At the Municipality (formerly Ozeskienes, Cerniachovskio) Square stands the Church of St. George the Martyr (Sirvydo St. 4), whose east end faces the Post Office and the Writers’ Union. It was built in 1506 for the Carmelite monks who had settled in the territory of the Radziwill Estate and for whose maintenance Vilnius Voivode Michael Radziwill allotted land and funding. Formerly Gothic, in 1750–55 the church was restored according to a project by Franz Ignatius Hoffer and acquired some features of late Baroque and rococo. The facade is decorated by pilasters, volutes and relief-work decor; the eastern pediments are also elegant and picturesque. The vaults and the presbytery are abundantly covered in mural paintings (1775; restored in 1908). Nearby stand the 17th–18th buildings of the Carmelite Monastery. The monastery had a rich archive and library, a study centre operated there, and the monks were distinguished by their pastoral activity. In 1797–1944 it housed the Vilnius Ecclesiastical Seminary. After th e closing of the monastery, its ancillary buildings were converted into residential houses. Presently part of the monastery is occupied by the Book Chamber, and the church – by a book depository.
Further to the north towards Zaliasis Bridge, at Vienuolio St. 1, rises the large building of the Opera and Ballet Theatre (architect Nijole Buciute, 1974). It has 1149 seats. The walls of the building are made of glass and decorated with brass plates. In 1974 a monument to one of the founding fathers of Lithuanian opera, the celebrated tenor Kipras Petrauskas, was erected in front of the theatre (sculptor Gediminas Jokubonis, 1974). Closer to the Neris, on Gostauto St. 1, a neo-Classical building (1907) that once housed the Vilnius Society of Lovers of Science, is located. In front of the Municipality Square, on the other side of Gedimino Ave., stands a group of buildings in the style of Functionalism and Constructivism dating from the inter-war period: a former Palace of the Post Savings Bank (No. 12), a former bank (No. 14), and a former House of Commerce of the Jablkowski brothers (No. 18/13).
Having turned southwards along Vilniaus St., we come across several places related with the memory of famous people and historic events. At Vilniaus St. No. 12 Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis was a frequent guest. Janka Kupala had an apartment at No. 14.
No. 21 housed an editorial office of the Belorussian newspaper Nasa Dolia (1906), where Anton and Jan Luckievich wrote the first documents of the Belorussian national revival. In No. 25 Jonas Basanavicius died in 1927 (February 16th, the day of his death, coincided with the anniversary of the Independence Act). This building also housed a musical school, where the famous violinist Jasha Heifetz studied in 1905–09.
South of Gedimino Ave., in front of the former House of Commerce of the Jablkowski brothers, a short Jogailos St. branches off. On its corner stands the former St. George Hotel (No. 20/1) built in the late 19th cent. according to a design by Tadeusz Rostworowski, and considered the best in Vilnius for a long time. Jogailos St. leads to Pylimo St. that bounds the old town from the west and leads toward the railway and bus terminals. At the crossing of Pylimo and Pamenkalnio streets stands a monument to writer Petras Cvirka (sculptor Juozas Mikenas, 1959). Farther apart, at the crossing of Pylimo and Kalinausko streets (in a little square), the first monument to Frank Zappa in the world was erected by his fans (sculptor Konstantinas Bogdanas, 1995). At Pylimo St. 4 is a house of the small Vilnius Jewish community, at Pamenkalnio St. 12 is the Jewish Museum, in front of which stands a monument to Sugihara, a consul of Japan in Lithuania, who saved about 2,000 Jews from the Nazis.
Gedimino Ave. 23 houses the hotel and cafe “Neringa”. The cafe was appointed in 1959 (architects Algimantas and Vytautas Nasvytis), in the times of Soviet occupation it was frequented by Vilnius intellectuals; its decor has retained the typical style of the “thaw” period. On the same side of the avenue Zemaites Square with a monument to the writer erected in 1970 (sculptor Petras Aleksandravicius) is located. In front of it, on a by-street farther apart from the avenue, stands a house (No. 34), in the garret of which poet Joseph Brodsky once stayed in 1970; the garret is described in his poem “The Lithuanian Nocturne”.
