Coit Tower

located atop Telegraph Hill, the 210-foot Coit Tower offers spectacular views of San Francisco and the Bay. it was built in 1933 at the bequest of Lillian Hitchcock Coit, who left a third of her sizable estate the city to construct some sort of “beautifying” monument. the resulting tower, made of reinforced concrete, is a memorial to San Francisco firefighters.

until 1866, volunteers fought the fires that frequently broke out in the wooden structures of San Francisco. this meant hauling Engines up and down the steep hills of San Francisco in order to reach the site of the blazes. at the age of 15, Lillie Coit saw Engine No. 5 in action and, noticing it was short-handed, chucked her schoolbooks in order to lend a hand, enlisting bystanders to help push the Engine up Telegraph Hill. from that day forward, Lillie was an honorary mascot of the Engine company, embracing the hard-drinking, gambling, smoking, and pants-waring habits of her heroes.

in addition to being a memorial to firefighters, murals painted in the lobby of the tower depict the diverse activities of working people. carried out by the Public Works of Art Project, critics condemned the the murals and artists as communist for decades. these criticisms ultimately backfired as they engendered pride among San Franciscans and helped turn the Tower into one of the iconic images of the city.

busts galore

though the museum’s pride in occupying the same building as a McDonalds seems somewhat overdone, the Museum of Communism in Prague does a remarkable job of illustrating the hardships endured by the Czech people under communism, from the end of World War II until the success of the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

an array of busts took up a portion of the middle of the museum; ones completed in bronze, studies in plaster and clay, half-completed relics of Stalin and Lenin. a display explains the development, construction, and demolition of the world’s largest Stalin monument, which was located in Letná Park across the Vltava from the Jewish Quarter. construction began in the early days of the new communist regime, when adoration for Stalin remained high. the process took five and a half years, however, and the accelerating rate of anti-Stalin sentiment during the period mean that even upon its unveiling, the statue quickly became an embarrassment for the Czechoslovak Communist Party. all the same, the state unveiled the monument in 1955 under even greater stigma than produced by mere anti-Stalinism — unable to endure the pressure exerted by the party, the secret police, and hate mail from Czech citizens, sculptor Otakar Švec killed himself three weeks before the unveiling. in 1962, the monument was demolished. a new sculpture, the Metronome, now stands on top of the plinth.

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Attention! Comrades of Olomouc a message from the Party

more than anywhere else I visited, the remnants of the Communist regime appeared most frequently around Olomouc. while the town certainly has its share of historic sites at its core it feels like your average working, university town, albeit one that has undergone changes in the last two decades. while I’m sure one could say the same about other places, like Prague and Brno, Olomouc seems like a work in progress, as an evolving, thriving city. in Český Krumlov there was a concerted effort to restore the medieval character of the town to appeal to tourists, and Prague readily embraced capitalist/consumerist culture and adapted itself to suit the new system and obfuscate elements of communism that didn’t fit into a limited, easily-quantifiable box of history.

in Olomouc, however, you see things like these speakers, still attached to a light post in Dolni nam (one of two large town squares), twenty-one years after the Velvet Revolution. the speakers broadcast messages from the Party to residents of Olomouc — the importance of productivity, working for the betterment of the state and society, admonitions not to worry about reports of unrest in Prague, what are you talking about “velvet revolution”? students don’t protest – that’s just silly. whether a reminder of the past or simply a matter of expending resources on more important things, Olomouc still has some of these unique remnants that more seamlessly blended that part of the past into the present for me, reminded me that the present builds upon the past and no matter how ardently we might deny what we have or have not done, those events remain part of our nature and sense of self.

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Melantrich Building

it never fails that I set out to write a quick post about some place of seemingly limited historical significance, only to learn it’s far more important than I understood at the time of my visit.

situated on the southwest side of Wenceslas Square, the Melantrich Building doesn’t stand out from other facades but is steeped in history. it was reconstructed in the early 1920s and renamed for the Czech-language publishing firm that occupied the building. until well into the twentieth century, German was the official language of the Czech lands and there is a long history of fighting or Czech language rights to support Czech autonomy.

the publishing firm was established in 1897 and lasted until 1999, surviving the many political ups and downs of the twentieth century. initially, it was associated with the Czech National Social Party (which formed after breaking with the Social Democratic Party) and began a “printing press for national socialist workers”. a printer from the firm (Jaroslav Šalda)began a successful daily in 1907, “The Czech Word”, and with it’s success the firm purchased the Hvězda building (or “The Star”) on Wenceslas Square and began reconstruction to suit its purposes. during this period of success, the firm adopted the name of Melantrich (after Jiří Melantrich from Aventino, a 16th century printer) and gave the building that name after completion of reconstruction in 1922.

in 1919, the publishing firm obtained an official permit to print newspapers and began to expand throughout the country and, in the 1930s, even got into film production. during the years prior to Nazi occupation, circulation on some of the newspapers and journals reached hundreds of thousands and, in a few cases, over a million.

during the Nazi occupation, the press was taken over by the Germans and Šalda was thrown into prison. the communists took over publication in 1948 but Šalda no longer wanted to participate in politics and was removed from his position by the communist party leaders.  the firm was split into three parts and, while technically owned by the state, the party ran publication. this odd arrangement resulted in protracted legal battles during the 1990s and, eventually the firm was sold off and, when the new owner bankrupted in 1998, what remained of the firm couldn’t compete.

and now the part I set out to tell you: in 1989, the balcony of the building was used as a platform for those addressing protesters gathered in Wenceslas Square during the Revolution. the success of the protests, moreover, was confirmed when Vaclav Havel (future president of the new democratic Czechoslovak Republic) announced the end of the communist state from the balcony.

the building is now luxury apartments and a Marks & Spencer.