Americans in Prague

A second wave of expatriates is now playing a vital role in the renaissance of the Czech capital

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William Lobkowicz moved to Prague in 1990, joining the hordes of young Americans drawn to the beautiful Czech capital in the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution that had peacefully toppled the Communist regime a year earlier. Lobkowicz, then a 29-year-old real estate broker from Boston, lived—like most young foreigners in the city—in a cramped, leaky walk-up apartment. But from his centuries' old townhouse off a cobblestone square, he could gaze up at Prague Castle, rising majestically on the hill across the Charles Bridge spanning the Vltava River. Or he could wander the labyrinthine, medieval alleys that inspired novelist Franz Kafka's vision of a city that ensnared its denizens in a net of mystery and intrigue.

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Many Americans in Prague in those heady days aspired to become writers. With its stunning architecture, intellectual ferment and cheap prices, the city evoked bohemian Paris of the 1920s, where Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald first honed their talents. But Prague produced no great American novels. With prices rising and savings diminishing, most Americans returned home.

Lobkowicz stayed. The grandson of exiled Czech aristocrats, he had come to Prague on what would become a more quixotic quest—to recover the ten castles and palaces that had once belonged to his family. The new, democratic government of President Vaclav Havel had decreed in the early 1990s that properties expropriated by the Communists could be returned to their rightful owners. But the legal morass and huge expenses involved in reclaiming the Lobkowicz estates and their vast cultural treasures were daunting for a young, middle-class American. "Bankers laughed when we suggested putting up broken-down castles as collateral for loans," Lobkowicz recalls.

Even so, giving up was out of the question. "What would I tell my kids and grandchildren—that it was too tough?" asks Lobkowicz—now Prince William—as we sit on a terrace of Lobkowicz Palace taking in a picture-postcard vista of the city's church spires, tiled roofs and meandering river below. Located at the eastern end of Prague Castle (the same landmark that Lobkowicz once viewed from his decrepit apartment), the renovated 16th-century palace was opened to the public in April. With some of the prized Lobkowicz art collections on display—including masterpieces by Pieter Bruegel (the Elder) and Canaletto—and classical concerts performed every afternoon, the palace has become a cultural mecca for foreigners and locals alike. And the former Boston real estate broker has become a major arts patron.

Americans have made remarkable contributions to Prague's post-Communist renaissance. Poland's Warsaw is larger, and Hungary's Budapest is almost as beautiful. But in neither of those capitals have Americans made the same impact as they have in Prague. Lobkowicz may be the most visible American here, but other prominent Yanks include Tonya Graves, an African-American singer linked to Prague's reemergence as a center of popular music; Jack Stack, an Irish-American banker in the vanguard of the city's rebirth as a financial capital; Karen Feldman, a suburban New Yorker who has almost single-handedly restored the tradition of fine, handmade Czech glassware; and David Minkowski, a former Hollywood producer who has led Prague's revival as a world-class film capital.

"The backpackers spread the word back in the United States that this city was a very special place," says Jiri Pehe, director of the New York University branch in Prague. "And the Americans who followed them saw opportunities to do some interesting things for Prague." Among them, only Lobkowicz had previous ties to the city. His family traces its presence back seven centuries or so, to an era before the Vienna-based Hapsburg dynasty, in the 1500s, extended the empire over Czech lands. Lobkowiczes, like other noble clans, settled into palaces that surrounded Prague Castle, the seat of royal power. The German-speaking Hapsburgs were not only foreign rulers; they also led the Catholic Counter-Reformation that crushed Czech Protestant heretics during the Thirty Years' War (1618-48), leaving Prague in ruins.

The Baroque style that dominates the center of Prague can be traced to the reconstruction of the city after that war. Gothic church facades were redone with sumptuous curves and ornamental detail, and inside, effigies of saints and angels were opulently finished in stucco and gild. Secular architecture followed suit. "Catholic aristocrats arriving from Vienna built themselves palaces in the Baroque style," says Simon North, a British art historian living in Prague. Now that extensive renovation efforts have been undertaken, Prague's Baroque flourishes have become more visible than ever. Statues stand like sentinels at the doorways of old townhouses and public buildings, and bas-reliefs decorate their pediments and outer walls.

The Hapsburg dynasty collapsed with the end of World War I in 1918, and Czechoslovakia gained independence. (The country split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.) Although the Lobkowiczes had steadfastly supported the Hapsburg monarchy, William's grandfather, Maximilian, became a Czech nationalist after independence. "He took stands that certainly weren't popular with the rest of the family or people in his social circle," says William. Before the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938-39, Maximilian served as a diplomat to the Court of St. James. (He stayed on in London during World War II as Free Czechoslovakia's ambassador.) After the war, he returned to Prague as a supporter of democratic government. But with the Communist takeover in 1948, he was forced to flee again—first to London and then to Boston. "He was one of the richest men in Czechoslovakia and lost it all," says William, who was 7 when his grandfather died at age 79 in 1968.

The Lobkowiczes have recovered four of their castles and palaces, and disposed of the rest to finance repairs and the preservation of their collections, none of which can be sold for export, under Czech law. "We kept what we prized most," says William, 45. He and his wife, Alexandra, manage the Lobkowicz estates and draw salaries from admission fees, social receptions and business conferences. They and their children—William, 12, Ileana, 9, and Sophia, 5—live in a rented three-bedroom apartment. "We never wanted to live in palaces, anyway," says the prince.

If Lobkowicz identifies with the Prague of the Hapsburg era, Karen Feldman, another transplanted American, is drawn to the Prague of the decades between the world wars. "That was a time when the city was at the forefront of glassmaking design," says Feldman, 38. Even before then, Prague was already the industrial hub of the Vienna-based Austro-Hungarian Empire. And after independence, Czechoslovakia became one of the world's most prosperous countries, thanks to booming exports of machinery, cars, shoes, farm products and fine glass. "Prague moved far ahead of Vienna in economic development," says Milada Polisenska, a historian at the New Anglo-American College in Prague. "Independence also unleashed enormous energy in so many fields—art, music, literature, architecture and design."

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