The history of the building in Rūdninkų Street 13

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Currently, the National Commission for Cultural Heritage of the Republic of Lithuania operates in this building. The employees and experts who have been working in this institution for many years are well aware of the history of this building. They understand the challenges faced in managing this unique heritage property.

As heritage protection specialists, it is our duty and pleasure to take an interest in our surroundings and to seek a deeper understanding of them.

The development of both Rūdninkų Street and the Vilnius Defensive Wall in the context of the history of Vilnius

Rūdninkų Street, also known as the tract, has for a long time been an important artery of the city of Vilnius. It derives its name from the Rūdninkai Forest, which housed the royal hunting residence. Through the former Rūdninkai Gate, returning kings and distinguished guests were ceremoniously welcomed. The first buildings along Rūdninkų Street appeared in the 14th century. Step by step, Rūdninkų Street became part of Vilnius’s “German town,” where German-speaking craftsmen settled. Unfortunately, the street suffered greatly from the fires of the 17th century, the Muscovite invasion, and most of the buildings were destroyed during the Great Northern War and subsequent historical events. During World War II, the northern part of the street was damaged; after the war, it was demolished to create the present-day Rūdninkai Square. The demolished buildings could have been repaired, but Stalin-era urban planners justified the demolition by the need for sunlight and fresh air, leading to the destruction of entire Old Town blocks. The building in Rūdninkų Street 13 is the only one surviving craftsmen’s guild house on this street to this day.

The Vilnius Defensive Wall was begun to be constructed in the 16th century in response to the threat of Tatar attacks. What remains today are only fragments of this wall. It is one of the few places in Vilnius where a complete fragment of the defensive wall has survived to its full height, with shooting loopholes and marks of former galleries. For a long time, construction between the Defensive Wall and the building at Rūdninkų Street 13 was prohibited. However, as the wall’s significance diminished, city dwellers began to ignore this restriction. Various buildings began to be constructed near the Defensive wall, with illegal passageways being carved out. Finally, on September 10, 1799, by the order of Russian Emperor Paul I, the wall began to be demolished. City dwellers whose possessions bordered the wall could buy a portion of the Defensive Wall and incorporate it into the construction of a new building. This is how a fragment of the wall survived in the courtyard in Rūdninkų Street 13. During the regeneration of the Rūdninkų quarter in the second half of the 20th century, one of the demolished buildings’ walls contained a fragment of the Defensive wall. The Defensive wall was discovered in 1985 during the restoration of the building. After long discussions, it was decided to demolish the building of 19th century and expose this unexpectedly discovered treasure. However, specialists often note that the restoration work on the wall has been carried out so far without a clear scientific concept and completely unsatisfactorilyrepresenting a unique defensive structure in Eastern Europe.

 In the center of the courtyard, next to the Defensive Wall, archaeologists discovered a Gothic-period arch under which there was a water drainage channel. The building in  Rūdninkų Street 13 is directly linked to the gates of the defensive wall, as the craftsmen of the former guild were required to defend the Rūdninkų gates. This obligation applied to all city dwellers whose residential or workspaces bordered the Defensive Wall.

The historical and architectural development of the building in Rūdninkų Street 13

The history of the building is complicated. According to A. R. Čaplinskis, historical sources indicate that for a long time, a guild of craftsmen was located here. Based on the house chronicles from 1645, transcribed in the early 19th century, it can be concluded that the house belonged to the guild of sharp weapon masters, known as the nožovičniks. This name – the House of the Sharp Weapons Guild – is still used for the building. The sharp weapon masters were part of a united brotherhood of iron masters.

However, architect-restorers Birutė Gudynaitė and Aleksandra Vojevodskaitė, in their architectural research report, believed that the building likely belonged not to the sharp weapons guild but to a branch of the tailors’ guild – the nogovičniks. They attributed this error to the clerk who copied the house chronicle, who might have changed the name to “nožovičniks” because the term was unfamiliar to him. It is thought that this was a branch of the tailors’ guild where specific footwear – stockings, often with leather additions or entirely made of leather – was produced. As fashion changed, their craft declined.

The development of the building structure at Rūdninkų Street 13 can be divided into several main stages:

  • Archaeological research has revealed the presence of Gothic masonry construction here, dated to the late 14th or early 15th century, with wooden buildings attached to it. The Gothic masonry predates the defensive wall. Currently, the original structures are covered by a cultural layer. Currently, the original structures are covered by a cultural layer. Only the Gothic cellars have survived, which at the time of their construction were part of the above-ground structure. After the fires in the early 16th century, a two-story masonry house of traditional design was built. In the mid-16th century, the building was expanded to accommodate a craftsmen’s guild. The building was masonry, two stories high, with a semi-basement and a three-room plan. On the ground floor facing the street, there was an ornate room decorated with frescoes and painted ceiling beams, which will be described in more detail later. Historical sources first mention this house in 1599.

