The Officers’ Assembly Building in St. Petersburg

PHOTO: view of the Officers’ Assembly Building of the Russian Imperial Army and Navy, St. Petersburg, the military capital of the Russian Empire. 1898

Situated in the very heart of St. Petersburg, on the corner of Liteyny Prospekt and Kirochnaya Ulitsa, stands a majestic building with an elegant facade and an impressive high corner tower. It is the former Officers’ Assembly Building of the Russian Imperial Army and Navy, an architectural gem of Tsarist Russia and the reign of Emperor Nicholas II, which has survived to the present day.

“Russia has only two allies: the Army and the Navy.”

– Emperor Alexander III (1845-1894)

During his short 13-year reign, Emperor Alexander III (1881-1894), 114 new warships were built and launched, and the Russian Imperial Navy took third place in the world after England and France. The army and the military department were also put in order after their disorganization during the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-1878. A dream of the “Tsar-Peacemaker” was the unification of the officer corps of the Russian Empire and the construction of the first Officers’ Assembly Building of the Russian Imperial Army and Navy in St. Petersburg.

Sadly, the life of Alexander III was cut short when he became ill with terminal kidney disease (nephritis), he died on 20th October (2nd November) 1894.

It was now up to his son and heir to the throne, Nicholas II, who committed himself to carrying out his father’s plans. The young Tsar decreed that no expense should be spared for the building’s construction – the Officers’ Assembly should amaze visitors with its splendor and symbolize the power and strength of the Russian army. The young emperor immediately signed all the papers for the allocation from the treasury of the enormous amount of 1,345,000 rubles, while demanding weekly reports on the building’s progress.

Sketches of the building were prepared by a talented architect, teacher of the Stieglitz State Academy of Art and Design Alexander Ivanovich von Gauguin (1856-1914) and professor of the Nikolaev Academy of Engineering Viktor Mikhailovich Ivanov (1846-1919). The detailed development of the project was carried out by military engineers Wilhelm Karlovich Gauger and Alexander Donchenko, who were advised by two great architects, both members of the Academy of Arts Leonty Nikolaevich Benois (1856-1928) and Antony Osipovich Tomishko (1851-1900).

The land at the corner of Liteiny Prospekt and Kirochnaya Street – which belonged to the military department – was chosen for the buildings’ construction. The old wooden carriage house was demolished, the site was cleared and prepared by an engineer-colonel, a graduate of the artillery academy in St. Petersburg and the military academy in Freiburg, Germany, Vladimir Smirnov.

In September 1895, the construction of the building of the Officers’ Assembly began. Here is an eyewitnesses account of this event:

“The day before, a large, beautiful tent was erected,in front of the construction site, in which there were tables laden with light snacks and drinks. The event was attended by Enperor Nicholas II and members of the Imperial Family, in addition to representatives from the military ministry, the guards and the St. Petersburg military district, members of the clergy, and the city’s nobility. When the Emperor arrived, he was given a tour around the construction site. He was then presented with a silver tray bearing a brick and a silver trowel.

“Having accepted the tray, the Emperor proceeded to the erected foundation of the building and laid the first brick for the new Officers’ Assembly. According to an old Russian legend, silver and copper coins were laid in the foundation “for the happiness and prosperity of the Officers’ Assembly.”

A grand dinner was held that day to mark the occasion, attended by Nicholas II, who was accompanied by his wife Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, his mother Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, and his uncle Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich.

PHOTO: Emperor Nicholas II and Empresses Maria Feodorovna and Alexandra Feodorovna arrive for the gala opening of the building of the Officers’ Assembly Building of the Russian Imperial Army and Navy, 1898

On the morning of 22nd March 1898, the building of the Officers’ Assembly of the Russian Imperial Army and Navy was decorated with numerous flags. At one o’clock in the afternoon, the naval presbyter performed a conciliar illumination of all the rooms. At two o’clock, Emperor Nicholas II arrived, where he was greeted at the entrance by members of the committee who oversaw the construction and decoration of the building. The Emperor toured the halls and rooms and later compiled the Imperial Rescript, which stated:

“Having examined in detail the premises of the new Officers’ Assembly today, I am completely satisfied with the buildings’ external appearance, the convenience of its interior furnishings and the general landscaping given to this institution. From the bottom of my heart I wish that the new Officers’ Assembly develop in the spirit of its aspirations and, contributing to the establishment of comradely communication between officers, serve for the benefit of the army and naval officer family, which is so dear to my heart.”

PHOTO: a group of officers pose at the top of the grand staircase of the Officers’ Assembly Building of the Russian Imperial Army and Navy

The Bolshoi [Large] Hall initially served as a luxurious concert hall with choir stalls. A large portrait of Emperor Nicholas II in a stucco frame topped with an Imperial crown hung at the far end of the hall. Musicians and a choir played and sang in the upper galleries, which surrounded the entire perimeter of the hall. The width of the galleries measured about four and a half meters and were supported by columns. The entrance to the galleries was from the top floor, and the hall itself occupied the space of three floors in height. Five large windows overlooked Liteiny Prospekt and the courtyard, and 24 smaller windows were placed above the choir stalls. A large summer balcony also overlooked Liteiny Prospekt.

In addition to concerts and balls, large meetings and conferences were held in the building, their organizers arranged chairs both in the hall itself and in the upper galleries. This made it possible to accomodate more participants: 560 in the hall, another 70 in the upper galleries. The walls and ceiling of the Bolshoi [Large] Concert Hall were decorated with rich stucco decoration of a military theme. Gilded electric chandeliers with crystal shades descended from the ceiling. The large central chandelier consisted 90 bulbs, while the side chandeliers consisted of 30 bulbs each.

Near the hall were men’s and ladies’ restrooms, in which the ladies and their gentlemen could refresh themselves, which was especially important during balls. Ladies could fuss over their hair, clothes, jewelry, apply makeup and perfume. The men sweating after dancing could take off their cloth uniforms, catch their breath, change their undershirts, and spray themselves with cologne. The men’s room had its own smoking room, the ladies’ room was a cozy corner, furnished with bent wood furniture and upholstered in tripe (a fine woolen fabric).

The Bolshoi [Large] Concert Hall is one of the many interiors of the building which has survived to this day. In 1934, a stage appeared in the newly refurbished 700-seat hall, the choir stalls were dismantled, and a film booth to show films was installed on the wall opposite the stage. The Emperor’s portrait and the large central chandelier, both disappeared without a trace.

PHOTO: view of the former Officers’ Assembly Building of the Russian Imperial Army and Navy, as it looks today.

Today, the former Officers’ Assembly Building is home to the House of Officers of the Western Military District, a library, and the Road of Life United Veterans Council. Many of the buildings’ original interiors and elements have been preserved to the present day.

PHOTO: Many of the buildings’ original interiors and elements have been preserved to the present day.

PHOTO: Many of the buildings’ original interiors and elements have been preserved to the present day.


CLICK on the above IMAGE to download, print and read a FREE 94-page English-language copy of Officer Assembly Building by S. Kononov (2018), or the Russian-language edition Дом офицеров Санкт-Петербург.

The author has compiled a history of this magnificent building, and richly illustrated with vintage black and white photos, complimented with full colour photos of the building and its interiors, as they look today.

© Paul Gilbert. 17 November 2022