It was October 1889 when Sophie Dorothea Alice of the Hohenzollern, sister of German Emperor Friedrich III, greeted excitedly the enthusiastic people of Athens who had gathered in Syntagma Square in front of the Palace, to welcome the German princess.
A few days later, she was standing as a bride by the side of Crown Prince Constantine, when their fortunes were joined. Together they experienced the happiness of the nation, such as in the days of the triumphant Balkan Wars, as well as hard times, such as the Asia Minor Catastrophe and the exile. She died in Florence in 1932 and was buried next to her husband.
Shortly after her death, the Municipality of Athens gave her name to Kifisias Street, leading from Athens to the country suburb at the time.
Since every rich family at the time desired a residence near the Palace, initially Kifisias Street and then Vasilissis Sofias Avenue became the address for their luxurious mansions. Today, those mansions house embassies, ministry buildings and museum, or they have been succeeded by representative samples of modern architecture.
Let us now take a stroll in this street, where the buildings can tell us interesting stories about the past and the present of Athens.
Μαθιόπουλος Παύλος, “Μετά τη βροχή στην οδό Βασιλίσσης Σοφίας”, π. 1900, λάδι σε μουσαμά, 50 x 85 εκ. Εθνική Πινακοθήκη / Mathiopoulos Pavlos, “After the rain at Vasilissis Sofias street”, c. 1900, oil on canvas, 50 x 85 cm. National Gallery
Although the most famous façade of the Parliament building is the one facing Amalias Street, the side on Vasilissis Sofias is the busier one, since ministers, members of parliament and civilians enter the building from there. The courtyard of the Parliament hosts the great bronze statue “Mother” by sculptor Christos Kapralos, placed there in 2003.
On the same side of the Parliament’s courtyard there is also the “Palataki” (small palace). American architect St. Thomson designed the small building as a Doric temple. It was built in 1925 and was used as a selling point of embroidery by the refugees. It was funded by the “Friends of Greece in America”, under Penelope Delta as president. After the Parliament moved to the Old Palace, the “Palataki” became a storage building. Today, it is used to house the television station of the Parliament.
Byzantine and Christian Museum
Since 1930, the Byzantine and Christian Museum has been housed in the “Villa Ilissia”, the building complex erected in 1848 by architect Stamatis Kleanthis on the shores of Ilissos river for Sophie de Marbois-Lebrun, Duchess of Plaisance. The Duchess used the villa as her winter residence until her death (spring 1854). Then, the complex was bought by the Greek state and for many years housed the Army offices, while in 1926 it was granted to the Byzantine and Christian Museum, which carried out the necessary modifications and then moved here in September 1930.
The central building of the complex housed the permanent Collections of the Museum from 1930 to 2004, while now that these collections have moved to the new exhibition space, it houses the reception area and the temporary exhibition spaces.
When Emmanouil Benakis acquired the Harokopou mansion, he redesigned the architecture of the building radically, giving it its current image. During the following decades, further additions were made under the surveillance of architect Anastasios Metaxas who had also undertaken the restoration of the Panathinaic Stadium. In 1931, Antonios Benakis donated the Museum and its rich collection to the Greek state.
The War Museum opened in 1975 and it houses exhibits from the ancient and modern military history of the country. The weapons collection that belonged to Petros Saroglou is the most impressive one. The building, designed by architect Thoukididis Valentis is one of the most typical samples of Bauhaus architecture in Athens.
- B. & Μ. Theocharakis Foundation
The Basil and Marina Theocharakis Foundation for the Fine Arts and Music aims to highlight contemporary art. The building housing the foundation was the Rentis family mansion, built in 1928 on the privileged spot opposite the Palace.
Cycladic Art Museum
The Neoclassical building of the Stathatos Mansion was designed by architect Ernst Ziller in the late 19th century. It was used as a residence by Otto and Athina Stathatos, but during the 20th century it had various uses. It was bought by the Greek state in 1981, to serve as accommodation for official guests. Yet, it was deemed unsuitable and granted to the Nikolaos and Dolly Goulandris Foundation, which made good use of it housing one of the most important collections of Cycladic art in the world.
The National Gallery presents a panorama of Greek painting from post-Byzantine to contemporary art, also including works by renowned Western artists. The building of the Gallery, designed by professors-architects Pavlos Mylonas and Dimitris Fatouros, was inaugurated in 1976, thus providing a solution to the chronic problem of the roofless museum. The building was recently extended and modernized.
