Since there was no theatre building in Varaždin until 1873, performances by itinerant troupes were held in that hall. During each play, the stage had to be improvised, for which the actors themselves made the scenery. When theatre performances in the ball hall became more frequent, the people of Varaždin began to call the hall a theatre. Even today, the existing building in Kranjčevićeva ulica Number 4, even after the construction of a new theatre building in 1873 on the area of the former southern town moat remained in people’s minds as a theatre, so it was called Staro kazalište (Old Theatre) and the street itself was called Starokazališna ulica (Old Theatre Street).
The building of today’s Croatian National Theatre in Varaždin was built on the site of the former southern urban moat. Its construction is evidenced by the inscription carved on the memorial plaque on the wall of the main staircase: “The municipality of the free and royal borough of Varaždin was designed by in 1873. Architect Hermann Helmer of Vienna, builder J. J. Jambreščak of Zagreb”.
A month before the opening, the Varaždin newspaper Pučki prijatelj had published a notice about the appearance of the theatre: “The theatre building is completely finished, and now we are still working on the interior decoration.“ The decorations, which were beautifully painted by Rostok from Graz, are on displayed at the theatre. In the auditorium (lower level) there were closed chairs upholstered in red leather. The arched ceiling in the auditorium is lavishly gold plated, with the basic colours: red, white and blue. The boxes are semi-open and covered with red silk, and their edges are upholstered with red leather. The front ends of the boxes are white, but too richly gold-plated. On the façade of the theatre, which was beautifully decorated by Halleker from Maribor, there is the coat of arms of the town of Varaždin. On the front of the diplomatic box – on the right side of the stage – there is the coat of arms of the Triune Kingdom with the Croatian crown. The theatre has 34 boxes. In front of the auditorium there is a beautiful foyer on the first floor, closed in the winter and open in the summer with a large balcony looking to Šetališna ulica. The foyer can be reached via the main entrance via a wide two-tiered marble staircase. On each side of the auditorium, there are warehouses for decorations on the ground floor, and dressing rooms for the actors on the first mezzanine. The ground floor, in front of the auditorium, is filled with large and beautiful rooms of a café, an inn and a kitchen. The first side of the theatre building facing Kapucinski trg on the first and second floors is occupied by a large ballroom, too richly decorated. Next to it on the left side on the first floor are the large rooms of the “Casino”, and on the second floor there are three beautiful large galleries. Next to them are the apartments for the theatre director and house supervisor, as well as a private apartment.
The building of the Croatian National Theatre in Varaždin is also evidenced by some plans and drawings kept in the Varaždin State Archives and in the Varaždin City Museum. The museum has two watercolour drawings depicting the eastern and western façades of the theatre building. None of them is specifically marked as a Varaždin theatre, but they are clearly defined by the titles: Façade gegen die Promenade and Façade gegen den Kapuzinerplatz, which clearly testify of the town spaces opposite those façades, namely the Varaždin Town Promenade and the Kapucinski trg where the Varaždin post office building was not yet built at that time.
These drawings are the work of the Viennese architect Alexander Bellow, signed in ink in the lower right corner of the painting, created around 1871. They show two proposals for the façade of the theatre building. He imagined the eastern one, facing the promenade, as plastically indented with a more prominent central part and decorated with numerous statues in niches and circular medallions.
Among some thirty floor plans and drawings of the façade of the theatre building that are preserved in the Varaždin State Archive, three are artistically interesting. Two are drawings in ink and water colours by Hermann Helmer in 1871. One simultaneously shows a section of the theatre auditorium and stage, and the large music hall in the western part of the building. Parts of the hall painting and sculptural decorations that are still recognizable today were drawn. The second ink drawing shows the west façade of the theatre building, as it was executed, only with the painted candelabra on the balconies, which do not exist today.
Also interesting is the veduta of Varaždin showing the western and southern façades of the theatre building, an amateur painting by surveyor Stawikovski, created after 1873. The building overview corresponds to the aforementioned Helmer’s drawing.
An interesting drawing in ink and water colours by Artur Dausek from 1894, which shows the eastern façade of the theatre building facing the promenade, is kept at the State Archives of Varaždin. It shows a two-story building with a sloping gable roof and a wall mantel with split doors on the ground floor and niches on the upper floors.
At first glance, the postcard showing the same façade of the theatre from the 1930s is very similar to the previously described drawing by Dausek. The building has a prominent central part with a large triangular gable above the roof and lower side parts with a flat terrace on the first floor, pierced by an arched doorway on the ground floor. At the height of the first floor are niches with decorative plastic shapes. In the central one, there is a life-size statue of the Croatian poet Ivan Gundulić on a pedestal, and in the side ones are decorative vases.
The present appearance of the theatre building was created in the mid-fifties of the last century, when upgrades and interventions were made on the façades. The upgrade project was carried out by the famous Croatian architect Aleksandar Freudenreich (Zagreb, 1892 – Zagreb, 1974). The volume and shell of the central part of the theatre building was preserved, while the eastern façade was quite changed. On its sides, a single storey was added, with a series of circular windows to the north and south.
Three arched entrances on the ground floor were bricked up, and two new ones were opened. There are also three open windows on the ground floor, while the former niches with statues on the first floor were provided with large windows to which two new more were added.
The interior of the theatre building was remodelled in this renovation with a new design of the lower part of the auditorium, sculptural, stucco, painting and decorative works.
The building of the Croatian National Theatre in Varaždin is a valuable architectural building from the second half of the 19th century. It is the creation of Hermann Gotlieb Helmer (Hamburg, 1849 – Vienna, 1919), one of the most important European architects of that time, specialized in the design of theatre buildings. In his projects, he applied historicist forms imitating the building forms of the Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo. Together with the architect Fellner, he ran a well-known construction company in Vienna that built 48 theatres and numerous other public buildings on the territory of the former Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and other European countries. In Croatia, they also built theatres in Rijeka and Zagreb, and the building of the Art Pavilion in Zagreb was Helmer’s work. The Varaždin Theatre is Helmer’s first independent work and a precious architectural work of Croatian historicism. Among the interesting things about Helmer’s life in Varaždin is the fact that during his stay in the town he met the daughter of Varaždin cobbler Levanić from Dugi Konac Street, who later became his wife.
The Varaždin theatre building was built according to Helmer’s design by the most prolific Zagreb builder of the second half of the 19th century, Janko Jambrišak (Karlovac, 1834 – Zagreb, 1892). In the construction of the theatre and in the furnishing of its sumptuous interior, masters from Gradac, Vienna and Maribor also took part, as well as some famous Varaždin craftsmen, the most famous of whom are Goger, Söhnel, Gortan and Grims. Jambrišak built numerous buildings in Zagreb’s Lower Town, as well as summer houses on the outskirts of Zagreb, the most famous of which is Okrugljak. He was a prominent member of the Club of Engineers and Architects. His participation in the construction of the theatre is evidenced by the already mentioned commemorative plaque on the entrance staircase.