Brief history of Sofia Palace
The palace was built shortly after Bulgaria’s proclamation of independence from the Ottoman Empire (1878) and the selection of the city of Sofia to be the country’s capital. The palace was built in two stages. It was started by Prince Alexander I Battenberg, Bulgaria’s first monarch (1879-1886), who enlisted the services of Viktor Rumpelmeyer, an architect from Vienna, to design the remodeling of what was a Turkish administrative building and refashion it into an official palace.
Rumpelmeyer (1830-1885) used only the deep stone foundations of the existing building and a part of its façade giving it a completely new look. This was achieved by incorporating into the building various different architectural elements in tune with the very popular at that time combination of neo-styles. At that time the onlooker, who approached the façade of the palace, was attracted by the tall gable over the central entrance, decorated with a bas-relief, representing the national emblem of the Principality of Bulgaria, the Prince’s personal coat of arms, and the motto: ‘Let God be with us’. The national flag fluttered on a tall pole above.
The North-West wing of the palace was also added at that particular stage of construction (1880-1882). On the second floor of it there were the throne hall, ballrooms, offices, a dining room and a winter conservatory. Downstairs were the chambers of the officer on duty and various other palace officials. Located in the garrets were a host of rooms with different purposes. Judging by descriptions by contemporaries, the building looked as charming as the French palaces from the age of the Enlightenment.
In the central section, special attention was paid to the design of the portico opposite the main entrance which was supported by exquisite metal pillars, the lobby and the central staircase leading to the Flag Hall. The Prince’s office, study, and quarters as well as the office of the future princess were located just next to the hall.
The Czech-born architect and engineer Adolph Collar; Vriedrich Grunanger, an architect from Vienna; and architects Lars (most likely from Germany) and Meyerberg from Germany also took part in the project. Engineer Georgy Belov from the Central Administration Office with the Ministry of Public Buildings was known to have participated in the construction representing Bulgaria. The Palace Chancery and Battenberg himself played a vital role in all activities related to the coordination of construction works.
The Palace was officially inaugurated on December 26, 1882 in a ceremony attended by all ministers and dignitaries. The Bishop of Sofia sanctified it and the ballrooms hosted the New Year’s celebrations.
The second stage of construction was commissioned by the next Bulgarian Prince, Ferdinand I Sax Cubburg Gotta (1887-1918). Architect Vriedrich Grunanger was appointed a construction manager. He designed the three-storeyed North-East wing of the palace (1894-1896). It was intended to accommodate the monarch’s big family. There were also a library, classrooms, recreation and game rooms, dining room, offices, a roofed carriage entrance and two winter conservatories there. Guest-rooms and apartments as well as rooms for the servants and different offices were located on the top floor and in the garrets. An elevator was installed to service this section of the building.
The interior and exterior design of the addition blended in with that of the existing ones. The broken lines of the façade were in harmony with the surrounding parks. Strewn with balconies, bow windows, ornaments and winter conservatories, this section of the building bore the coat of arms of the Bourbon family and their famous motto: ‘Loyalty and Constancy’.
Andreas Greiss from Vienna decorated the palace with plaster ornaments and sculptures. Antoine Barbier, an artist from France, and his team were responsible for the gold plating of certain details from the interior. They painted some of the murals as well. The German architect, Frantz Eisler, also took part in the architectural designs. Two chapels were established in the north east section of the old wing of the palace during this stage of construction, one was orthodox and the other was catholic. Anton Mitov and Ivan Murkvitchka in 1897 and Stephan Badzhov in 1912 – 1926 decorated the orthodox chapel.
Architect Yanaki Shamardzhiev and later on Yordan Savov and Ivan Vassilyov took part in this stage of construction.
Companies from Vienna such as Waagner, Valerian Gillar and the German Ed. Puls. Berlin produced the metal ornaments such as the railings of staircases and the balconies, the grills, the fences, the pillars, and the stairs. The metal panels, which cover the fireplaces, were manufactured by “A-ne M-on G. Laury. B-te S. G. D. E. a Parie”. The expensive processed oak doors inlaid with high-quality wood and mother-of-pearl in marquety technique, decorated with the royal symbols, brass, gold, and silver ornaments and bore the company insignia of Franz Michel from Vienna.
Despite the fact that the Palace of Sofia was built in two separate stages, the overall look of the building gave the impression of unity. Passages interconnecting the different wings allowed quick and easy access and that made the building suitable for both administrative and residential purposes. The success of the palace was further proved by the fact that it was considered a benchmark for all Bulgaria’s public and residential buildings of the 1920s. In the 1930s, as a result of the marriage of King Boris III (1918-1943) to the Italian princess Jovana Savoiska (1930) a thorough change of the internal design of the palace took place.
After September 09, 1944 the palace served as headquarters of the Council of Ministers and as a residence of the new members of the government. The section now occupied by the expositions of the National Gallery of Art was used as a training center for the members of the Communist Party. The interior was redesigned and lost its authentic look. By virtue of a decree by the Council of Ministers of 1953, the building was placed in the custody of the National Gallery of Art and the Museum of Ethnography, which used it for administrative purposes as well as for staging various exhibitions.
In 1978 the palace was proclaimed a heritage site.