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Gachot brings Russian history home to St. Petersburg

Richard Gachot remembers his grandfather showing him beautiful pictures when he was a boy. Those images, and the stories behind them, helped ignite his passion for art and design, a passion lived out in his career and studies in architecture and interior design. Now that passion has led to a history that expands Russians’ knowledge of one of their premier architects.

Richard Gachot

"I was born in New York,” Gachot said, “but my mother is Russian. I became interested in architecture when I was a child. A collection of my grandfather’s pictures included the outstanding Russian artist, architect and civil engineer Nikolai Vasilyev and that left an indelible impression on me.”

“Vasilyev became my grandfather’s teacher and mentor,” Gachot said. “I often visited my grandfather in the studio, saw his drawings and architectural designs. That all strongly influenced, of course, the choice of my profession. Now I teach design and architectural history at Lamar University.”

Gachot is program director of interior design in Lamar’s Department of Family and Consumer Sciences. He earned a bachelor of arts degree from Denison University in Granville, Ohio, a master of architecture from Columbia University and a master of arts in architectural history from the University of Texas, where he is now completing his doctor of philosophy in architectural history. In addition, he has studied in Paris at the Sorbonne and the Paris School of Architecture.

But it wasn’t until recently that Gachot realized that the part of the story that he knew was lost to the people of Russia.

“I felt that to honor the memory of my grandfather I should write a book about his friend and mentor, one of the outstanding architects of the first half of the 20th century, a graduate of Institute of Civil Engineering, St. Petersburg architect Nikolai Vasilyev, whose drawings were passed to me by inheritance after the death of my grandfather.”

Gachot’s grandfather, Boris Riaboff, was also a graduate of the Institute of Civil Engineering, and emigrated to America in 1922. Being younger than Vasilyev, he was able to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania and eventually received a license for architectural work in the U.S., a transition the talented, but considerably older Vasilyev was unable to make.

Vasilyev lived to be 83, and his last place of service was the New York City Planning Commission, Gachot said. He lived in New York for 35 years, longer than his time in St. Petersburg, but the radically different methods of architectural production in the U.S. in the 1920s to 1940s kept him from contributing at anywhere near the scale of his work in Russia. Starting with the design of residences for friends, Vasilyev continued his career with Warren and Wetmore, a leading Beaux-arts architectural firm in New York, where he developed projects for major hotels and the famous Park Avenue midtown skyscraper, the New York Central Building, just behind their previous masterpiece, Grand Central Station. Among his own works were competitive designs for the Chicago Tribune building, a villa in France for artist Victor de Tchetchet on Long Island, skyscraper designs, as well as urban planning schemes for NYC.

“It was a tragic situation in the sense that this man built major buildings in St. Petersburg but when he came here his career never reached those heights again,” Gachot said.  Vasilyev and Gachot’s grandfather met in Sea Cliff, a popular summer vacation destination for New York’s Russian émigré community. Both were graduates of the same St. Petersburg architectural school and their friendship grew strong.

Gachot’s new book “Nikolai Vasilyev, from Art Nouveau to Modernism,” is the result of painstaking research in a collaborative effort between Gachot and Russian architecture historian Vladimir Lisovski, doctor of arts, professor of the Academy of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg.

The book, published in Russian, is the first detailed account of Vasilyev’s period of emigration to America and introduces a number of architectural and graphic works through documents and illustrations published for the first time. “Russians know little about the 300 or more émigré architects that came to America during the Russian revolution,” Gachot said. “They are trying to piece together their history and understand the massive brain drain that occurred after the October revolution when the artists went to Paris and the architects went to New York.”

Gachot with book“We believe that the joint work of two researchers will be a new word in the historiography of architecture and culture of St. Petersburg and the Russians abroad,” one reviewer wrote. “He will, undoubtedly, increase interest among professionals and everyone who is not indifferent to Russia's cultural heritage. Especially since little has been know of the ‘emigrant’ work of Nikolai Vasilyev.”

Vasilyev holds a pride of place among Russia’s premier architects from the period before the Soviet revolution. Brilliant graphics and architectural talent cemented his reputation as the most talented of the masters of the “Northern Modern” movement of Art Nouveau, a style that largely determined the identity of St. Petersburg art and architecture in the early 20th century. The architect designed opulent homes, the Friday Mosque next to the Peter and Paul Fortress, the New Passage in St Petersburg, the German drama theater and the house of Luther in Tallinn, as well as numerous original projects that were notable milestones in the history of residential and commercial modern architecture.

This tremendous period of Vasilyev’s work in St. Petersburg is clearly disclosed in the portion of the book written by Lisovski. The second, longer period of Vasilyev’s life was, until recently, unknown in Russia. Now, thanks to Gachot’s research, and decision to publish his work in Russian, the rest of the story is known. Gachot’s work shows the fruitful creative work of Nikolai Vasilyev in the United States, where the architect lived in exile for three-and-a-half decades.

After the book was published, Gachot traveled to Russia and participated in a book tour that included book signings, lectures and tours of many of the works of Vasilyev.

“We enjoyed tours of Singer House, known as the House of Books, a wonderful art nouveau building originally built for the Singer Sewing Machine Company, butconverted to St. Petersburg’s largest bookstore in 1919,” Gachot said. “It is an incredible place. We also visited the St. Petersburg House of Architect, a beautiful mansion near the Fabregé Company, and I was invited to go to the Institute of Architecture and Civil Engineers,” Gachot said. “That was very touching for me because my grandfather, my great uncle and Vasilyev all graduated from there.”