Rothschild’s Botanical Garden
In the Cool Serenity of this Urban Oasis, The Peace of an Earlier Era Lives On
Tranquilizing calmness – these are two words that I keep repeating walking through Vienna’s Heiligenstädter Park, at the very last stop of 37th Strassenbahn.
It’s a sunny morning of April, and while walking among the ancient trees, time seems to stand still – there is no rush, no hectic urgency to be efficient, cool and ready for all the new disasters of everyday. Acacias, lilacs in bloom, red beeches and white birch, elm, blue spruce and cedars, pine-trees and barberries take all that away – the metropolitan lifestyle theater does not belong here.
The Rothschild Park is not on the list of main tourists’ attractions in Vienna –there are fancier parks in the city, much bigger and much richer in terms of history. But then again, perhaps not, as this is almost all that’s left in Vienna of the family that once defined European finance.
The story of the park began in 1781 when a mineral spring as ancient as the Roman Empire was discovered on the site. But a century later in 1875 when the Danube was redirected for flood control, the spring went back under the ground, the spa was closed, and the property abandoned.
Seven years later, Baron Nathaniel Mayer Anselm Freiherr von Rothschild bought 9 Hectares of the land and built a Villa and park there. A botanical garden was created under the guidance of the city Garden Inspector Anton Joli, with a Japanese corner, some 90 green houses filled with exotic plants and an array of summer houses, imitation antiquities and other garden constructions in fashion at the time. Of these only the gatehouse and one smaller building remain.
The public was welcome in the park for a small entry fee, used to support the Volunteer Fire Department.
In 1906, rumors were abroad that the villa would be bought as a summer residence by Emperor Franz Josef, reported in the New York Times.
"The Villa is a commodious and handsome building, but the great glory of the place is its gardens, which rank among the first three or four in Europe… It is in the Italian style, and laid out with charming terraces and cunningly devised archways, through which one obtains most picturesque glimpses of the great City of Vienna and the distant Danube."
In 1900, the city purchased Kugler Park adjacent, opened to the public free of charge in 1905 as Heiligenstätter Park. The Rothschild’s private portion remained in the family until it, along with all their property, was aryanized by the Nazis in World War II.
The Rothschild Villa, most of the out building and many of the exotic trees and plants did not survive the war – the building was deliberately bombed. In 1950, the Park alone was restored. The Rothschilds gave the land permanently to the city.
The botanical garden was never restored, that in 1906 had contained an "array of conservatories and hothouses, which furnish strawberries and the choicest fruits in profusion almost throughout the year. The greatest treasure under the glass is a giant Bougainvillea, possibly the finest specimen in the world."
Walking up a small hill on one side of the Park that overlooks Steinfeldgasse and Geweygasse. This was the site of the Villa – an appealing location; I almost feel the calm elegance that must have graced their lives at that time.
Turning to the other side of the Park, I take the Northern path. Here the air becomes suddenly fresher; much of the hillside is in shadow and there are no open meadows. The Park is less planned here although it is still not yet a forest. There are chestnut trees and maples, and flowering linden that have just started to bloom, throwing off an intoxicating aroma. I head down the steps, more regular here, and follow the narrow serpentine, past the Ludwig van Beethoven monument, designed by Robert Örley and opened in 1910.
And I see, no, only hear, through the branches of the old trees, the traffic on Grinzinger Strasse below.