Between the 5th and 7th of May 2016, the city of Vienna hosted the 1st annual field visit of the European Historic Houses Association thanks to its Austrian member association (Östereichischer Burgenverein). For this premiere, about fifty members of the organization gathered from all over Europe for a busy programme. Indeed, we got into the heart of the event with a seminar dedicated to the Austrian situation regarding historic houses preservation and practical examples of maintenance. It was followed the next day by the visit of several private historic houses in the surroundings of Vienna. This allowed our members to discover the country’s culture and heritage as well as to learn about the national Association’s concerns and difficulties.

SONY DSCHeld in the Schönbrunn Palace, the seminar entitled “Preservation & Maintenance of Private Historic Houses: Smart Recipes & Good Practices” was introduced by the warm welcome forewords from the presidents of the European and Austrian associations, Count Rodolphe de Looz- Corswarem and Graf Alexander Kottulinsky. The floor has then been given to the four panelists from very diverse backgrounds and specialties.

Dr. Andreas Lehne, head of the department for inventory and research at the Bundesdenkmalamt, was the first to speak to present “The role of the Bundesdenkmalamt in the Preservation of buildings in Austria”. He recounted the history of this federal authority until today before approaching the issue of listed buildings in Austria. Indeed, one of the agency’s aims is to list the buildings, which have to be protected, and provides funds for their renovation. However, he noted that the process is difficult in Austria and that there is a need for owners to approach the authorities as soon as possible, although there is no formal obligation to be listed.

Then Dr. Jochen Käferhaus, professor at the Fine Arts University Vienna, presented some very practical elements to make historic building more energy-efficient. His presentation, “Intelligent solutions for heating, sustainability and building physics for historic houses” showcased practical solutions to keep the building comfortable. He illustrated his comments with various concrete cases such as the “inside isolation” to avoid humid walls by setting up a heating system in the wall next to the window. In order to conclude on a positive note, he then outlined that there are always ways for owners to find alternatives, which can comply with authorities’ requirements.  

The following speaker, Dr. Wolfgang Kippes, former director of Schönbrunn Palace, addressed the issue of “Fire Prevention in Historic Houses” by taking our seminar venue as an example for his presentation. He enounced damages that could occur if prevention measures are not sufficiently taken into account and offered several options how to address the problem. In the end, he privileged by far the use of sprinklers than professional brigades, in particular thanks to the early intervention and the very low risk of system failure.

To conclude the panel, Dr. Soraya Stubenberg, an Austrian private owner, highlighted the topic of the financing of private historic houses. She shared with the participants her experience of overtaking a castle in Austria and explained her position regarding VAT and subsidises issues owners of historic houses are facing nowadays. In fact, she pointed out the impact historic buildings can have on local economy and tourism in general and, on the other side, deplored the government passivity with regard to financial incentives granted to owners. She also stressed the necessity to adapt those places to the new generations in order for them to feel home.

 The participants got the chance to question the panellists and it provoked a vibrant debate on the different issues, especially the technics for fire prevention and the economic value of historic houses.

Finally, discussions went on during the Gala Dinner, which was hosted at the Lusthaus, an historic building from the 16th century. Reconstructed by Joseph II two centuries later, it became the scene of huge events and festivities for the court and the upper nobility. This was also a good opportunity for our members to exchange their own practical experiences with both experts and owners from other European countries.

DSC_1652After having beneficiated from a theoretical training regarding the maintenance and preservation of historic buildings, the practical part organized the following day began at Stetteldorf am Wagram where Mr. and Mrs. von Stradiot, the owners, warmly welcomed the group for its first stop. They led our members through the property while recounting the story of the castle rehabilitation and management after the Second World War. For thirty years now, the owners are committed into deep and exemplary renovations.  They are also putting a lot of efforts into the restoration of the original state of the castle. Fully renovated, the outbuildings are now able to host offices for local workers and farmers as well as the owners’ place of stay. As highlighted by Dr. Soraya Stubenberg a day earlier, this very first case shows the positive impact such renovations do have for the local and regional economy.

We then reached the Renaissance castle of Rosenburg with its medieval core and its numerous towers. Well known in Vienna surroundings as a touristic place, the castle welcomes each year more than 50.000 visitors. This allowed the owners to maintain and restore the place to perfection. Nowadays, the castle is partly inhabited and visited, often chosen by children for its falconry display recognized as world heritage by UNESCO. Beneficiating from their solid reputation as a tourist area, the owners managed keep the place lively and in very good shape, while serving the public interest. This example reflected again the significant potential of private historic houses for their environment.

Finally, the last visit at the bucolic castle of Mühlbach was conducted in a warm and friendly atmosphere. Entirely preserved since the 17th century, the castle is inhabited by the family Gudenus – gathering all generations under one roof – who kindly opened their doors for our members. The visit then continued on the other side of the road into their English park opened to the public and often rent for private or cultural events. This park was a perfect example of a cultural landscape maintained through the years just as well the castle. Indeed, the owners showed a real interest in preserving this family heritage for the future generations, which are keen to take an active part to the project.

The last dinner in a traditional restaurant of Vienna was the perfect occasion to wrap up this trip with a final exchange of useful insights in a cosier ambiance. There is no doubt these discussions will feed the forthcoming meeting, which is already scheduled on the 5th-6th of October in Brussels on the occasion of the General Assembly 2016.