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Solvay House now open permanently to the public
The Hôtel Solvay, considered one of Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta’s greatest masterpieces, has been opened to the public. While previously the mansion at Avenue Louise 224 in Ixelles was open only during certain festivals or for guided group tours, it is now open to individual visitors on Thursdays and some Saturdays.
“I am pleased that the Solvay House will now be much more accessible to the public,” said minister-president Rudi Vervoort yesterday during the official opening. “From now on, both Brussels residents and tourists will be able to visit this Art Nouveau masterpiece and take a trip back into time. This opening allows Brussels to further enhance its rich offer of cultural heritage and tourist attractions.”
Horta built the townhouse at the end of the 19th century for the rich industrialist Armand Solvay and his wife, Fanny Hunter. Working with a near unlimited budget and in close contact with the couple, Horta incorporated all of his innovations in architecture – a utilitarian use of light, free-flowing spaces and the incorporation of steel, a relatively new material at the time, for both structure and aesthetics.
He combined all of this with the richly organic embellishments for which Art Nouveau is famous. The Solvay House really has it all – domes of stained-glass, stacked bay windows, glazed oak doors, wrought-iron parapets.
And to think that Brussels authorities nearly tore it down in the 1950s when the Solvay family finally decided to sell it. Horta and Art Nouveau had fallen out of fashion, and a buyer couldn’t be found. Experts advised against the region taking it on, finding a restoration expensive and unnecessary. The Hôtel Solvay was destined for the wrecking ball, the fate of so many other Horta properties in Brussels.
To the couple Louis Wittamer and Berthe De Camps, this was outrageous. So the couple bought the property, saving it from the wrecking ball. They were Art Nouveau fans but also fashion designers and used the home as a studio. They set to work preserving it, a job that has passed down to their children and grandchildren.
For 20 years they worked alone until the authorities finally realised what they had and named it as protected heritage in 1977. Official renovations by architectural teams could finally take place, and in 2000, the house – together with Horta’s remaining architecture in Brussels – was named Unesco World Heritage.
Today Alexandre Wittamer is the third-generation owner of the Solvay House. Vervoort awarded Wittamer with the Bronze Zinneke, a recognition of citizens’ contribution to the cultural heritage of Brussels.
“I am enormously happy that we are able to open this Brussels Art Nouveau gem to all the people of Brussels and to everyone who visits Brussels,” said heritage secretary Pascal Smet. “We owe this jewel to Victor Horta and Armand Solvay, of course, but also to the Wittamer family, who saved the house from demolition in the 1950s and have maintained it well all this time.”
Smet’s tagline for his tenure as Brussels state secretary of heritage and international relations is ‘Brussels for People’. “It was an absolute priority for me to open the Solvay House to the general public,” he said, “and I thank Alexandre Wittamer for daring to take this step with us – a big step in showing Brussels to the world as the capital of Art Nouveau.”
Photos courtesy Pascal Smet’s Cabinet