Gambrinus Ale House, A Stylish Ruin

Peeled off plaster, broken windows, rats scuttling at ease day and night. And above all, the filth. Complete and utter filth reigning supreme over a piece of downtown Bucharest. But also over a piece of our past. The only part still living is the sign above the door, reading in big, nicely dyed letters: Gambrinus. Magic name, travelling through time alongside the shadow of the immortal Caragiale.The corner of Regina Elisabeta Boulevard and Brezoianu Street: the Cismigiu Hotel. But also the Gambrinus Ale House, a brand ennobled by its connection to the story of Caragiale's life as benevolent but utterly luckless "businessman." A special place in the "economy" of the old capital city. In 1912 architect Nicolas Pissiota and his cousin, Arghir Culina, built "on the high street, coachman, on the high street" one of the most beautiful edifices in early 20th century Bucharest. A luxurious six-storey building which was later to become the Cismigiu Hotel. Today, at a time of feigned interest in conserving all traces of the past, the building is finally listed as historical heritage. Truth be told, it does it no good. The shadow of Master IancuNowadays no one save literary historians and the odd nostalgic pining for the beauty of the "Little Paris" still talk about the "Gambrinus Ale House," "administered" once by Master Iancu Caragiale. No, that one has never stood on the spot now marked by the plate nailed to the building by the park. The real "Gambrinus," the original, opened in 1901, was somewhere across the street from the former National Theatre, itself destroyed by American bombings in 1941. Or, to put it in more contemporary terms, around the Telephone Company Palace. The ale house was not the first "business" set going by Caragiale but it is the only famous one. Good beer and the owner's verve soon turned the establishment into a favorite meeting place for journalists, actors and politicians alike. In short, all sorts of "Miticas", hardly different from those made immortal by Caragiale's writings. It was here that premieres at the National Theatre were "toasted" and local politician gathered to talk shop and decide the future of the nation. It goes without saying the business did not make the owner a rich man, but by the time Caragiale left the country for good, "Gambrinus" had already established itself as a brand. New master, same old legendThe change of "master", immediately after Caragiale left for Berlin, in no way altered the spirit of the place and it continued to be a focal point in old Bucharest. It was, in turn, a meeting point for the people revolving around the theatre, a venue for jazz concerts and shows by famous gypsy and folk music bands. Around 1940, however, the building was pulled down. It was then that Caragiale's tavern really died for the first time. But legends never die. In August 1941 a certain Naumescu had the inspiration to bring the name of the celebrated ale house back to life and opened, at the corner of Regina Elisabeta Boulevard and Brezoianu Street an elegant restaurant called "Gambrinus." Surprisingly, the communist regime, which came to power just a few years after the end of the Second World War, did not change the name. The only thing that changed a couple of times was the "field of business." Today, when the new capitalism on the banks of the Dambovita is in full swing, the place that preserved the "foam" of the memory of Caragiale the ale house keeper has fallen into ruin. A dismal, almost sinister place, which even the homeless and the stray dogs shun. A pathetic presentThe building on the corner of Regina Elisabeta Boulevard and Brezoianu Street belonged to the Pissiota family until 1948, when it was nationalized by the communist regime. Later on it housed the dorms of the Theatre and Cinema Academy. In 1995 the building was declared unsafe due to advanced disrepair. Then during the office of Mayor Traian Basescu the edifice was given back to the heirs of its rightful owners. In 2005 the Hercesa Imobiliaria real estate agency bought the entire Cismigiu "complex," including the former hotel, the Gambrinus restaurant and the Bulevard Cinema. According to the project, the Spanish real estate company planned to invest almost six million euro in revamping the building, which was to house 67 hotel apartments. The current legislation compels the investor to preserve the façade and architectural elements that made this building a jewel of early 19th century Bucharest. It is now the summer of 2008, 3 years after the purchase, and Hercesa Imobiliaria has changed their initial plans due to the advanced state of disrepair of the building. The façade stays, but the interior will be completely pulled down. What will become of the old building? The former Cismigiu Hotel is now a sorry sight. Walls exposed under the fallen plaster, blind, broken windows "protected" by rusty bars, posters of every description glued one on top of the other all over the façade, rats swarming freely. A source of infection eating away at a building in the very centre of the city. But even so… the legend lives on. Changing the modificationThe initial project, which involved consolidation works, was abandoned due to high costs. Hercesa Imobiliaria claims that they will begin demolishing the interior in the summer of 2008 and then completely reconstruct it. In theory, the works will begin after the company has got all the permits, which is estimated to take three months. Again in theory, the works will take another two years and the result will be a modern building with 1,200 sqm of shops on the first floor, 800 sqm of offices on the mezzanine, while the rest, up to 8,900 sqm, will be occupied by the 67 hotel apartments. I have passed by the building the other day. Nobody has started anything yet. It is a pathetic, dismal sight. On the sidewalk, among the numerous passers-by, pieces of fallen plasterwork. Suggesting the walls are dangerous to walk by. A sinister run is all that is left of the former glory of the once impressive building. And the memory… Nothing more. Jurnalul national, June 21, 2008 Translated by Ariadna Ponta

by Suzan Mehmet