By Steve Brummel
Something strange happened when, in the 1970s, I went looking for long lost family members in what was then Czechoslovakia. I uncovered surprising connections between my Brummel relatives, Jewish support for the avantgarde arts in the early 20th Century and one of the major founders of the Modern architecture movement, Adolf Loos. I discovered an architectural treasure designed by Adolf Loos for the Brummel family in Pilsen in 1928. But by the time I found it in 1977 the Communist city authorities were on the verge of demolishing it.
So I started an international campaign to save the house against great odds. I was lucky. The building exists today, known as the Brummel House of Pilsen, and is open to the public ( Husova 58 | Adolf Loos in Pilsen (adolfloosplzen.cz) ).
Who was Adolf Loos?
Adolf Loos was a seminal figure in the Modern architecture movement. His birth 150 years ago has been marked over the past few months with exhibits and TV documentaries. He had a close connection to the Czech Jewish community as many of his most famous buildings were commissioned by Jewish families in Austria and Czechoslovakia. Indeed, our sister Progressive Jewish congregation Ec Chaijm Praha held its Chanukah party last month in the Loos house built for a Jewish family in Prague known as Villa Winternitz.
My Roots and the Brummel house
My deep urge to look for family Holocaust survivors came quite early in my life – at age 8 when I first heard (and was shocked by) the Brummel family history and the impact of the Holocaust. It wasn’t until my university years that I was able to travel to Czechoslovakia and look. Further, my ability to search was restricted by very limited information. I had just one address for a Brummel family home from 1940, a house in Pilsen.
I ended up at that Pilsen house in September 1977. A Brummel cousin, Jana, age 77 and an Auschwitz survivor, lived there as a tenant. After overcoming her shock of being reunited with a member of the American branch of the family, Jana recounted the family’s history - both the good times and the awful times during World War II. One of the high points was the family’s single-minded focus on having Adolf Loos design the house we were sitting in. The Nazis had seized the house and deported most of the Brummel family to the camps. Few returned. And then in the Communist era the house again was taken away.
It was only during that short stay with Jana that I realized that the house, dirty and very rundown as property of the Communist State, was architecturally significant. Before leaving, Jana explained that the city authorities were determined to demolish the house to make way for a new bus station. If that happened, Jana declared she did not think she could go on living. I immediately replied – despite my being an American law student in the midst of the Cold War – that I’d save the house.
Saving for Posterity
And that is what I did. Within a year, I had mobilized UN-level heritage preservation groups to lobby the Czech Government. In May 1978, the Czech Government declared the house an historic landmark, saving it from the wrecker’s ball. The bus station was built next door.
After the fall of Communism, the house was returned to the very small surviving Czech branch of the Brummel family. They worked for 25 years to restore the house to its original condition. By the time Pilsen became a European City of Culture in 2015, the house was ready to be opened to the public. I attended the opening ceremonies and met again many who helped me save the house. In addition, Loos-devoted architects thanked me for my efforts starting 38 years ago.
Something of beauty and historical significance has been preserved for posterity. At the opening ceremony, I had a deep sense of fulfilment. Some things in life really do work out.
Steve is President Emeritus of the IJC