History of the Parliament Building
The history of the impressive building of the Hellenic Parliament is intimately linked to the history of the Modern Greek state. Initially, the building served as the palace of Kings Otto and George I. It became the Parliament and Senate building a hundred years after it was constructed, and still houses the Hellenic Parliament today. Through all those years, the building has undergone a series of changes and has been modernized.
From 1836 to 1862
After the selection of Otto, Prince of Bavaria, as King of Greece, and the relocation of the Greek capital to Athens, it was decided to erect the palace on Boubounistra Hill. It proved an inspired choice. The chosen location was in the center of the new capital, easily defendable and cool. The proposal for the site was made by the director of the Munich Academy of Arts and official architect of the Bavarian court, Friedrich von Gaertner (1791-1847).
Other ideas and proposals were set aside; among those, Leo von Klenze’s for Kerameikos, Ludwig Lange’s for the Lycabettus, Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s for the Acropolis and Stamatis Kleanthis’ and Eduard Schaubert’s for the junction of Peiraios Street and Stadiou Street, which later became Omonoia Square.
On February 6th 1836, the founding stone was laid at the highest eastern point of the city. By the next month, more than 520 people were working at the site. Among them were members of the army and artisans, including German architects, and German, Greek and Italian builders. The ancient quarry of Pentele was the source for marble and was put back into operation for this construction.
Gaertner designed an austere, functional and compact building which respects the heritage of ancient Athens, in keeping with the ideas of urban classicism. It was accessible from all sides. Its four exterior wings had three floors each, while the middle wing had two floors and two courtyards and staircases that facilitated contact among the floors.
The then king and queen of Greece, Otto and Amalia, took up residence on July 25th 1843. Initially, the basement of the building housed the storerooms. The Secretariat and the Palace Treasury were on the ground floor, together with the private Catholic chapel of the King, the strong room and the kitchen. On the first floor were the Throne Room, the Trophy Room, the Room of the Aides de Camp and successively, the Dance Hall, the Game Room, the Dining Room and the royal chambers which communicated with each other and were the most luxurious rooms of the building. Finally, on the second floor were the private chambers of the heirs to the throne, of the majordomo and the rooms of the Palace staff.
Gaertner not only laid out the general plans but also designed and decorated many parts of the building. 247 of these designs are still in existence and are housed at the Architectural Museum of the Munich Polytechnic.
Very little of this rich decoration survives to this day and includes the magnificent marble staircase and the old trophy and aide-de-camp rooms with their frescoes. These rooms together constitute the Eleftherios Venizelos Hall. It houses a large frieze (1.22 m. height and 78 m. length), depicting scenes from the Greek Revolution, intermixed with portraits of its principal heroes. These were drawn by the sculptor Ludwig Michael von Schwanthaler in cooperation with the painters Phillip and Georgios Margarites.
Queen Amalia lavished particular care on the formation of the Royal Gardens (now Ethnikos Kepos), which were right next to the Palace. The French garden artist François Louis Bareaud was commissioned to plant and design the Gardens in the late 1840s.
From 1862 to 1922
Following the expulsion of Otto in 1862, the Palace housed the new king, George Ι. He arrived in Athens on October 17, 1863. After his marriage to Olga of Russia in 1867, several additions and modifications were made, the most important of which was the alteration of the east wing staircase and the construction of an Orthodox chapel on the second floor, consecrated to Saint George. The palace was now occupied by a large family, and the need to provide hospitality to many foreign royals necessitated several changes. The foremost reason though for changes to the initial design was two damaging fires, one in 1884, which ravaged the second floor of the northern wing and one in 1909, which fully destroyed the central wing and partly the adjoining parts of the eastern and western wings and forced the royal family to move to the summer palace in Tatoi.
The king moved back to the palace in 1912, but few repairs had taken place by then. Nor could further changes or restorations take place in the years around World War I, political events taking center stage. At that time, little could be done, with Greece been involved in one war after another, and, consequently, funds being in scarcity. The Balkan Wars, the World War I and the Greek-Turkish War of 1919-1922 were more pressing matters than the renovation of the building.
Furthermore, after the assassination of King George I in 1913, the Crown Prince Constantine I as the new king went on using his own residence, the Mansion on Herodou Atticou Street, which today is the official residence of the President of the Republic. Queen mother Olga and several other members of the royal family stayed intermittently in the Old Palace until 1922.
