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Žižkov: The Beginning

The territory in front of the eastern wall of Prague which had been farmland with solitary homesteads for centuries has undergone a fundamental transformation since the 1860’s. A new, soon to become the largest Prague suburb emerged where vineyards and fields used to be. The area along the Vienna Road between the Vítkov (Žižkov) Hill and the Holy Cross Hill followed an elaborate building and street plan devised by Karel Hartig, a construction contractor. The first Žižkov Mayor-to-be became one of the main drivers of new construction. However, the plan is often criticised for poor expertise in contrast to the excessive emphasis on profitability of the new buildings – this meant particularly cheap accommodation for a lot of blue collar workers coming to the city of Prague to work in the rapidly developing factories.   

The relatively inexpensive land lots in the hilly landscape thus accommodated a huge quantity of buildings over a short time frame. The buildings testified to the builders’ effort to provide simple apartments for a lot of tenants whose standards were not, and could not be, too high. The balcony access house represents a building type quite suitable for this situation – and a lot of them were built in Žižkov. They are not a purely Žižkov phenomenon, there are balcony access houses in other towns and quarters, but they rarely amount to such a typical local feature as in Žižkov. The balcony access houses were most frequently designed in an “L” shape with the shorter side facing the street and stretching over two and half building sections. There was a driveway through to the yard and staircase. The apartments were entered from the balcony facing the yard, usually straight to the kitchen followed by another room used as a bedroom with windows facing the street. Two rooms was the balcony access house standard for a family.  In apartments in the side wing, both rooms were facing the yard and the windows had a view of the balcony. More comfortable apartments had a storage cupboard and dedicated coal store in the cellar. In crisis times, the tenants were often extremely austere and sublet parts of their apartments to others.

Balcony access houses were places of abundant social life. Small apartments prevented the tenants from protecting their privacy, so most events – weddings, celebrations or discussions – were held in public with the neighbours’ help and input. The ex-inhabitants remember how the journey from the yard to their apartment could take half an hour due to the number of stops made to talk to their neighbours, all too well visible. The pro-national Karel Hartig was also significantly involved in the initiative to name the new location “Žižkov”.

This happened in 1868; a year later, the new name came to common usage when the city council of Královské Vinohrady approved it in May 1869 instead of the local name “On the Vienna Road” used up till then. Between 1849 and 1875, the entire eastern foreground of Prague formed the suburbia district of Vinohrady, upgraded in 1867 to Královské (Royal) Vinohrady, which included today’s Vinohrady as well as Žižkov.

1875 brought the splitting of Královské Vinohrady into two separate districts – Královské Vinohrady I, which was renamed Žižkov in 1877 based on a decision passed by the then-Ministry of Interior, and Vinohrady II as we know it today.  In 1881, the emancipation of the new township was completed: On May 15, the Emperor declared Žižkov a city. Seventeen years later, the city received its coat of arms as well.

The second half of the “long” 19th century brought on a fundamental transformation for the area between the Vítkov and the Holy Cross Hills. It evolved from a countryside location with a few dozens of inhabitants to a proud, independent township with a population of over sixty thousand at the end of the 19t century. The Žižkov township was the third biggest town in the Czech Kingdom. In 1922, it became a part of the Greater Prague.