The Nikulichev House

Young architect Ivan Magarev restores an unusual Neo-Gothic merchant's house built in 1910 in a tiny Russian village.
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Ivan Magarev, the owner of the Nikulichev mansion
Artiom Ganin has sat down with Ivan Magarev, an architect from the northwestern Russian city of Vologda. Ivan who studied architecture in Russia and Italy bought an old redbrick mansion with Neo-Gothic turrets which was built by a wealthy Russian merchant in 1910. Ivan's dream is to restore the unusual house and make it a focal point in the village of Ustye – once a rich trade hub on the Kubena river. The building will host a café and offer two spacious apartments with picturesque views for tourists. The restoration is in full swing and Ivan hopes he'll be able to open the ground floor in summer 2022. Ivan could have purchased a big flat but he opted for saving the historical house. The team works hard and every penny counts. If you share Ivan's philosophy and passion - do subscribe to the Nikulichev mansion Patreon! You will help the team restore the mansion and make the village of Ustye even more beautiful.
Castles and Palaces (CnP): Ivan, I know that you are a trained architect, could you tell me a bit more about your background!
Ivan Magarev (IM): This is true. I am an architect. I graduated from the Vologda State University, then I worked as an architect for 3 years, I got tired of it and decided to pursue my dream of studying architecture in Europe. I enrolled to the Polytechnic University of Milan and studied for 3 years, then I got my master's degree in architecture. To be able to pursue my dream I had to earn some money here in Vologda so I designed architectural models and worked as an architect!
CnP: So you studied in Milan, traveled across Italy and Europe. I believe you should have a taste for good architecture, shouldn't you? Why have you come back to Vologda?
IM: To be honest the Italian school of architecture has changed my taste. Of course, it is now better than it was. Just look at my clothes for instance. Jokes aside - the Italian approach towards architecture is more conservative, it puts more emphasis on materials and details. A building can be simple, aesthetic and modern due to properly selected and aligned elements such as windows, doors, cornices, balcony railings, fittings and so on
IM: Take restoration for instance. Italians have their own way too. I personally believe that here in Russia restorers tend to re-create elements which have been lost unlike in Italy where they focus on conservation and preservation. This is the reason why we have more cases when new elements mimic the historical ones. In Italy it is different. Constructing something similar to the survived historical building is totally ruled out. Normally, they build a structure made of a contrasting material which emphasizes the historical building. At the same time this new structure serves as a background. To my mind, one of the best examples is the Fondazione Prada / OMA in Milan and you can check it here.
IM: You know in Italy I never missed an opportunity to visit Italian castellos! They are impressive! There're a lot of them in the Alps. The Swiss city of Bellinzona alone has three huge castles, there're lots of them around Milan. Three years were enough for me to visit them all without any haste!
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CnP: Did you buy the mansion in Ustye because it looks like a tiny castle? Why did it attract your attention?
IM: Look, I returned from Italy with some savings. I wanted to invest the money in real estate. I even wanted to buy a big 100m2 flat in a historical building in Vologda. The price was 2mn roubles (around 20,000 euros - at the time the interview was published). Then I came across a strange ad – someone was selling a true castle in the village of Ustye some 70kms away from Vologda.
IM: Imagine I knew this building and I knew the village pretty well. My master's degree thesis in Milan was devoted to the revitalization of Ustye's historical center. I've chosen Ustye because the village preserved its historical quarter where merchants' houses were built. It is a very distinct place. Besides my dad stems from these places and I know the region since my childhood. When working on my thesis me and my university mate came to Ustye several times to study the architecture in situ. We made drawings of these old buildings and of course the Nikulichev house was not exception! When I saw that it was on sale I couldn't find peace! I went to the village, checked the house a couple of times and bought it for 2mln roubles.
CnP: What a coincidence or a miracle! What did you feel when the deal was finalized and the house became yours?
IM: Oh, what a feeling! It is quite a feeling when you understand the whole mansion is yours! I realized what happened later! But the minute I became the owner I felt this strong wish to start creating, not to lose a single minute! I like looking at the mansion. It is so beautiful! Every time I leave Ustye I pause for a while before getting in my car. I look at the mansion and I always find a new detail which I failed to notice before.
CnP: What did you parents tell you when you bought the mansion?
