Pardon, could you tell us about your plaque?

  • 2006-06-14
  • Compiled by Elizabeth Celms and Paul Morton.

AN ARCHITECT: The plaque on the side of Man-Tess hotel and restaurant at the corner of Richard Vagnera street and Teatra street says it was once the home of Kristofs Haberlands (1750-1803).

At least one building on every block of central Riga seems to have a plaque, serving as the opening line to the story that the building itself can tell. A famous architect was born here. A famous politician died there. It's all fair enough. Riga is a small city with a wealth of history behind it, and it should celebrate it. But there are a lot names that we here at TBT just, for the life of us, could not recognize at all. And come to think of it, we wondered if the people in these buildings knew anything about the history behind where they were living and working. So we decided to go on a little investigation...

An architect of the classical school

The plaque on the side of Man-Tess hotel and restaurant at the corner of Richard Vagnera street and Teatra street says it was once the home of Kristofs Haberlands (1750-1803). It doesn't say much more about him, so we went inside and asked the receptionist.

TBT: Do you know anything about Kristofs Haberlands? There is a plaque outside in his honor.
Receptionist: I can't tell you anything about that plaque. Maybe our first owner could tell you something, but I can't.
TBT: Do you know who he was?
Receptionist: No, I really don't know.
TBT: Is the hotel in any way connected with this historical landmark? Is there anyone here who might know the history of this building?
Receptionist: No. I know he's a historical figure but… You know, they just bought this house, it doesn't matter about the plaque. It's just a house, this is just a hotel. That was long ago… before we came here.
TBT: But do your guests ask about that plaque?
Receptionist: No. They're not interested. Actually, you're the first to ask, and I've been here for five years. Maybe you could find some information in the library, because I don't have any.

Haberlands, as it turns out, was a prominent classical architect of his time, and he's best known for designing the Town Hall, opposite the House of the Blackheads in the Old Town. It was reconstructed in 2002.
As a last resort, we then tried contacting a woman next door. "I don't have time to talk about history right now," she said.

A celebrity portraitist

There's an extremely black photograph of Albert Einstein from 1947, which coldly captures the great physicist mournfully contemplating the atomic age. A few years later, an exuberant jumping Marilyn Monroe made the cover of Life magazine. These disparate, iconic images were the work of one man, Phillipe Halsman (1906-1979). His childhood home in Riga's Old Town, at the corner of Skarnu and Kalku streets, is now a T.G.I. Friday's. A plaque written in Latvian, English and - presumably in respect to Halsman's Jewish background - Hebrew, marks the spot.
We asked a T.G.I. Friday's waiter if he knew anything about Halsman.

TBT: This place is famous because the photographer, Phillipe Halsman, lived here. Do you know anything about the history of this building?
Waiter: To be honest, I don't know. (A group of tourists interrupts to get directions to the National Opera. The waiter obliges.)
TBT: So you know about the Opera, but you don't know anything about Phillipe Halsman.
Waiter: I know where the Opera is. But if you're asking about the history of this building, I don't know anything.
TBT: Have any tourists asked about it?
Waiter: Yeah, I think once in the three years I've worked here, but I didn't know what to say. I've read this plaque, but that's all I know. I haven't had time to look up anything about him. I might have seen his work, I don't know.

So then we decided to ask the manager ...

TBT: Do you know anything about the famous photographer who once lived here?
Manager: No. We don't know anything about this building, but if you are interested, we can find some information.
TBT: How long have you owned this building?
Manager: We are only renting this place. We've been here almost five years.
TBT: Do tourists ever ask about this building or the plaque?
Manager: No. You are the first. There is a tourist information center, with information about all of Old Riga. They have booklets on this info.

JFK slept here

It may be left out of most of his biographies, but John F. Kennedy once walked the streets of Riga. In the summer of 1939, the United States' future president, then a student touring Europe, visited Riga and the U.S. Embassy, which was, at the time, situated along Washington Park on Ausekla street. The building, a simple austere construction, still stands with a plaque noting its famous one-time resident and includes one quote from a presumably older Kennedy: "Latvians will always reach upwards."
There's a rumor that the old lady who hosted the young Kennedy still lives in the house. Hoping to meet her, we dropped by to say hello.

We rang the doorbell, waiting to hear a scratchy, yet warm granny voice. Instead a very young and talkative secretary, working for Buvniecibas Dizaina Grupa, a construction and design company, answered. "Kennedy? Old lady? Why don't you come in." Clearly, it had been decades since an embassy inhabited the pre-war building walls. A new, glossy, "Euro-remonts" office stood in its place. The secretary told us, apologetically, that she knew nothing about Kennedy's stay. As for the old lady who hosted the future president, she passed away a few years ago. And with her, the stories of Kennedy vanished as well.

The good Lutheran

After a long and exhaustive search, we did find one place whose workers knew their history. The consistory of the Evangelical Lutheran Church on Maza Pils street in the Old Town has a plaque, written in Latvian and German, celebrating Johann Cristoph Brotze (1742-1823), a name, which, like so many names in this city, demands the same question: "Who?"
The consistory staff, excited that a newspaper would be so interested in Brotze, were quite obliging. In an e-mail they sent to us a little later, they said Brotze was "really important for the Lutheran church."

He spent much of his life drawing and documenting buildings the church owned throughout Latvia. And he served for more than 40 years as the rector of the Riga Lyceum, which no longer exists, but once stood on Maza Pils. The plaque more or less commemorates this as the area where he worked as a pedagogue. It is assumed that he lived here as well, presumably in one of the apartments set aside for teachers.

A representative from the church noted in an e-mail that the "work of Broce [he employed Latvian spelling] is a great help and also inspiration for us in restoring [historic houses and manors the church owns] to [keep] them in good order and available for tourists as well as local people."
It's a good thing when a building still has something to do with its history. One wonders what would have happened to Brotze's legacy had his lyceum become a hotel or a T.G.I. Friday's.