The government building

Picture of the government building, Stubenring 1 in the year 1914
Photo: Sperlings Postkartenverlag (1914) / Mag.a Stefanie Grüssl

The government building at Stubenring has a long, eventful history of more than a hundred years. In this time, a wide variety of institutions were based in the famous building. Today, it serves as the seat of four ministries.

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The government building at Stubenring is more than a hundred years old and has had an eventful history, which is inseparably linked to the history of the entire country. When it was built, it was the a state-of-the-art office building, today it is famous for its rich tradition. The walls of what used to be the Imperial and Royal Ministry of War reflect the 20th century's momentous changes.

The beginnings

In 1857, Emperor Franz Joseph expressed his desire to have Vienna's city walls torn down. The Danube Monarchy's most magnificent boulevard was to be erected on the site of the ancient fortifications and walls. It took several decades to complete the large-scale Neoclassical project. The development in the Stubenviertel quarter started in 1890. The name "Stubenviertel" is derived from the bathing and drinking parlours (Stube = parlour) that could be found in this district back in the 12th century.

Room for the planned construction of the Ministry of War building was made by parcelling the plots, demolishing the Franz-Joseph barracks, regulating the Wien River and incorporating the glacis. This last monumental structure on Ringstraße boulevard was to cover 13,815 square metres. Ultimately responsible for its construction was the heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Lieutenant Field Marshal Josef Edler von Ceipek was appointed construction manager.

The competition

An architecture competition held in 1907 gave the starting signal for construction. Representation and functionality were the key points specified in the invitation to tender. A further criterion demanded the architectural integration of the Radetzky monument which, at the time, was still located in front of the old Reich War Ministry building in the Innere Stadt borough, Hof 2. Among the 66 plans put forward were also proposals by Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos. However, by standards prevailing at that time, their blueprints seemed too sober and plain and failed to suit the taste of the awarding authority. Finally, the historicist project called "Maria Theresia" by Ludwig Baumann emerged as the winner. It is very likely that Baumann's design had a certain competitive advantage due to its name alone: The successor to the throne was known to be a great admirer of Maria Theresa's building style and saw little value in modern trends such as the Secessionist movement.

The power wielders wanted the new Ministry of War to be imposing and pompous. Neo-Baroque playfulness was chosen to convey the Empire's glamour and glory – a symbol of the later Habsburg monarchy's tendency towards nostalgia and idealisation of the past.

The most advanced office building of its time

A logistic tour de force was necessary to complete the enormous building. The construction costs amounted to 12.8 million Austrian crowns; 238 companies had work. Besides bricks from the surrounding brickworks and regional building blocks, so-called karst marbles from former crownlands in Istria and Italy were used. Above the main entrance a huge 40-tonne bronze eagle with a wingspan of 15 metres was installed, symbolising the monarchy's military forces. Neither this nor the dome-shaped roof structures were contained in the original plan.

The heart of the edifice was the two-storey Council Chamber which sparkled with extensive amounts of stucco, a mock fireplace and lots of busts – all of which was lost as a result of the Second World War. The fact that it is now known as the Marble Hall is misleading in that it contains no real marble but was created with stucco marble (pigmented plaster). Many of the buildings on Ringstraße feature spatial elements produced with this complex method.

After four years of construction, a pompous inauguration ceremony in the presence of the Emperor was held to mark the opening of the building in 1913. Equipped with central heating, several paternoster lifts, a central clock system, more than 2,500 windows and lots of infrastructure facilities, it was certainly the most advanced office building of its time. There was room for 2,000 civil servants.

Coal, ash, beer and wine

Although it has been 100 years since the building was finished, the nine inner courtyards still have the same numbers. Even the room numbers have largely remained unchanged. Naturally, the rooms have served many different uses over the years. In the cellar there used to be huge storage rooms for coal and ashes, as well as for beer and wine. But organisational units such as caretakers or locksmiths also had to do their jobs in the dreary basement. Despite persistent rumours, it is now considered as certain that there are no secret passages to other buildings in the inner city.

The lower ground floor accommodated the same facilities as it did until very recently: a post office, a tobacconist and a hairdresser (today a telephone switchboard). This was also where the tack room, the case room and the bookbinders, the machine shop and a flat for servants were located. Left of the main entry, people used to make clothing. At Hof 6 (courtyard no. 6) there was a roofed riding school and one could access the stables in Hof 8. On the upper ground floor there was a printing shop, a kitchen for officers including a dining room, a chemist's, a telephone switchboard and rooms for translators.

In order to radio naval warships, there was a telegraph hall on the fifth floor facing Ringstraße and a wireless telegraphy system on the other side of the building. In 1924 this was where the country's first radio transmitter went into service.

Dawn of a new age

The defeat of the Central Powers in the First World War marked the end of an era. Once it was certain that the collapse of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire was irreversible, the fate of the War Ministry was sealed: In November 1918, German-Austria's transitional National Assembly decided upon its dissolution. This was followed by stormy years.