  • In the Renaissance construction phase (in the early 17th century), an economic building – a brewery – was added to this main structure. This building had a corner configuration. It was a single-story structure with three rooms. A two-story structure with masonry stairs connected it to the main building. The facade of the building retains authentic decorations characteristic of Renaissance architecture. Those are the circles with crosses in the corners of the window reveals – royal symbols symbolizing the orb of authority.

  • During the Baroque period, there were no significant changes. The building was merely renovated after the fire of 1749.

  • The fourth stage of construction after 1800 fundamentally changes the structure of the possession. The brewery is reconstructed, a second floor is added, and the building is expanded along the property wall. During the 20th-century restoration, this building was plastered with a different color to highlight the different periods of construction. In the 19th century, after expanding the building, more shops were established in the section facing the street, stable was expanded, a carriage house was built, apartments were installed in the economic building, bakery operated in the cellar near the defensive wall, and other rooms housed a distillery, tavern and saltworks.

Like many places in Vilnius Old Town, this location also did not escape damage during World War II. During the Soviet era, the building was renovated and converted into apartments. Later, residents were relocated, and from 1985 to 1992, the building underwent restoration. The restoration efforts primarily focused on the defensive city wall and the Renaissance part of the building (guild house and brewery).

Former brewery and other building premises

Archaeologists, while studying the defensive wall, were surprised to find a water drainage ditch on the other side of the wall. Usually, such a ditch would be on the outside. However, historical sources revealed that this channel was necessary for the brewery operating in the building. Many craftsmen’s guilds had their own breweries. Beer was brewed there for guild meetings and celebrations. Additionally, the guild had the right to operate a tavern. The brewery was used for its intended purpose until 1855.

As early as the 11th century, beer was brewed in Lithuania, but it became most popular in the 16th century. The most famous Polish historian, Jan Dlugosz, who was also the teacher of Žygimantas Augustus, mentions that barley beer had been brewed in Samogitia since ancient times and was even used for ritual purposes. Lithuanians had their own beer deity, Ragutis, and his wife, Raugutienė. In the oldest collection of laws of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the 1529 Statute of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, we find several laws mentioning brewing.

The wall of the economic room has narrow stairs built into it. They connect the first and second floors. This design is unique among residential buildings in Vilnius Old Town. Ascending these stairs leads to an auxiliary room. Beyond it were previously living quarters, now serving as offices. Among the offices is the former kitchen. On the first floor, the old stove with a hood that collected smoke has been preserved. Above it is the second-floor kitchen. The ceiling covering is vaulted. Above the door, there is an unusual opening that served as a light well and also held a lamp. The lamp illuminated both the kitchen and the economic room (now the current hall).

The representative hall

The representative hall was the most ornate and unique premise in this house. Its interior dates back to the late 16th to early 17th century. While other rooms served utilitarian purposes, this hall was undoubtedly tailored for the spiritual needs of craftsmen. This is confirmed by the surviving wall paintings depicting Christ with the 12 apostles and St. Bartholomew, the patron saint of craftsmen. According to Prof. J. A. Pilipavičius: “The concept of the room’s decor is unique. The room is decorated from floor to ceiling. We see a beautiful Renaissance frieze. Such a powerful decor, encompassing the entire room, significantly influenced people of that time. Perhaps there was also an altar here for rituals, and services were held. Unfortunately, we cannot confirm this now. The age of these paintings is impressive, considering the hardships the old town of Vilnius has endured. Older paintings can only be found in the Bernardine Church with its monastery and the Cathedral’s underground. Every fragment of this wall painting is interesting. Its execution is not boring or scholastic but lively and very professional. The masters who painted the frescoes were excellent craftsmen. A lot of attention was paid to details: for instance, we see painted grapes and birds. Alongside them, the figures of the apostles are incorporated. The ceilings were decorated during the same period as the walls, as shown by the paint tests conducted. There are almost no painted ceilings like these in Lithuania. This type of decor is characteristic of northern regions and German culture. Only one fragment has been restored to give an idea of the whole. The division of the windows reflects the early 17th century, and their reveals were also richly decorated. The niches in the walls were not merely decorative elements. They lightened the wall constructions since the walls are about one meter thick. Candles for lighting and various objects were placed in them.”

According to old documents, it is quite clear that it has always been a matter of prestige to own a property on this street, although maintaining it has never been easy—buildings, like people, require attention, care, and investment.

Sources used for the text:

Lietuvos televizija, 1994: Kultūros archyvai. Rūdninkų vartai, LRT: Viewed: 2022.10.06.

Lietuvos televizija, 2016: Atspindžiai. Paveldo kolekcija, LRT: Viewed: 2022.10.06.

Čaplinskas, Antanas Rimvydas, 2001. Rūdninkų gatvė. Valdovų kelias, Vilnius: Charibdė.

Architectural monument Rūdninkų g. 13 architectural research and restoration work supervision scientific report. Architectural and historical research. 1992. (State Cultural Heritage Commission archive).

Prepared by Public Administration Institution Specialist of the Department of Cultural Heritage Protection and Analysis Group Tatjana Andonova