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Around the Jewish World Architecture is Art, Claim the Kin

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The surviving children of Jewish industrialists Grete and Fritz Tugendhat say they’ve waited long enough for this Czech city to keep its promise to restore their parents’ villa. Now they want the treasure of modern architecture back.

They are predicating their case on a 2000 law that allows Holocaust victims and their direct descendants to regain Nazi-looted art without time limits.

“We never wanted it back, just restored, because it is a piece of art that people should see,” said Daniela Tugendhat-Hammer, 60, one of the Tugendhats’ three surviving children.

The Tugendhat villa sits amid stately 19th-century mansions in a Brno suburb overlooking the austere Spilberk Castle. The villa, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was designed by renowned German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Grete and Fritz Tugendhat, who commissioned the villa in 1930, were part of a family that for decades fortified Brno with jobs and factories. Most Czechs may not remember their contributions, however, as the communists erased the achievements of wealthy industrialists from the public conscience.

Last month the Tugendhats’ children informed the city government of Brno that they wanted the villa back.

The Brno city parliament will discuss the request Tuesday. Brno long has promised the villa’s reconstruction, but bureaucratic delays and accusations of corruption have kept the project from reaching fruition.

Based on Mayor Roman Onderka’s response, it appears a court battle is inevitable.

“The heirs of the Tugendhat family have without a doubt a moral right to the villa,” Onderka told JTA, but added, “The city of Brno cannot give up the villa. According to our legal analysis, it’s a property of the town.”

The restitution request is hardly a typical example of Jewish heirs seeking to regain European property stolen first by the Nazis and then by a communist regime.

Post-communist restitution laws allowing Czech heirs to reclaim real estate expired some years ago. But the Tugendhats’ Swiss lawyer, Marc Richter, said that based on his research with Czech legal experts, the family is entitled to the return of the villa.

Tomas Kraus, one of the authors of the Holocaust law, was unsure whether the villa-as-art approach would prove successful for the Tugendhats.

“None of us had in mind a villa when writing this law. We had in mind paintings and sculpture,” said Kraus, a lawyer and executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities. “But at the same time, if this interpretation could be used for a good purpose, why not? I would very much wish that they would get it back.”

Asked why she had waited 17 years after the end of communism to seek the return of the villa, Tugendhat-Hammer responded, “The city of Brno has had a long time to restore the house. They kept saying they were working on it, but it hasn’t happened.”

During a recent visit, the villa looked to be a shadow of its former self.

Floors were cracked and foundations were damaged by leaks, although the rooms’ unique curves and spaciousness — a home that feels like it’s without walls — still wows visitors.

Upon construction, the villa earned international critical praise for its stylish yet comfortable furniture, fixtures and even doorknobs, all designed by Mies van der Rohe, who also designed the Seagram’s Building in New York City.

An extravagant onyx room divider and floor-to ceiling glass windows and doors made the Tugendhat villa the darling of the architectural world. Architectural historians today hail it as one of the world’s best examples of the International Movement, known in Czech as functionalism.

Tugendhat-Hammer never lived in the house. She was born after the family fled to Switzerland in 1938 and later to Venezuela only months before the Nazis annexed what remained of Czechoslovakia.

Germany’s Messerschmidt aircraft maker had its headquarters at the villa during World War II.

After the war, Czechoslovakia’s communist government used the house as a dancing school, children’s hospital and guest house. Princess Diana reportedly stayed there.

In the early 1990s, the Czech state transferred the villa to the city, which opened it as a museum that attracts thousands of art and architecture buffs each year.

Sipping coffee at the Cafe Prukel, a favorite spot for university students in Vienna, about 93 miles south of Brno, Tugendhat-Hammer said she does not want be viewed as “a rich Jew from the West” seeking to dispossess a poorer country of its treasure.

Tugendhat-Hammer is an art historian and professor at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. She and her husband, Ivo Hammer, a professor of art conservation and restoration, have worked for years with Brno city and museum officials, spending their own money and time, to ensure that an international team of experts would be involved in the villa’s restoration.

They have written a book on the villa’s history and have done extensive research into its original materials and architectural plans.

An obvious obstacle to restoration has been the price tag for a city still in economic transition after four decades of communism, but both Brno and the Tugendhats say they would be able to raise the money needed for the restoration. Some estimates put the cost at more than $8 million.

Much of the villa’s valuable furniture, designed by van der Rohe, was looted by the Nazis, along with precious materials such as the tropical Makassar wood veneers.

A communist-era partial renovation helped preserve the villa but also destroyed some of its original surfaces and fixtures. The Tugendhat family is anxious that a future restoration not make similar errors.

Last year a Brno court ruled that a 2004 public competition held by the city to hire a firm to restore the building was corrupt. That was the last straw for Tugendhat-Hammer, who is working with a Swiss-Czech legal team to have the villa returned.

Onderka insists the city is going ahead with plans for its restoration and that any legal claim will only delay that process.

Meanwhile, one of the country’s most respected experts on architecture, Zdenek Lukes, who helped restore Prague Castle in the post-communist era, has called the villa’s current state of disrepair a national embarrassment.

Lukes offered his solution in a Jan. 12 editorial in the Lidove Noviny newspaper: “Without any further chicanery, give the unique object of art, of which the owner has not been able to take proper care for years, to the direct heirs of the original owners.”

He believes the Tugendhat-Hammers will act as “a guarantee that the house will finally be properly restored and reopened to the world’s cultured public, who come to see it from all the continents.”

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