The sad story of the Sofiensaal

Living near Landstraße station in the third district of Vienna, it’s a fairly common sight to see little groups of tourists clutching maps, gamely trying to navigate their way through the area’s quiet, densely laid out streets. It’s a safe bet that they’re on their way to that gaudy and fanciful construction, the Hundertwasserhaus. But if they’re lucky along the way, they’ll chance upon the remains of a building that has its own, sad story to tell – a story that resonates powerfully with the cultural identity of Vienna.

In 1826 Franz Morawetz commissioned a new building from the architects August Sicard and Eduard van der Nüll (who were later to design the Vienna Opera House together – van der Nüll being so distressed by criticism of its sunken appearance that he committed suicide). Located at Marxergasse 17, it was originally a steam bath and known as the Sofienbad – named after Princess Sophie of Bavaria, the mother of Emperor Franz Josef I. The Viennese, however, did not take to steam bathing as those in Budapest had done, and between 1845 and 1849 the Sofienbad was converted into a concert and dance hall and renamed the Sofiensaal. Johann Strauss I performed there regularly and conducted at the opening ball in 1849. Later, many of the Strauss family’s waltzes were first performed there. In 1886, a second smaller hall was added, the Blauer Salon.

The building’s origins as a steam bath – principally its large, vaulted ceiling and the pool beneath the floor – gave the hall excellent acoustic properties. For this reason, Decca Records adopted the building as its principal European recording venue from 1956 to the mid-1980s. The senior producer of classical recordings for the company for much of this time was John Culshaw, who revolutionised the recording of opera. Culshaw’s innovation was to make the singers move about in the studio as they would onstage, in contrast to simply putting microphones in front of the performers as was common practice at the time. Notable recordings made at the Sofiensaal during this period included the first complete studio recording of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, conducted by Georg Solti, which was received with great acclaim.

In later years the Sofiensaal fell into disuse as a recording studio and was used for discos and parties. The last recording made there, in 2001, was of the Russian pianist Arcadi Volodos playing solo piano works by Schubert.

In early 2001, the building’s owners announced plans to redevelop the Sofiensaal as a conference centre. However, it was destroyed by fire in August the same year, apparently due to careless routine maintenance work. The fire burned for more than eight hours and completely destroyed the main ballroom, although the facade and walls of the building survived. Some of the decorative stucco work on the walls survived the fire, as did the Blauer Salon. There were no reported deaths or injuries.

Unprotected from the elements since the fire, the Sofiensaal has been in a sad state of gradual decay. Earlier this year, after much legal wrangling, plans were finally announced to redevelop the site and turn it into apartments [December 2008 update: the latest plans are for a hotel]. It’s a shame that in a city so full of cultural activity, it’s apparently out of the question that this once glorious building could return to its former use. What’s even more poignant is that the collective experiences of music and dance are to be ceded to the demands of contemporary urban living. Let’s hope that the shades of Strauss, Schubert and Wagner will one day float over the new Sofiensaal, bestowing upon its fortunate occupants the melodic echoes of its past.