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The Importance of Being Ernst: ERNST ZILLER



I love the First Cemetery of Athens...its trees and pathways and the way it commemorates in stone the cultural and political icons of the nation: the rich, the very rich, and sometimes, even the poor.

Heinrich Schliemann’s temple overlooks Georgios Averoff’s mausoleum, which is near Melina Mercouri’s stele, along with Andreas Papandreou’s large rectangular grave, the more modest one of his father George, and those of many a Greek prime minister. Even a dictator or two can be found in the Plaza (the more notorious ones are farther back).

Astronomers, mathematicians, beer barons, poets, musicians, actors, martyrs, and heroes of the Greek Revolution are all here. Among them, a great man was buried in the cemetery’s Protestant Section.

Of course I refer to Ernst Ziller, that architectural genius from Saxony who not only made Greece his home, but married a Greek, was a personal friend of Schliemann, King George I, and movers and shakers like Andreas Syngros, but who also designed and built their showplace mansions. The list of structures Ziller built ranges from 500 to 800, depending on who’s counting.

Ernst Ziller could turn his hand to just about anything. He designed churches, theaters, funeral monuments, museums, market places, mansions, hotels, and even a royal palace built for the Crown Prince Constantine from 1891 to 1897.

It would be fair to say almost half of the existing neoclassical buildings in Athens bear the imprint of his unique style. A style which, while grounded in Neoclassicism, blossomed and developed into something more incorporating Palladian, Byzantine, and Renaissance touches, making him what one writer has called “the poet of modernism in classical architecture.”

Ziller mixed and matched as he planned every one of his architectural gems down to the last detail, be it a decorative feature, a floor tile, a shutter, central heating, a metal beam or a metal reinforcement bar, even furniture. No detail was too small to attract his attention or to be enhanced by his vision.

And that is not all. He was an avid traveler inside and outside of Greece, and something of an archaeologist too, even at one point buying the land where the ancient Panathenaic Stadium lay unexcavated, hoping that he might excavate it at his leisure.

It was Ziller who steered Schliemann to Hissarlik and Troy. He was a civil servant for a time, put in charge of public works under the progressive government of Charilaos Trikoupis. In sum, Ernst Ziller was amazing. “Polymechanos” is the word that comes to mind.

And yet…he died in relative obscurity, suffered severe financial hardship in the later part of his life, and appears to have been socially abandoned by the bourgeoisie whose place in the modern history of Greece he had helped to define and shape. Shame!

Ziller was born into a family of architects, studied architecture in Dresden and was tempted to offer his talents to the city of Tbilisi in Georgia before he began work in the offices of Theofilos Hansen in Vienna, charged with working on the plans of the Athens Academy (still there on Academias Street). He gained Hansen’s admiration and trust, came to Greece in 1860, and was put in charge of the works.

Less than ten years later, Ziller had started his own business. By 1872 he had became a popular teacher of architecture at the School of Arts, a branch of the Polytechnic University, and in 1876 married Sophia Doudou, an accomplished and multi-lingual pianist whose family hailed from Kozani in northern Greece, but lived in Vienna. Together they had five children.

Ziller would eventually build his own mansion on Mavromichalis Street, not far from the National Library, whose construction he had supervised. Number 6 Mavromichalis was not as grand as his plan for Schliemann’s home would be, nor was it as large as that of Syngros, but it was substantial enough. It included a semi-basement, a ground floor consisting of four large rooms, two of which were his offices, a first floor with reception rooms, and a second one with five bedrooms, all on a lot of just over 1,000 square meters. Like many of the homes he built for wealthy merchants, Ziller’s home was dual-purpose: offices below and living quarters above.

Ziller also had a building in his back garden from which he made and sold products such as tiles and iron railings of his own design. To keep it separate from the mansion’s impressive entrance on Mavromichalis Street, he had a narrow entrance fronting a very long passageway leading from Academias Street into his backyard, so that his family would not be troubled by tradesmen or customers.

I am still shaking my head, wondering how many times I have walked by this entrance in the last few years and didn’t notice it! It is on the east side of Academias Street, almost at Ippocratous Street. Once seen, never forgotten...a little bit of Gothic weirdness in the center of Athens.

Apparently, around the turn of the century, Ziller overreached himself financially in a joint venture with German partners to build dams. This, along with the loss of his government position in 1893 when Trikoupis declared Greece bankrupt, and an even earlier ethical disagreement with Anastasios Theofilas, which had resulted in his resignation at the Polytechnic, led Ziller and his family into serious economic difficulties. Neither his later commissions, nor the sale of his daughter Iphigenia’s excellent drawings, or his wife’s piano lessons, would bring about financial recovery.

To pay off his debts, his home went up for auction in 1912 and was bought by Dionysios Louverdos, a wealthy banker who saw its potential as a backdrop for his icon collection. Ziller recouped to some extent and opened again for business not far from his old home. What a bitter pill that must have been.

He continued to enhance Athens and the rest of Greece in spite of his straitened circumstances and the fact that he was apparently subject to the increasingly anti-German sentiment that pervaded the country just prior to, and during the First World War. How difficult that must have been socially for this avid Philhellene. Even the fact that his wife was one of the first working women in Greece, teaching at the Athens Odeon, something admirable to us to this day, might have caused sneers and mistrust at a time when women of the Zillers’ class were expected to stay home.

When he died in 1923, Ziller was buried at the Athens First Cemetery, with what sort of head stone, I would dearly like to know. It certainly would have been nothing like the magnificent mausoleum of Schliemann, which he had designed in the late 1880s. But there must have been something! In the Protestant Cemetery, a yearly sum is expected for the maintenance of plots. If that sum is not paid, then the cemetery committee can take over the plot and offer it to someone else. This must be what happened to Ziller.

We contacted with Mr.Tangaroulias of the Greek Evangelical Church, one of the institutions responsible for the Protestant Cemetery. Our question was this: in the case of a Protestant grave being reassigned, were the bones disinterred as they would have been for the Orthodox departed? His answer was “no.” Although the grave is given to someone else, the bones remain. So Ernst Ziller must still be there.

Here is a man whose name no thoughtful traveler to Greece can avoid encountering, whether enjoying a coffee opposite the impressive town hall in Syros, visiting the old market in Eghion, a church in Vilia, a museum in Olympia or Milos, the Iliou Melathron (Schleimann’s mansion) in Athens, or simply wandering about in the city center itself. His wonderful work is everywhere.


WORDS: Linda Theodorou | Filia Xilas Pattakou

PHOTOS: National Gallery Alexandros Soutsos Museum | Isabella Galante

Linda Theodorou is an adopted Greek via Scotland and Canada. She studied English language and literature at the University of Toronto before moving to Greece in the 70s, and now spends her time between the Peloponnese and Athens. She is author of and co-author of "Cadogan Guide to Greece" and the "Guide to Athens and the Peloponnese" with Dana Facaros. Along with her friend Filia Xilas Pattakou, Theodorou is editor of The First Cemetery of Athens: Fables and Identity:

Filia Xilas Pattakou was born in Chicago to immigrant parents and studied political sciences in Greece where she worked in the public sector for 35 years. She is the author of "The Pursuit of Happiness, an Ikarian Story," a book about her family’s history. Along with her friend Linda Theodorou, Xilas Pattakou is editor of The First Cemetery of Athens: Fables and Identity:


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