1922 marks a watershed for the building. That year it was permanently abandoned by the royal family, while Greece was undergoing a regime change, from monarchy to republic. The building proved versatile enough to accommodate this emblematic change in Greek politics. Immediately after 1922, public bodies, private charities and international organizations responsible for administering the aftermath of the Asia Minor Disaster, especially the mass influx of millions of refugees into Greece, were all housed in the building, alongside several newly formed governmental departments. So, among the list of occupants during this period were several departments of the Ministry for Agriculture and the Defence and Health Ministries, but also the International Bureau for Immigrants, the Urban Police Hq, the Christian Youth Union, the Greek Red Cross and the International Union of Women. A medical care center for infants, student housing, the Benaki Laboratories and the Near East Relief hospital and orphanage were also housed inside the building. The chambers of George I and the chapel on the ground floor were used for storing the former king’s property.
The Museum of Memorabilia of George I was founded in 1927, as part of the National Historical Museum which operated inside the building until 1930 and from 1936 to 1941.
Until 1925, the reshaping of the interior of the building was haphazard and unplanned, the main aim being to divide comparatively larger spaces into smaller ones. The only new construction was the addition in the Palace courtyard of a small building in 1925, which has been known as “the Little Palace” since.
The decision in 1928 to erect the Monument to the Unknown Soldier, designed by the architect Emmanuel Lazarides, changed the relation of the building to its surrounding area dramatically.
From Old Palace to Building of the Hellenic Parliament
In November 1929, after a lengthy debate in Parliament, the government of Eleftherios Venizelos decided to relocate the two chambers of Parliament, the Parliament proper and the Senate to the old Palace Building. The turning of the Old Palace to a Parliament and Senate Building was done by the architect Andreas Kriezis, and constitutes the most radical transformation after its initial construction. The plans involved major structural changes on the peripheral wings, the demolition of the central wing and the construction of a new wing which would house the Debating Chambers of both Parliament and the Senate.
The biggest change in the building’s exterior was a new northern entrance that, nevertheless, remained true to the shape and vision of the initial structure. A portico with six Doric pillars was built, constant to the existing two porticos decorating the western and eastern facades.
The changes to the building’s interior were more substantial, in order for it to be able to fulfill its new, radically different purpose. The offices for the Prime Minister and the Speaker of Parliament were laid out on the ground floor, many new offices to accommodate various parliamentary departments were created on the first floor, while the Library of the Parliament and the Council of State were housed on the second floor with the latter remaining on the premises from 1934 until 1992.
The first parliamentary session in the brand new Debating Chamber took place on 1 July 1935. The Hellenic Parliament has been housed in the building ever since.
The Hellenic Parliament today
Since 1975 the modernisation of the building continues apace. The aim is the best possible function of its departments, with the use of new technological tools and modern and upgraded equipment.
The most important infrastructural change during recent years was the construction of a five storey parking under the perimeter of the building, which greatly reduced traffic in the environs. Following this, several changes in surrounding areas were performed, including inbound and outbound traffic rerouting, marble coating and new garden landscaping, enhancing the building’s monumental qualities.
Among the most important additions to the building’s exterior was the addition of the statues of Charilaos Trikoupes and Eleftherios Venizelos to the western courtyard, both of them works of Yiannes Pappas, and visible from a great distance. The Mother, by Chrestos Kapralos, was placed in the eastern courtyard in 2003.
Monument of the Battle of the Pindhos (1940-1941), by Chrestos Kapralos, a 40-metre long bas relief, was placed in the lobby of the Plenum Hall in 2002. It narrates as a seven-fold structure, the Battle of the Pindhos, passing from Peace to War, Occupation, Resistance, and ending in Peace and Reconciliation. It makes for an intriguing contrast with the frieze in the Eleftherios Venizelos Hall. Restoration and conservation work in this Hall as well as in the Plenum Hall, Senate Room, and MPs Lounge was completed fairly recently.
In April 2009, an exhibition presenting the historical milestones of the building was inaugurated, accompanied by a collective academic edition entitled The Hellenic Parliament Building. Scientific research and archival material reveal a monumental building, that has never failed to meet the needs of the age, nor has it stopped evolving, and adapting itself to being an excellent Parliament.