The Building of the Onassis Library

The building of the Onassis Library at Amalias Avenue

Built at the beginning οf the twentieth century, at the crossing between Amalias Avenue and Dionysiou Areopagitou Street, the building was designed by the important Athenian architect Anastasios Metaxas (1862-1937). It was the residence of the lawyer Georgios Orphanidis (a Greek from Egypt who was into cotton trade) and his wife Olga Saroglou, sister of the donor of the Saroglio Mansion. Metaxas was the architect in charge of the reconstruction plans for the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, as well as was the architect of numerous public and private buildings at the capital. These include the French Embassy, Eginitio Hospital, Andreas Syggros Hospital, and the building that currently houses the Benaki Museum, among others. Despite a predominant eclecticism in the architectural style of the period, evident in the works of E. Ziller, Metaxas remained faithful to a more austere and rather simple neoclassicism; in the case of the Foundation’s building, its style is in complete harmony with the nearby archaeological monuments.

During the 1930s, it was the residence of the Kalliga family. From around 1937–38 to 1950, it became the Italian School of Archaeology, which also housed its then Director. The World Craft Council (W.C.C.) was its last tenant; during this time the building was used as an exhibition space; Michael Goutos was in charge of WWC at the time. The Onassis Foundation bought the building through its representative company from the Nastos family.

When the building was acquired in 1989, the wear and tear of time as well as the reckless modifications – that destroyed its character – dating back to the interwar period both altered its façade greatly and its interior spaces. A first phase of planning was followed by the building’s restoration, which began in 1991. The team in charge consisted of the architect Vasilis Tsegis, the technical design company of Theodosiou and Telions, and John Papagrigorakis’ firm of mechanical and electrical engineers. Liaising with them was a team of engineers from the Foundation, supervising the restoration: namely, architect Irene Ioannidou, civil engineer Georgios Papadimitriou, and mechanical engineer Akis Tsoukalas. Driven by a profound respect for the building’s historical style, but also the need to use it for new cultural and administrative purposes, the team used the most cutting-edge technological methods and expertise with regard to static efficiency, electromechanical installations, as well as the entire approach and organization of the construction.

The main façade on Amalias Avenue and rooms of the first floor – that had suffered greatly from modifications that altered its style in the past – were restored, closely maintaining individual architectural and decorative elements of the original construction. The hidden columns of the main room were revealed, hidden behind more recent additions; the elegant marble fireplaces, works of the great sculptor Yannoulis Chalepas, were conserved; and the wooden floors were restored. Just like the rest of the building, rooms were furnished and decorated with furniture and works of art from Aristotle Onassis’ collection that used to be in his yacht, Christina. These include the piano that Maria Callas used to play when she was on board, as well as antique furniture and decorative objects.  
The old yard facing Aeschinou Street was turned into a second entrance, in harmony with the building’s morphology and neoclassical style. This entrance leads to the ground floor, a space once occupied by the servants now turned into contemporary offices for the administration of the Onassis Foundation. The servant quarters of the third floor, surrounded by a veranda with a close view of the Acropolis, were turned into a boardroom and a dining room; the dining room’s table also comes from the legendary yacht.

Today, the “Onassis Library” is found on the first floor. In another room on the same floor, one finds objects from Aristotle Onassis’s study in Monte Carlo, including furniture and personal items. Special care and thought was given into how to adjust the wooden-wall claddings from Onassis study in Monte Carlo, which originated from a French nineteenth-century mansion.
In all floors there are works of art from the collection of the Onassis Foundation, which were mostly acquired after the death of Aristotle Onassis. These works represent almost all the periods of Greek painting and sculpture: from the icon painter Th. Poulakis (17 century) and El Greco, to Y. Chalepas and K. Parthenis, Y. Moralis and contemporary painters, fellows of the Foundation.  
At a time when historical buildings still suffer from so-called “restorations” that destroy their character, simplifying in an unaccepted manner the architectural design of their façades, and “modernizing” in a way that erases original elements in interior spaces, the Athens building of the Onassis Foundation is a model of restoring a historical building to its original design. Without losing anything from its historical style, the building is at the same time a living, contemporary, and functional space, as well as a space of remembrance for our country’s great benefactor. It is yet another valuable contribution of the Onassis Foundation to the city of Athens, supporting and enhancing the aesthetic and cultural profile of the capital.

The main library area

The area of ​​the library was designed by Mr. Konstantinos Sp Staikos to treasure the precious collection of books and occupies three adjacent rooms, which are bordering the north side of the mansion. The stacks were designed in the spirit of stable structures that characterize the internal architecture and decorations used as timber oak. Their style is Doric and half columns that make up the skeleton of the stacks resulting in a rosette, with the mark of the Onassis Foundation in carved and gilded wood. The shelves are movable and the lower tier of the library are lockable cabinets. For the benefit of scholars and librarians are at the height bolts connecting the two parts of the library.

The stacks, as ordered in space, create five separate elements, corresponding to the five sections of the library: Renaissance – Humanism, Modern Literature, Liturgical books, Theology and Enlightenment. These thematic units identified in the stacks with embossed brass plates in each section of the library. The shelves are all numbered as the books were classified in each one of them. In each section of the library was built a showcase, self-luminous and appropriately decorated for the exhibition of books representative of each department, even insured with unbreakable protective glazing. Finally, a movable metal rod insures free access to books and protect them from "impulsivity."