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The Swedish Institute at Athens

The house on Mitseon 9

The SIA Building at Athens and the surroundings. Photo: Vasilis Theodorodou
The SIA Building at Athens and the surroundings. Photo: Vasilis Theodorodou
From top to bottom: Photo: 1 Marie Mauzy, 2 Nikos Kaidis, 3 Vasilis Theodorou

The Swedish Institute at Athens has been housed in a protected, neo-classical building located in the Makriyianni district immediately to the south of the Acropolis since 1976. The district takes its name from General Makriyiannis, one of the heroes of the Greek War of Independence, who owned an estate there. The building plots in the area were originally fields and meadows which belonged to the estate. The area was settled only after the foundation of the modern Greek state in the 1830s, but most of the building took place in the early 20th century. The city of Athens had earlier expanded mainly towards the north. The houses in the area were initially very small and simple. The somewhat larger two-storey buildings with their own gardens appeared in the mid-war period. In the mid-1920s the district was still sparsely inhabited. Today’s streets in the area were still unmetalled roads as late as the mid-1940s. The Institute building was designed by Filippos Oikonomou for the Issidorides family which originally came from Constantinople. The head of the family, Heracles P. Issidorides, was a wealthy businessman importing leather and other materials from England and America for the manufacture of shoes.

The exact year of the erection of the building is unknown. Manos G. Biris, Professor of Architecture at the Athens Polytechnic University, has dated it to 1914 in one of his books. However, there is a document in the archive of the Institute which states that the plot was bought by Issidorides in 1919. According to the eldest son in the family, Petros H. Issidorides, the house was finished in 1920 or possibly in 1924.

Stylistically the house belongs to the last phase of Athenian neo-classicism, which is normally dated from 1890 to 1925. It thus is one of the last buildings in Athens in the neo-classical style, which had been in fashion in the Greek cities since the liberation in the 1830s. Until then Greece had been isolated from Western Europe and thus the style arrived late in the country. However, from then on both official buildings and private houses in Athens were built in this style. Stylistic elements borrowed from the buildings on the Acropolis became one way of manifesting the reborn Greek identity.

The late neo-classicism in Athens is eclectic. From 1910 the façades of the buildings started mixing neo-classical elements with other stylistic traits. A neo-baroque trait in our building is for instance the rich decoration of its façade. The rounded corner as well as the originally monochrome greyish white paint enhanced the uniformity of the building. This is typical of the neo-baroque style as opposed to the neo-classicist way of underlining the bearing elements of a building through polychrome paint and through the tripartite division of the façades. Neo-renaissance traits are the rustication of the base of the building and the lunettes above the balcony doors on the first floor. They may have been inspired by italicizing arcades. It is generally agreed that the architect Oikonomou in this relatively small building plot managed to create a building, which despite its heavy and sometimes eclectic decoration gives an impression of harmony and balance.

Yet another aspect in our building places it firmly in the late Athenian neo-classicist tradition. It is extremely well-built as a result of accumulated know-how of the demands of the neo-classical style among the artisans and construction workers. The style was the norm in the many sumptuous private houses erected at the time. The rich interior decoration of the house with details in marble, stucco, oak, and cut glass still attest the skill of the builders. The golden era of Athenian neo-classicism came to an abrupt end around the middle of the 1920s. Some of the small “palaces” were razed to the ground in the 1930s. A more systematic destruction was to follow during the 1950s and 1960s, and is ongoing. Among the houses, which have survived the destruction, both the Institute building and the building which now houses the Nordic Library have been listed as protected buildings.

The fact that our building was originally planned as a private house for a well-to-do family with four children can still be traced in its interior. The smallish rooms in the basement, which are used today as schoolroom and ironing room, were bedrooms for the three maids of the household. The basement kitchen was a food cellar whereas the wine cellar lay across the corridor, now the furnace room. The coal for the fireplaces was also kept in the basement as well as the Rolls Royce. On the ground floor the kitchen and the dining room were to the left of the hall and on the right hand side were three reception rooms. These now house the lecture hall and the Gustav Karlsson Byzantine Library. On the first floor were the bedrooms and a room where the children of the family were supposed to do their homework. Today’s guest rooms on the top floor are original but were used as wardrobes and washing rooms during the Issidorides era. At that time the maids working on the top floor may have caught a glimpse of Faliron and felt the mild breeze from the sea. The house on Mitseon 9 was sold to the Pakis family in 1940. The Germans confiscated the building during the war and the new owners were forced to live in the basement for several years. After the war they opened the “Pension Pakis” which existed until the end of the 1950s.

The building became Swedish property in 1960, when it was bought by the Evangelical Israel Mission in Malmö. Greta Karlsson, who had been a missionary and had stayed in the house as a guest, took the initiative to the acquisition. The organization offered refuge to Russian Jews on the way to Israel. It also did some charitable work in Greece and trained young girls to be sent as maids to Australia.

In 1975 the Institute bought the building at the initiative of the then director Pontus Hellstrom, who had “found” the house during the previous winter. The acquisition was made possible by the sale of a flat in Voukourestiou Street in Kolonaki, the premises of the Institute since the late 1940s, and by a donation from the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation. In 1996–1997 the house was completely refurbished after the c. 35,000 volumes in the Institute’s library were moved to the newly opened Nordic Library in the same block. A small Byzantine library donated by the late Gustav Karlsson, Professor of Byzantinology at the Freie Universität in Berlin, is still housed in the Institute building.