Athens Sprucing Up for an Anniversary

Associated Press

Celebrating its 150th anniversary as the capital of modern Greece, Athens is sprucing up old neighborhoods and renovating more than 650 neo-classical mansions, mostly clustered near the ancient Acropolis hill.

Some of the mansions now are derelict houses overlooking tree-shaded courtyards. Others are seedy hotels or workshops. Five are brothels.

"We want to restore these historic remnants from the first years of modern Greece and make them part of the city's current life style," Alexander Pantazis, a senior Environment Ministry official, said in an interview

Pantazis said the Greek government is helping the owners get low-interest loans to cover the cost of face lifting their rundown properties, including the brothels and cheap hotels. The plan bars the buildings from being torn down.

Nursery Centers

"We're also upgrading these traditional neighborhoods by providing better facilities--green spaces, playgrounds and nursery centers," Pantazis added.

As part of the 150th anniversary celebrations that began last year, the city has been holding a series of concerts and exhibitions of pictures and photographs of early Athens. Municipal authorities and private groups have organized lectures on the city's history.

When Athens became the Greek capital in December, 1834, just a few years after Greece won independence from Ottoman Turkey, it was a dusty village of only 300 houses scattered around the ruined marble temples on the Acropolis.

"Disappointed visitors described Athens then as a collection of narrow dirty lanes lined with miserable huts and a few dead trees interspersed with poisonous swamps where typhoid was endemic," Manos Haritatos, director of the Athens City Museum, said.

But 19-year-old Otto of Bavaria, who was appointed king of the fledgling nation by the Great Powers--Britain, France and Russia--hired architects from his native Germany to plan a dignified capital.

The neo-classical buildings, imposing three-story structures painted in striking red, ocher, or pastel blue with ornamentation inspired by ancient Greek architecture, became the pride of 19th-Century Athens.

Expensive Furniture

"They were the homes of wealthy Athenian merchants and politicians who filled their spacious, high-ceilinged rooms with expensive imported French furniture and fittings," Haritatos said.

But most were torn down to make way for tall apartment blocks as Athens burgeoned into a crowded modern city in the early 1970s. Their handsome wrought-iron balconies and life-size terra cotta copies of classical Greek statues were stripped off and sold as collectors' items.

"People got caught up in the property boom," said Nako Kotopoulos, an Environment Ministry architect. "The old family home would be handed over to a developer in return for two or three apartments in the block that replaced it."

Greeks from the provinces and islands flocked into the city, swelling its population to more than 3 million. According to the 1981 census, one in three Greeks now lives in the Athens area.

But many Athenians want to revive the close-knit, friendly neighborhoods of the past. A government plan to attract residents back to the Plaka, the tourist and entertainment district on the slopes of the Acropolis, has proved hugely successful.

Pedestrian areas, a ban on noisy nightclubs and architectural restoration have sent rents soaring in the Plaka. And neo-classical buildings are much in demand by those who want to open spacious bars.

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