Building names hold clues to some gruesome tales
Older buildings in Prague are known not by their numbers but by distinctive names, and corresponding pictures are often on the facades.
Three buildings in Old Town commemorate some of Prague’s most unfortunate trios. Pictures on the facades and the names of the houses are reminders of the almost forgotten legends. One is a ghost story, the second a tragedy and the last is, thankfully, a bit of comic relief.
The House of the Three Standard Bearers (U tří praporečníků) at Husova 12 has a large picture of flag-carrying soldiers between the first story windows. One of these three is a ghost. The soldiers shared a room in the building, even though they were in different regiments.
They were called up to serve in battle in the Austro-Turkish War in the late 1730s, but they promised to meet in their local pub after the war, no matter what. The promise was made boldly, with each assuming that he at least would survive.
But a promise is a promise.
One of the three died in battle. The two survivors would meet in the pub, waiting for the third as they did not know his fate.
Finally, on a moonlit night, he turned up as a ghost and warned them that within a year, they would both join him.
The two thought the greatest danger was another battle, so they quit the military and became monks at Our Lady of the Snows Church near Wenceslas Square, as it was the safest thing they could think of. But you can’t hide from the inevitable.
The two monks died at the monastery of mundane causes.
The House of Three White Roses (U tří bílých růží) is one of Prague’s prettier buildings. More commonly today it is called Rott House, due to the name written on its elaborately painted facade. But three white roses can be seen near the top of the house. It is on Malé náměstí, not far from Old Town Square.
The roses symbolize the three sisters who lived in the original building on that site, built sometime in the 12th century. The basements of that house still exist under the current one.
The sisters, pure as white roses, inherited a large fortune at an early age when their parents suddenly died. The parents kept the daughters fairly sheltered, as was common in medieval times. They knew little of managing money or the ways of the world.
They spent some of their money on fancy clothes and jewelry, and waited for handsome suitors to come and sweep them away. But they became so conceited and haughty that no local men showed any interest.
A foreign suitor eventually came along and wooed the eldest sister. He spoke of an island where he had a beautiful castle and many servants. After a brief courtship, she took her share of the inheritance and left for foreign lands.
There was nothing like a regular mail service in those days, so the remaining two sisters did not think it odd that they never heard from her again. After a few months, the remaining two sisters forgot about her as they were more concerned over their own marriages.
Then another handsome suitor came and showed interest in the middle sister. He told her about his mountain-top castle that stood above the clouds, surrounded by vast gardens, forests and woodland creatures. Soon she too was on her way, taking her share of the inheritance in sturdy chests.
The youngest sister was not left alone long. Another suitor came along and promised she would be a princess in his palace in a faraway capital. She sold the house and took the remaining money, heading off like her sisters had.
Nobody heard from them for years. A trader came to Prague and finally solved the riddle of their fates. The three suitors were the same man, a confidence trickster and master of disguises from a neighboring country.
Some versions of the tale say he killed them outright and buried them side by side in the forest.
Other versions are a bit more kind, saying he simply robbed them and left them in poverty in different cities, where they each eventually died too embarrassed to go home and admit the error of their vanity.
The fate of the trickster is unknown, but one can only hope that fate eventually caught up with him.
How the traveling salesman learned their stories is never explained.
Well, it is hard to get more downbeat than that tale. Perhaps some levity is in order.
The House of the Three Savages (U třech divých) at Řetězová 7 was long a small theater and in the early 20th century boasted many Prague celebrities among its patrons. A well-faded picture on the front of the building shows two men dressed as savages. The image of the third has been lost to time.
But long before it became a respectable cabaret, it had some questionable acts. One of the attractions was a dancing group known as the Three Savages, who were brought to Bohemia by an English theater impresario. The tale was first told in the late 18th century.
The group had three cannibals who spoke an unknown language and made a lot of shrieks and other noises while they danced on stage, eating raw meat, biting heads off of birds and performing other shocking acts. They were supposed to come from somewhere in the Americas, and wore feathers on their heads.
One day an audience member shouted out that he recognized the savages. They were farmhands from the town of Libějovice in South Bohemia who left under a cloud of suspicion for petty crimes in the area.
The savages tried to deny it, but the jig was up. The audience broke out in laughter and the three fakers hastily ran from the stage as objects were thrown at them.
They were never seen again but cursed to be forever laughed at as for over two centuries the house has remembered their humiliation.
The House of the Three Standard Bearers used to be called the House of the Three Angels. The earliest reference to it by the latter name is in the 1580s. The current paintings, with one standard bearer on each of three gilded panels, come from the 19th century and depicts men in 18th century dress with flags on poles. The building now has an ice cream shop on its ground floor.
Husova Street is one of the city’s oldest, and has had a long list of names over the years. The earliest name was Vyšehradská Street, as it leads to the fortifications at Vyšehrad. It got its current name due to a petition in 1870. At the time the legend of the standard bearers takes place, it was called Dominikánská for the religious order that ran the Church of St Giles (Kostel svatého Jiljí) further down on the street.
The House of Three White Roses is also called House at the Rott’s or Rott House. It has one of the most outstanding facades in the city.
The current neo-Renaissance building was rebuilt in the late 1890s for the V. J. Rott hardware store by the two of the founder’s sons, Ladislav and Julius Rott. The façade is covered in decorations and allegorical paintings of crafts and economic activities designed by Mikoláš Aleš and executed by his collaborators Arnošt Hofbauer and Ladislav Novák, with the three white roses of the house’s original name on the top gable.
Two levels of Romanesque cellars of the original 12th century house are preserved. The first basement has a double-naved Romanesque hall vaulted on two pillars. The second has Romanesque freestone walls with a semicular vault.
The original building is also where the first Czech translation of the Bible was written.
The building is now home to the Prague location of an international food and rock music establishment. A hotel next door also uses the Rott name.
Malé náměstí, or the Small Square, is part of the Royal Route from the Powder Gate to Prague Castle.
The House of the Three Savages covers two lots and has had a building there since the Gothic era, but it has been rebuilt several times. In 1911, a cabaret opened there called Montmartre, and it quickly became popular with the artistic crowd at the time. Jaroslav Hašek, František Langer, Eduard Bass, Franz Kafka, Max Brod and Gustav Meyrink were among its patrons. The interior had elaborate murals depicting the Seven Deadly Sins by Vratislav H. Brunner and František Kysela.
Before it was Montmarte, it was known as the Olympia and had other names even before that. At the time the legend of the savages takes place, the building was owned by a woman named Barbora Puchlová.
The building now is home to Café Montmartre, which opened in 2000. The building had been a paper warehouse during the communist era and had fallen into disrepair, and none of the murals survived.
The outside of the building has a small part of the original facade fresco of the faux savages preserved in a rectangular inset.
The name Řetězová Street refers to chains, and it is likely the street was closed off at times due to either the formerly cloistered Church of St Anne at one end of the street, or to block a route where merchants could avoid customs taxes when heading to Old Town Square by sneaking down a narrow alley. The alley at the end of the street is often locked with gates today for security reasons. The cloister was closed in the 1780s as part a sweeping religious reform under Emperor Joseph II.