History of the Seat of Government

The seat of the Czech Government is a neo-baroque building on the left bank of the Vltava river, below Letná Plain. The building, still known as the Straka Academy, was built in 1896 after a design by the architect Václav Roštlapil to accommodate students from Czech aristocratic families. It was first used as the seat of government during the war-time occupation of Czechoslovakia, and in 1945 a definitive decision was taken to maintain this new purpose.

However, the history of the structure, as well as the fate of the Straka Foundation commissioned to manage it, stretches back much further. Its beginnings date to 1710, when Count Jan Petr Straka made an endowment in his will to be used in aid of students from among the Czech nobility. According to the will, an academy to serve this purpose was to be established five years after the death of the last male descendant of the Straka family; during this interim five-year period, female members of the Straka line were to be granted the right to use the property. Jan Petr Straka died on 28 September 1720, but the project which he envisaged in his will did not materialize until 1776, five years after the death of Adam Václav Jiří Straka. As the benefactor wished, his will was executed by a commission composed of officials of the provincial government, whose task was to draft the rules and ensure the approval of the Charter of the Straka Foundation. The fact that it took more than a hundred years for the Academy actually to come into being testifies to the complexity of the negotiations with the imperial authorities in Vienna, which had all administrative affairs in their competence.

Yet that is not to say that in the period prior to the construction of the neo-baroque building nothing of Jan Petr Straka’s will was executed. A Benevolent Fund was set up in 1780 to provide grants to between thirty and seventy students from Czech aristocratic families. Unfortunately, decisions on how much should be granted and to whom became increasingly controversial. In their famous Desiderata (demands) of 1790, addressed to Emperor Leopold II, the Czech Estates protested about the growing direct interference of the imperial government in their jurisdiction regarding the administration of the Benevolent Fund. Between 1801 and 1807, the number of beneficiaries was reduced from sixty nine to a mere twelve. Later on the numbers increased again, but the moot points remained unresolved. The defence of the Estates’ rights was undertaken by the likes of František Palacký, Karel Helminger and Antonín Gindely, the author of the new draft of the Charter of the Straka Foundation. The negotiations resulted in a proposal to establish an “institute for equestrianism, fencing and gymnastics”, which became the basis of the Charter approved by Emperor Franz Josef I on 25 September 1889.

The Straka Academy was built between 1891 and 1896 on the site of a one-time garden owned by the Jesuits. The structure itself was erected over an area of 4,000 square metres, and another 17,000 square metres were occupied by a landscaped garden designed by František Thomayer. The interior decoration of the Academy includes sculptures by Josef Mauder and Celda Klouček, and an altar painting of St Wenceslas by Emanuel Dítě. The ground floor housed reading rooms, offices, a grand hall used on festive occasions and for social functions, and collections of teaching aids. The first and second floors were reserved for the students. Apart from a further number of reading rooms, there were mainly bedrooms and a chapel here. The Academy was centrally heated and equipped with facilities such as a modern bath, summer and winter gymnasiums and an infirmary.

As indicated above, the basic entitlement for receiving a full grant was membership of a Czech aristocratic family. Furthermore, the students were required to produce proof of previous education, moral integrity and physical health. The Academy was also open to paying students, whose admission was governed by essentially the same rules, but unlike the grant recipients they did not have to be Czech-born. As it was taken for granted that only males would apply for admission, the authors of the Charter did not deem it necessary to stipulate this requirement in writing.

Shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, the Academy building was made available to the Red Cross as a reserve hospital. The conversion was quite simple: 470 beds were placed in the classrooms, the ground floor reading rooms were turned into offices and the grand hall into an operating theatre. The hospital staff were housed in the two wings. Only the installation of a gas supply required major structural adaptations. The resident students were moved to alternative premises in Wallenstein Palace, but teaching had to be considerably limited. In 1918, a court order forced the residents out of Wallenstein Palace, and as the Academy failed to reacquire its premises, it had no choice but to pay grants to its students again to cover their housing costs. The Academy was not abolished in legal terms, but it became unthinkable for it to continue in the same spirit in which it had been established. If nothing else, the abolition of aristocratic titles and all privileges that went with them made the resumption of operations impossible. There was practically no-one at that time ready to fight for its preservation, and public opinion in the First (post-WWI) Czechoslovak Republic was against its continued existence. Only Josef Mrkos – its last principal – still hoped that things would come right again.

A number of institutions competed for the premises of the Straka Academy in the meantime. When the hospital closed down, the building was occupied by the Ministry of Public Supplies and the Ministry of National Defence. For a time it housed the Economic Section of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and from 1934 the Statistical Office. But it was students, once again, who came to use most of it after the Central Union of Czechoslovak Students relocated here from unsuitable premises in Spálená Street in the city centre, together with an academic library and archives. Though the Straka Academy was a stopgap making up for a promised newly built Academic House, for some time at least it served a purpose partially related to the one for which it was originally designed. While the institutions which occupied the premises kept up with the rather low rent payments, approval of the lease and the possibility of any intervention by the lessor were only formalities. In reality, all decisions on the use of the building were made by the Provincial Administrative Commission (subsequently the Provincial Office) and the Ministry of Education. However, the costs of repairs and maintenance were borne by the Straka Benevolent Fund. A definite end to the existence of the Straka Academy – by then virtually non-existent anyway – was declared under a decree of the Provincial Office dated 25 May 1938.

During the war-time German occupation the Straka Academy became the seat of the Government of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, although it did not stay there long because in January 1942 it had to vacate the premises and hand them over to the Court of the German Reich. The major remodelling carried out between 1939 and 1941 came in handy after the war: on 15 May 1945, the building was reserved for the Czechoslovak (and since 1993 the Czech) Government.