Lukiskiu Square and its surroundings
It is one of the largest Vilnius squares (4 ha). On its north side stands a twin-tower Baroque Church of St. Jacob and Philip and the Dominican Monastery (Lukiskiu Sq. 10). The church was built on this site in 1624, and the present building dates from the late 17th–18th cent. It is a single-nave church with cylindrical vaults; an image of the miraculous painting of the high altar (18th cent.) occupies the niche above the portico. The niches hold wooden 18th cent. statues of St. Hyacinth and St. Dominic. During Soviet times plans were advanced to demolish the church; later it was abandoned, and in 1992 it was returned to its parishioners. A painting of the Holy Mother the Compassionate (Lukiskiu Mother of God), famous for its miracles since the 17th cent., was also returned to the church.
The monastery was established in the 18th cent. In 1723 an almshouse was built with funding by Steponas Sliznia, a scribe of the Asmena land, who assigned 4,000 Lithuanian gold coins for the maintenance of 12 poor people; this marks the beginning of the monastery hospital, which is the oldest hospital in Lithuania. The Dominican monks ran the hospital, until it became the first secular city hospital in 1808 (established in the monastery building). One of the leaders of the 1863 uprising, Zygmunt Sierakowski, spent his last days at St. Jacob’s Hospital. The monastery was reopened in 1993.
In the middle of the 19th cent. a suburban waste ground stretched out on the site of the present square; in 1863 executions of the rebels took place there. In memory of the rebels, a plaque with an inscription “1863” was set up in 1929, and moved closer to the church from the centre of the square in 1936. Since 1904 the square was famous for St. Casimir’s fairs. In 1952 a monument to Lenin was erected there (dismantled in 1991). A photo of dismantling the monument figured prominently in the world press and became perhaps the most eloquent symbol of the fall of Communism.
To the west of the square stands an old (still operating) Lukiskiu prison, where in the times of the tsars, in the inter-war period, as well as during the Nazi and Soviet occupations, fighters against the regime were imprisoned; many people who did not take part in any political activity but had fallen in disgrace with the occupational regimes, also suffered there. On the south side of the square (Gedimino Ave. 40), a former District Court Palace is located (1890). During Nazi times it housed the Gestapo, and during the time of Soviet occupation – the KGB. Presently in this building (Auku St. 2a) a unique museum of Genocide Victims has been established. On its facade names of the resistance fighters killed in the building are carved, and nearby a small monument – a pyramid of fieldstones collected in various places of Lithuania, is erected.
Between Lukiskiu Square and the Neris stands a building of extraordinary size in the style of Socialist Realism – the House of Scientists (Tumo-Vaizganto St. 9/1). Its tower with a belvedere and a spire imitates the Admiralty building in St. Petersburg. The house was built in 1950; it was home to Juozas Balcikonis, Juozas Mikenas and other Lithuanian cultural figures. Closer to the square, J. Tumo-Vaizganto St., J. Savickio St. and Kraziu St. form a triangular block, the so-called Montwill colony. It is a complex of 22 residential buildings (1911–13), one of the first residential districts in Vilnius. Some of the houses have features of the Modernist style, some are neo-Gothic; their bizarre, asymmetrical, strictly individual facades and volumes create an architectural landmark quite unusual in Vilnius. The block was named after the financier and public figure Jozef Montwill, the founder of urban development in Vilnius. In the vicinity (closer to Zveryno Bridge, on Mecetes St.) once stood a wooden mosque and Muslim graves destroyed during Soviet times.
Along the eastern edge of Lukiskiu Square runs Vasario 16-osios St. On the western side of its continuation – Tauro St. – looms the Tauras Hill, erroneously related with the legend about Gediminas’ hunt. Its takes its name from the French cartographer Bouffal who described it; Bouffal’s name was interpreted as “buffalo”, i.e. “tauras” in Lithuanian. The real name of the hill is Pamenkalnis. A broad panorama of the city is exposed from the hill. At its edge, on the Tauro St. 5, stands a Constructivist students’ hostel built in the inter-war period. Czeslaw Milosz, a Nobel Prize winner in 1980, lived there while studying in Vilnius (1929–34).