Eleftherios Venizelos Museum
The “Eleftherios K. Venizelos” Museum of the Cultural Organisation of the Municipality of Athens was formed in 1986 around the collection of Zacharias and Antonios Makatounis from Crete. The stone building housing the museum in the green Eleftherias Park used to house the detention centre of the junta. The exhibition that is presented on the two floors of the museum includes personal objects of Venizelos, documentation regarding events from his whole life (documents, letters) as well as photographs and lithographs.
Athens Concert Hall
60 years ago, it was the dream of a group of people who had formed the association “Friends of Music”. Since 1991, it is an institution that promotes music in our country systematically and steadfastly, bringing great shows from abroad for the benefit of the local audience. Moreover, the extensive musical library “Lilian Boudouris” is housed in this modern building.
This year, Hilton Hotel in Athens becomes 50 years old. It was the first major hotel chain to open in the city, and from its very first day it became such an important landmark that the whole neighbourhood around it was named after it.
The designs for the building were signed by architects Emmanouil Vourekas, Prokopis Vasileiadis, Spyros Staikos and Antonis Georgiadis, and despite its modernity it retains typical Greek features due to the use of Pentelikon marble. Hilton Hotel is also decorated with significant artworks by Greek artists. The most famous of them all is the abstract archaic composition by Giannis Moralis on the façade on Vasilissis Sofias Avenue. At the opening of the hotel, Conrad Hilton, owner of the chain, stated: “I agree with those who believe that the Athens Hilton is the most beautiful Hilton in the world.” Today, half a century later, the Athens Hilton is considered as a modern monument by the city’s inhabitants.
Monument of the execution of Ion Dragoumis
On 31 July 1920, new of the assassination attempt on Eleftherios Venizelos became known in Athens. Angry supporters of the prime ministers and fringe paramilitaries retaliated against the political adversaries of Venizelos. Despite the turmoil and the danger that he knew of, Ion Dragoumis did not hesitate to drive in downtown Athens. In Ampelokipoi, he was arrested by a group of armed men who stopped his car and brought him to the corner of Kifisias and Rigillis streets. After forcing him to stand against a fence, they shot him down.
Today, on that point, opposite the Hilton hotel, there is a monument in the form of a column with the stanzas written by Kostis Palamas:
A white column where you fell
(how you fell, let it not be written)
white with our Country’s image
only she can mourn you,
crying silently, immobile, like marble!
The glass runner by Kostas Varotsos is on the square of the Great School of the Nation exactly opposite the Hilton. It was designed to be placed on Omonoia Square but it was transported to Vasilissis Sofias, where it is located today, when the construction work for the metro began on Omonoia Square. It was the first monumental artwork in Athens, although when it was moved its height increased up to 12 metres, as more fitting its new location.
The church opposite the War Museum is the Church of Agios Nikolaos of the Poorhouse. Its courtyard is adjacent to that of the British Embassy, while a few metres away, next to the Rizareio Park, is the Church of Agios Georgios. Both are Neo-Byzantine, as the style prevailed in the city during the late 19th century.
Sarogleio Mansion – Armed Forces Officers’ Club
The inscription “Sarogleio” on the façade of the building is placed in honour of Petros Saroglou, officer of the Greek artillery, who left the largest part of his great fortune to the Officers’ Club in his will.
Embassy of France
The Merlin mansion was built according to designs by Anastasios Metaxas for wealthy Englishman Charles Merlin who lived in Athens and aimed to rent it to the French as an embassy building. Its position exactly opposite the Palace in the centre of the capital city made the building an ideal choice. Indeed, the French embassy moved there in the late 19th century, while the French state bought it in 1914. It was named HOTEL MERLIN de DOUA in honour of the French revolutionary, great-grandfather of the initial owner.
Embassy of Italy
The Psychas Mansion, today the Italian embassy, was built according to plans by E. Ziller for banker Stefanos Psychas. It was bought by Prince Nikolaos, third son of King Constantine and Queen Sofia, as personal residence. After the royal family was exiled, the mansion was rented to the Grand Bretagne hotel and became a hotel under the name “Petit Palais”. In the mid-20th century, the Italian state bought the building for its embassy.
Embassy of Egypt
Nikolas Psychas built his own mansion next to the one of Stefanos Psychas, his brother. The building was designed by E. Ziller. The Egyptian embassy has been housed there since the mid-20th century.
Embassy of USA
The embassy of the United States of America in Athens was built in the mid-20th century by famous architect Walter Gropius and is another sample of the Bauhaus architecture. The architect has said that the design was inspired by the Parthenon.