Edmundas Alfonsas Frykas was amongst the most known Kaunas architects of the Interwar years. He designed the residential house on Gedimino street in 1929 by the order of Pranas Gudavičius, doctor and social activist. The latter rented out the upper floors and settled in the first one himself, establishing a clinic there, becoming the head of the doctors’ union of Lithuania and a professor of Vytautas Magnus University in a few years. In 1944, P. Gudavičius moved west; he died in New York in 1956. But what about his house? The flats were divided into smaller ones and “nationalised”.
Another doctor (!) that lived in one of the apartments until 1989 moved to Israel and then his flat of over 100 square metres was bought by a couple of medics (!!!). Before moving to a smaller one, these seniors have spent almost three decades in the flat that’s facing three directions of the world, and then it was bought by two young businessmen who wanted to invest part of their money into real estate from the Interwar period.
So we’re talking to Karolis Banys and Petras Gaidamavičius in an empty flat on the third floor: a few soft pieces of furniture in the centre of the living room, a painting torn in a cosy way that the new owners found in the basement, a chest of drawers that was bought elsewhere yet seems to fit here very well and… that’s it. The first impression is similar to the one at the renovated museum of M. K. Čiurlionis which was an exhibit itself in wintertime. Nevertheless, after restorers are finished with the work the flat be visited by everyone, enjoyed by anyone who admires these Interwar beauties. People will be able to try living here, organise exhibitions or dinners. Will there be more of such impressive non-flats with stories in Kaunas?
- Karolis Banys and Petras Gaidamavičius / Photo by Dainius Ščiuka -
Karolis: A few years back there were talks of modernist architecture of Kaunas being given the European heritage title by UNESCO. That was part of the motivation to invest in the objects on that list rather than in just old buildings.
In my case, it was actually my piano teacher at school who had a strong influence on this decision: her father was a member of the parliament during the Interwar years and she used to show us charming photos from those days with peculiar details, clothes and specific sliding doors in people’s living rooms… Later I studied politics and took up history, this period in particular.
Petras: My love for real estate began before this [laughs]. I was working with international trading and at one point it felt like I needed something more tangible, having in mind that all of my activities were Internet-based. I started travelling more, visiting cities like New York and Paris, and then, upon returning to Kaunas, I wanted to recreate the New York-like spirit here, but I certainly didn’t expect this!
Karolis: One of the first flats we visited three years ago was in the house of Juozas Daugirdas on Vytautas avenue. A spacious hallway, two living rooms that can be made into one for a ball, even particularities like the button to call servants while you’re in the bath… We were impressed by the functionality of the spaces and the design – our affection grew stronger with every new property we saw.
I’m sure the interest in the Interwar years of Kaunas will increase dramatically as the year 2022 comes closer. We’re still hunting flats, but this one is special because it’s almost the same as it was long ago, and typically most homes we visit are redecorated, divided or the interior is changed or damaged.
- Photo by Dainius Ščiuka -
Petras: I think that’s because people who moved into such flats after the war didn’t create this beauty themselves.
Karolis: Well, we won’t change anything here except for the pipes. Everything else will be restored to the original state, for instance, the radiator. We’ve found a company that makes old-fashioned radiators made of cast iron yet they’re much more economic now. Also, the bath and the kitchen will get wooden double windows back as now there are only plastic ones here.
Petras: It seems like children have never lived in this flat since all of the glass on the doors is authentic and intact.
Karolis: Some doors have frosted glass, while others have see-through one. The last owners told us that these might be from the Soviet period, but we’ve found identical see-through ones in the memorial museum of J. Gruodis during the museum night. The staff ensured us that those were authentic, so we now believe the ones in this flat are as well.
Are the construction workers of Kaunas equipped to work with heritage objects?
Petras: We’ll see! And we hope to make the process public, even broadcast it.
Karolis: By the way, we were very lucky as Gražina Janulytė-Bernotienė – one of the most famous architects of Kaunas – lives on the second floor. She loves the Interwar period and therefore cares a great deal about this building. She’s often consulting us.
What vision do you have for this flat? How will you open it up to locals and guests?
Petras: It’s already open – we’re here, aren’t we? [laughs]
Karolis: We don’t have a single answer to that yet, we’re considering options like turning it into an apartment which would be interesting for travellers who love architecture and modernism in particular. There are none of these in Kaunas at the moment as far as we know.
Petras: Tel Aviv was where we looked for ideas this year: one Bauhaus building with a hotel inside and art exhibitions taking place made an impression on us. There are artworks in every room and you can buy them.
Karolis: Why couldn’t this home have a pop-up gallery, restaurant or even theatre? We hope to finish the work in the beginning of next year. Come then and you’ll see.
Karolis: We’re reading commercial and individual ads every day, it has become a certain hobby of ours. Sometimes we approach the owners entirely because of our curiosity – we just want to see a heritage object from the inside. It’s fun.
Petras: Some of these visits end on a sad note, for example, when an owner confesses to us that he or she destroyed all the elements of art deco so “there wouldn’t be any troubles with the heritage folks”.
Quite interesting and pragmatic, right? But how can businesses see more value in the cultural heritage? What’s the motivation to invest in the city’s culture itself?
Karolis: Many businesspeople who don’t do it already simply lack some elementary facts. When you start to get to know the city, its history and architecture, you come to realise the value of it, both morally and financially. We have enough hotels that are plain hotels – they’re comfortable yet boring. Maybe people find it difficult to buy these objects? Some are divided into really peculiar parts, and one would have an impossible time buying these combinations.
Petras: There’s a large number of heritage objects, obviously. We hear so much stories from the owners…
Karolis: …also from our buddies, the press. Heritage protectors and other officers are mostly seen like monsters that come into your property and punish you. We want to protect the things that were created once, so we usually only get positive reactions and friendly help from any such professional.
Petras: They’re also living in 2017 like we do, so there’s no need to fear these myths. Meet them and talk to them yourselves.
In your opinion, how can we all “infect” youngsters with the flu of admiring such Kaunas-like objects? Especially those young people who will become the city’s ambassadors come 2022.
Karolis: People like stories, so why not start there? Let’s say, tours with personal tales. I, for example, was fascinated by photos of parties, glasses, dancing, clothes… This was exotic and charming to me. Maybe kids today would find it interesting too.
- Karolis Banys and Petras Gaidamavičius / Photo by Dainius Ščiuka -
By the way, what do you as Kaunasians expect from the title of the European Capital of Culture?
Karolis: We’re already getting positive outcomes from it. It’s a kind of renaissance of Kaunas: residents are more open and they’re finally beginning to understand what they really have. We’re all part of this resurrection. Will this bring happiness to the city? Will we get rid of our complexes? We’ll definitely have more events, activities and chances for people to see each other and act kindly.
Interview by Kotryna Lingienė and Kęstutis Lingys
The article was originally published in the August issue of Kaunas Full of Culture magazine (PDF here)