Once upon a time... Joseph Maria Olbrich and the Princess Elizabeth

Once upon a time, more specifically in 1902, the Grand Duke of Hesse Ernest Louis Charles Albert William, was the older brother of Alexandra of Hesse, better known as Alexandra Feodorovna, the last emperor of the Russian Empire and, as it seemed, an unusual beautiful woman. Better known as Erni, the Grand Duke was a very powerful man with an intense life and a very active military career. He earned several titles through his two marriages: the first with the english crown and the second with the russian crown.
Although he was one of the european sovereign with more titles, the Grand Duke lived a reserved and family dedicated life; far from the many big happenings that, at the time, were crossing almost all the european countries. But notwithstanding wanting to live a calm life, almost bourgeois like, Ernie had an unfortunate existence because of the numerous deaths that happened around him. This unlucky series began when he was two years old, in 1873, and attended to his older brother Friedrich violent dead. Friedrich at the time was 5 years old and fell from a window suffering a cerebral lesion that was impossible to heal because he was hemophiliac (a genetic disease very often present among the european monarchies). Since that moment death visited Ernie with a terrible frequency and he got the fear to die in solitude. The life of this man was so tragic that it is common know as “the Hesse fate”.
Maybe it was because this deep sadness that followed him and that he would never be able to free himself during his own life that Ernie always kept a prudent political behavior. In this intellectual mediocrity the only context of which he really liked and in which he became active was the art field. He, himself even wrote poems, plays and musical compositions and, in 1901, he founded the Darmstadt Artists' Colony when he invited several celebrities from different countries in Europe to teach or even to participate in a cultural project that still exists today. Despite not having the same importance that already once had, Darmstadt still has its fame of university and cultural city thanks to this heritage. Two years after been founded, the Colony inaugurated his first exhibition with the title “Ein Dokument deutscher Kunst” (a document of german art). This exposition was a financial disaster; a huge quantity of money was wasted to build buildings and to sponsor the artists without a minimum return. So, still today, Darmstadt has a series of really fantastic examples of architecture designed by figures as Peter Behrens or Joseph Maria Olbrich. Olbrich design also several houses for the 1901 exposition in Darmstadt. At the time the building was used as art galleries to expose the works of the plastic artists as painters or sculptors.

The austrian architect Joseph Maria Olbrich (1867 - 1908) was precisely one of the architect invited by the Grand Duke Ernie. He was one of the most important artist of the Vienna Secession with Gustav Klimt, Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser, and designed, between 1897 and 1898, one of the most enigmatic buildings of the beginning of the XXth century: the Secession building in Vienna, Austria. This artistic movement, that emerged at the end of XIX century and continued until the first decades of the XXth century, represented one among the several european forms of modernity. Characterized by the artistic autonomy with a need of rupture with the past, the Secession was, in a first period, an heritage of the Art Nouveau and, in a second period, an approximation to the languages and forms of the Modernism.

The Grand Duke Ernest liked so much the Olbrich’s works that, in his second marriage (with the princess Leonor de Solms-Hohensolms-Lich) commissioned him the design for a building that become known as the “wedding  tower” in Darmstadt. A brick tower with a roof shaped as five fingers of a hand extended across the sky.
But the tower was the second architectural design that Ernie requested to Olbrich. The first was in 1902, when the Grand Duke was still married with the Princess Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (1876 – 1936) with which he had a daughter Elizabeth, in 1895, and a stillborn son in 1901. 
Ernie had a true devotion for his daughter Elizabeth, even before she began to talk the Grand Duke was convinced that he was the only person able to understand what she said. A legend says that when she was a 6 month child her father asked to her which colors she should prefer to paint the room. When he showed her a purple fabric she screamed and that was interpreted by her father as a signal to choose the color and it was soon ordered that the child room should BE painted in purples shades.
In 1901 the little Elizabeth’s parents divorced and her mother moved to Coburg, Bavaria with her new husband, the Grand Duke Cyril Vladimirovich of Russia with which she already had a relationship before the divorce. The Grand Duchess Victoria did not have patience for the child, so she usually was entrusted to the nurses. This emotional distance made the child wanting no more to travel to Coburg. In his memories the father remembers that IT was very difficult to convince his daughter to meet her mother; each time she was departing he found her crying hidden behind the couch.
In December 1901 the Hesse court finally granted the divorced to the couple allowing that, four years later, Erine marriaged again, this time with the Princess Eleonore of Solms-Hohensolms-Lich that gave him two children. Even the birth of two children did not save the Grad Duke from the charges of his anterior wife about to be an absent husband because of the several homosexual affairs that already had ruining the relationship.
On March 11th, 1902 Elizabeth completed seven years of life and her father, the Grand Duke, asked Olbrich to design a garden house for her. The house should be exclusively for the girl and the chosen place was the garden of the castle of Wolfsgarten in Langen, a small town between Frankfurt and Darmstadt. At that time the architect was 36 years old and had no children but showed a great sensibility designing a child scale little house with the same effort that he would have in any other, even bigger, commission.
The house was designed and built in a perfect Art Nouveau style. With a parlor, a living room and two bedrooms it had everything that could be necessary in a real home: a kitchen with wood-burning stove, scaled furniture, curtain, tableware and a little fenced garden around with 75 brass doves as ornament as symbol of peace and Holy Spirit. The interior ceiling was 1.90 meters high and in the pediment, under a golden crow, was painted, also with gold, the letter E of Elizabeth. Also on the roof there was a crow as a royalty symbol and in the pediment there was a phrase: “Once upon a time … (...) and this little house is mine, built just for me in 1902
Olbrich also designed the furniture, the decoration and the wallpaper. Even in the wallpaper it is possible to find the letter E inserted in a very Art nouveau geometric pattern. In 1996 the house was totally refurbished and it is today the only Olbrich’s building that is in rigorously in the same conditions as the conditions it had when built. The access was banned to adults and Elisabeth spent her days surrounded by pets with the educators and the nurses that patiently waited outside until the little princess ended her play.

Although she received a princely gift that still exists today, the little Elisabeth could not escape to the Hesse’s curse. In the November 6 of 1903, 8 years old and perfectly conscious about what was happening to her, she died with typhoid. The body was carried in a silver coffin and her father required a completed white funeral, from flowers to horses, all had to be white.
The year following the death of the little Elisabeth, her governess, the baroness Georgina Freiin von Rotsmann wrote a book for children in memory of the princess. She wrote the story and asked Olbrich to draw the figures. The book’s title was “Once upon a time...” and looking for its images it is clearly possible to recognize the little house that Olbrich designed for the princess.
Four years later Olbrich died of leukemia. The princess Victoria, Elisabeth’s mother, died in 1936 with a heart stroke caused by the news that her husband, the Grand Duke Cyril Vladimirovich of Russia, spent life traveling to Paris where he had several mistresses.
The princess Leonor, the Grand Duke Ernest second wife, died the following year in a plain crash. She was travelling to join to her younger son Louis of Hesse’s marriage. In the same accident also died her older son, Jorge, her daughter-in-law, the Princess Cecilie of Greece and Denmark, at the time 8 months pregnant, and her two grandchildren Louis and Alexander. The plane in which they were traveling collided with a factory chimney near Ostend in Belgium and who rushed immediately after the accident said that between the wreckage there was a fetus indicating that the child was born even before the accident.

In 1918, during the WWI, was proposed to the Grand Duke Ernest to abdicate the throne but he refused. Later, during the same year, the cities of Darmstadt and Hesse were included in the Weimar Republic and the title of Grand Duke was abolished. So Erni has survived all the protagonists of this story and died alone in 1937 at the age of 69 years.

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