On this street (No. 10) stands a house from the 1930’s with memorial plaques to writers Vincas Kreve, Vincas Mykolaitis-Putinas and Balys Sruoga. In the same house (on the ground floor from the courtyard) Nadezhda Mandelshtam, a Russian dissident writer, the widow of poet Osip Mandelshtam, stayed in 1974, and in 1975 – the famous fighter for human rights Andrei Sakharov who had come to Vilnius to defend his friend Sergei Kovaliov, taken to court for his support to Lithuanian resistance fighters. At that time Sakharov was supposed to receive the Nobel peace prize in Oslo, therefore his visit was widely publicized in the world and contributed to the collapse of the Soviet empire.
Nepriklausomybes (Independence) Square
In this square, at Gedimino Ave. 53, stands the Seimas Palace (architects Algimantas and Vytautas Nasvytis and Robertas Stasenas, 1982). The Palace entered Lithuania’s and world history in 1990–91. On March 11th, the Act “For the Restoration of an Independent State of Lithuania” marking the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet Union, was proclaimed there. On January 13th 1991, the Soviet Army was planning to attack the Lithuanian Parliament, but was discouraged by the adamant resistance of the people and members of parliament who defended the Palace. It is commemorated by fragments of the barricades and memorial signs at the Palace. The National Martynas Mazvydas Library (1963) is located next to the Seimas Palace (Gedimino Ave. 51).
A suburb on the right bank of the Neris, presently in the process of merging with the city centre. Its main street (Mickeviciaus) is a continuation of Gedimino Ave. Since the 16th cent. Zverynas belonged to the Radziwills, who maintained a hunting preserve there. Aurochses, elks and other kinds of game lived in the forest; hence the name of the suburb (“Zverynas” means “menagerie”). In the 19th cent. a forest grew in this area. In 1893 its proprietor, merchant Martinson, parcelled out the whole area and began to sell the plots to citizens. Since that time wooden and brick villas and summerhouses went up in the district. Today Zverynas is becoming a prestigious residential part of the capital. The first wooden bridge connecting Zverynas with the present Gedimino Ave. was built in 1892. The present metal bridge (91 m) with stone piers dates from 1906. It is used only for pedestrians and light traffic; another bridge further down has been built for heavy traffic. At the bridge (Mickeviciaus St. 1) stands the Russian Orthodox Znamenskaya Church, or Church of the Apparition of the Holy Mother of God (1903). Its Byzantine cupolas completing the panorama of Gedimino Ave. form a kind of opposition to the Cathedral at the other end of the avenue (paradoxically, the Eastern church is on its west side, and the Cathedral on the east side). Ca. 400 m away from the bridge, at the south end of Vytauto St., lies a round stone with a symbol of the Gediminas Columns, apparently a landmark of the lands of the Grand Duke in the 15th cent.
On the other side of Zverynas, in the Neris loop, stretches a large Vingio pine forest (160 ha) surrounded by the river from three sides. In the 15th–16th cent. it belonged to the Radziwills, later to Bishop Ignacy Massalski, and afterwards to Governor General of Vilnius Leontii Bennigsen who built a sumptuous summer residence here. In War and Peace Leo Tolstoy mentions that on June 13th 1812, on the occasion of maneuvres of the Russian army, Bennigsen was planning to throw a feast at his residence, with the participation of Alexander I. For that occasion a special pavilion had been built; unfortunately, it collapsed a day before the feast. Architect Michael Schulz who had designed it could not bear the shame and drowned himself in the Neris. Anyway, the pavilion was appointed and a feast thrown. When it was in full swing, an envoy brought a message to the tsar that Napoleon had crossed the Nemunas. Before long French soldiers arrived in Vilnius. Incidentally, they converted the palace into a war hospital whi ch later burned down together with all its patients.
At the edge of the park, at Ciurlionio St. 91, stands a Classical chapel built by Governor General Nikolai Repnin for his wife in 1799–1800. Next to the chapel, German soldiers cemetery (soldiers of other nationalities were buried there too) is under reconstruction now. Nearby, at Ciurlionio St. 29, the new buildings of the Astronomical Observatory of Vilnius University are located (1930’s). Vingio Park is a beloved rest place of Vilniusites. In 1960 a roofed grandstand with a platform for song festivals was erected there; it became a site of concerts and festivals. Mass meetings that marked the beginning of the struggle for the restoration of independence took place on the site in 1988.