Národní třída (National Avenue) and Na Příkopě Street – two of the most famous streets of the capital. Both are daily crowded with tourists who shop at expensive stores or taste the famous sausage and “trdelník”. Praguers will not find much here, although both streets used to be a popular place for promenade. However, both had very different character. They reflected the language split of Prague that had been going on for centuries, as well as the rising patriotic ambitions of the Czech part of the society.
Borderline between towns
To their current appearance led a long journey. For centuries, there used to be moats here on the borderline between The Old and The New Town of Prague, which served more as a sewer and a rubbish dump than for the purposes of defense. Its surroundings were rather a periphery than a sought-after spot to go for strolls. The situation changed in the second half of the 18th century when the moats were covered and replaced by the first city tree avenues, with chestnuts in Na Příkopě Street and linden trees in Národní třída. From that moment, once a periphery became a popular location for promenades. It didn’t take too long and the character of both streets started to change. In places frequented by many people, trade and services always flourish and real estate prices rise. Low-rise historical buildings were replaced by luxurious rental housing, commercial palaces, renowned cafés and restaurants. In the last third of the 19th century, also the two tree avenues had to yield to the rapid development and give their way to the rail for the horse-drawn tram. A tranquil promenade became a busy avenue pulsing with life until late-night hour. With the increasing number of restaurants and their visitor pattern, both previously very similar streets started their distinct differentiation. One of them became the Czech promenade and the other German.
As the name suggests, Národní třída was the Czech promenade. It only got its current name in 1919, which means after the establishment of the independent Czechoslovak Republic, when the fight for emancipation of the Czech nation ended in victory. Before that it used to be called Ferdinand Avenue since 1870 in tribute to Ferdinand V, who was the last monarch to be crowned Czech King and after his abdication in 1848 spent the rest of his life in seclusion at the Prague Castle. The people of Prague liked him because he used to hand out candies to kids and alms to the poor when he went for strolls in today’s Národní třída. The first building to give Ferdinand Avenue its purely national Czech character was the National Theater built from 1868 to 1883. Many Czech restaurants followed with the leading Grand Café Slavia, the center of the Czech national sentiment and panslavism, and National Café, a popular meeting point for the cultural Czech community during the times of the First Czechoslovak Republic between 1918 and 1938. We must not forget a vanished Café Union where a significant part of Prague intellectuals and artists used to meet way back since 1820. The National Theater and cafés complemented the representative buildings of financial institutions of Czech focus. The most important of them being the palace of the Czech Savings Bank from 1863, today the seat of Czech Academy of Sciences. Another one was the insurance company Praha, at that time representing a breakthrough into the monopoly of insurance companies based in Vienna and Budapest. Let us also mention the Czech Kingdom Mortgage Bank, the first Czech public bank that had its first seat at the corner of Národní třída and Perlová Street.
Na Příkopě Street, called Kolowrat Street between 1839 and 1870, shaped itself into the German promenade in the last third of the 19th century. It was mainly thanks to the so-called German House, a social and cultural center for the Germans in Prague since 1873. It was located on the premises of the baroque Příchovský Palace and gradually expanded into the two adjacent buildings and a large garden in the courtyard. Today we know the whole complex as Slovanský dům (The Slavic House), a name it got after the expropriation and expulsion of the Germans from Prague in 1945. It is certainly not a coincidence that within view from the German House the Representative House of the Capital City of Prague was built between 1905 and 1912. Currently, we know it as the Municipal House or Obecní dům and it was the location of the Czechoslovak declaration of independence in 1918. The adjacent square (until then called Joseph Square) was subsequently named Republic Square. Just like the National Avenue, Na Příkopě Street also had its renowned cafés, mostly frequented by the Germans living in Prague. In particular, we are talking about the defunct art nouveau style Café Corso or Café Central, where Jewish traders used to meet, and Café Francis, a popular meeting point for bankers and stock brokers. Na Příkopě Street also got its German spirit from the nearby publisher and printing house of the Prager Tagblatt newspaper in Panská Street. This most influential German language newspaper in Bohemia was published until 1939 and since 1991 Prager Zeitung newspaper continues the tradition. Kind of a symbolic contrast to the National Theater became the New German Theater, finished in 1888 on the main city avenue in close proximity to the National Museum. The German actors of the theater were mainly antifascist and before the outbreak of World War II, the building was bought by the Czechoslovak state. Today, it is the location of the Prague State Opera.
The Czech and German promenades lost their significance after 1945. The Prague German community became a thing of the past and its memory was thoroughly swept away. Národní třída won but gained a different symbolism in the context of the events of November 1989. It is a paradox that between 1941 and 1945 the German occupiers called the street Viktoria as a token of faith in the final victory of the Third Reich in World War II.
(published 7. 11. 2016 on Blesk.cz)