Newsletter | Nov/Dec 2015

The Benes Villa at Seimovo Usti
by Lucia Bogatay

Lenka’s charming older son Marek, who is 20 years older than his half-brother Edu, works for the Czech President’s office in public relations. He has planned two visits for us to two publicly-owned Presidential villas which are sometimes open to the public. On special days when the public is allowed to visit them, Marek has made us reservations to get in early due to his privileged status, helping us to avoid the crowds.

Edvard and Hana Benes at the villa entrance, 1948. Photo Publication of the Office of the Government of teh Czech Republic

On Sunday we have the first of the Presidential villa visits. We go Sezimovo Usti with Janek and his girlfriend Catherine to see the villa of Hana and Edvard Benes.

Benes was the second Czechoslovak president. He and his wife took great joy in building their homes and gardens, and Sezimovo Usti seems to have been their favorite, a real home, a sanctuary, center of their social life, and their burial place.

The couple met in Paris in 1905, became engaged a year later, and married in Prague in 1909. Hana Vickova brought a substantial dowry to the marriage which allowed Edvard to devote himself to his scientific and educational career. For enthusiastic Hana, Edvard was a lifelong advisor and teacher. For hard working and somewhat aloof Edvard, Hana, with her open personality, education and intelligence became the public face.

World War I caused a major disruption in their lives, driving Edvard to go abroad along with Masaryk and Stefanik, where they could be better advocates for their Czechoslovak nationalist interests. Hana stayed home, but could not avoid imprisonment which undermined her health, and may have contributed to the couple’s remaining childless, making Hana more devoted than ever to creating homes for herself and Edvard.

Following the war, with the creation of Czechoslovakia, their lives changed again when Edvard Benes became foreign minister, and eventually prime minister. However, life continued to be difficult. Benes resigned from the government in 1938 following the Munich agreement, and went into exile again in England in 1939. He returned following the war, and resumed his duties briefly before, sick and dying, he again resigned from the government (now Communist). Benes died and was buried at the villa in a place of his chosing. Hana survived him for another 26 years, living out her life at Sezimovov Usti, fighting off Communist confiscation of the villa as long as she could. In her will she wanted it opened to the public. Oddly, under Communism this was not possible, and it was only to be achieved after 1990. The villa was fully restored between 2006 and 2009.

The house in Sezimovo Usti was originally the Benes’ summer home. It was designed in 1930 by architect Petr Kropacek, with participation by the owners whose image for it was of a villa in Southern France. This translated into smooth walls, low roofs, and light rooms. Being as far north as it is, it was necessary to take advantage of natural light wherever possible, with much glass. The exterior windows, as is standard practice in this climate, are installed on both surfaces of the thick walls, doubled for insulating purposes. They are casements which open in. Between rooms, this interesting detail was repeated with glass sheves as a borrow-light, adding reflective light to the composition.

glazed cabinets between rooms. Photo by Lucia Bogatay

Photo of the pool from the house, looking South. Photo by Lucia Bogatay

The gardens, in the English style, with large trees and pools, were designed by architect Otakar Fierlinger, who also designed a later addition to the house. The estate had been enlarged between 1932 and 1938 with gradual purchases of adjoining properties. This allowed both a formal “parterre” and a more relaxed park beyond it which led in each direction to the rivers bordering the property: The Luznice River to the South East, and Kozsky Creek on the opposite side. The contours of the site inspired a rock garden on the slope towards the river, and on the advice of the author Karel Capek, a well was placed below a spillway from the pool near the house. It was known as Karel's Well. The couple both loved to garden, and planted many of the trees themselves.

The Fall colors during our visit are spectacular: the birches are an intense yellow, and the oaks in shades of variegated rust and gold. The vines on stone walls and buildings have turned an intense red. I enjoy the company, the day, and the insights into 20th Century Czech history.

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