IM: My parents worried a lot. They were concerned because I was taking on huge responsibility, this serious project. Now they support and help me. My dad does a lot of work, he has golden hands, and he knows how to work with wood. Basically, with his help, we have already repaired all the windows on the ground floor, next summer we will get down to the windows on the 1st floor. In addition, he was able to handmade the lost water intake funnels on the roof. They are very beautiful and intricate. My dad removed one that survived and designed the lost ones out of metal. We finished them, painted them and put them back in place. Now you would hardly distinguish them from the authentic one.
IM: In addition, he was able to handmade the lost water intake funnels on the roof. They are very beautiful and intricate. My dad removed one that survived and designed the lost ones out of metal. We finished them, painted them and put them back in place. Now you would hardly distinguish them from the authentic one.
CnP: How bad was the state of the house?
IM: Well, the building was in a good condition, by the way it was one of the key reasons why I bought it. The house has concrete interfloor ceilings. The attic floor is made of wood. It was fine apart from one spot which was rotten. This is where a storage tank of the heating system was installed, which was leaking. The roof is generally fine, we had a couple of leaks but we patched the holes. The most serious breakdown we fixed asap was the non-functioning drainage system. Almost all of the pipes were torn off, the water from the roof poured on the walls and windows, it lasted for decades damaging the brickwork. A lot of bricks crumbled. We repaired the system first thing in 2020. Other than that, the house is in an excellent condition. Imagine we have 3 stoves preserved inside, one of which is a tile stove!
CnP: Indeed! I was impressed by the tile stove. It is so high and elegant. I spotted old stove shutters which seem to have been painted over a hundred times. Does the stove work?
IM: Oh yes! The stoves are fantastic! Almost all of the original tiles are in place. A local stove keeper, Vasiliy, cleaned all the chimneys, installed the doors, and now all the 3 stoves work fine. We use them to make it more comfortable when we work inside and it is cold outside. We remove the shutters one by one, clean them in order to put them back later. Imagine, the house used to have an exhaust ventilation system. One of the walls was warm - one of the transverse walls has a duct with a fan that is used to intake dirty air from the room. This spinning fan intensified the air flow and made it more even. The duct is linked with the chimney.
CnP: The mansion was built in the 1910s, could you tell me a few words about the man who built it?
IM: Ivan Nikulichev was a prominent figure here. He was an industrialist, a merchant and a philanthropist who stemmed from serfs. You can't even imagine nowadays how much money he spent on philanthropy. He built a school, hospitals and shelters for the poor here in Ustye. Nikulichev and his sons owned lumber mills and a glass factory; they owned a steamship company of five steamships! The Nikulichevs' products were so good that they were sold mostly abroad - they exported them to England, France and Poland by waterways.
IM: Now we tend to believe that this building was rather an office housing the administration of the plants. It could have been a warehouse. To a certain degree the architectural style of the building could have been just clever marketing. Today any company wants to have an impressive and extraordinary office. Imagine how impressive these Gothic turrets looked back then with so many wooden houses at the background! Oh, what a show-off! But everyone has the right to be proud of their work. Of course, the mansion was influenced by the Western architecture, I am pretty sure it must have been a source of inspiration for the Nikulichevs during their European business trips.
CnP: How was the mansion used after the 1917 revolution?
IM: It housed a drug store and some offices. But it was mostly used by the local collective farm. There was an accountant's office. There were offices for engineers, agronomists and of course for the collective farm's head. During our clean-ups we've found a lot of Soviet artifacts, some milk yields records, cow certificates, reports, pictures of the best tractor drivers or milkmaids, etc. After the collapse of the USSR the building was acquired by the Volgodsky Kartofel company (The Vologda Potato Company) which kept using it as an office. So, it was this company which sold me the Nikulichev mansion.
CnP: Judging by the fact that such an extraordinary mansion was built in a small village I can assume that the village was rich. What was the main source of income for the residents?
IM: As I said previously, in the 19th century the village was very rich. It was an important trade hub on the waterway. One can say that at a certain point it was about to transform into a town but the residents refused. The village had so many churches, factories, social institutions, people had a lavish life here in Ustye.
CnP: The house looks very unusual for Russia's northwest. These turrets with spires are some kind of interpretation of the Neo-Gothic style, aren't they? Wasn't it too pretentious for the 1910 Ustye?
IM: I agree, the architectural style is extremely unusual! If cornices, corner rustication and stone platbands can be found in other buildings of Zaozerie and are quite common for many pre-revolutionary buildings in St. Petersburg, I've never seen such turrets and gables in Vologda and neighboring regions. Obviously these elements were influenced by the Western architecture. Why? Because the Nikulichevs traded with Europe. I think that the family wanted to have a building here at home, which would show everybody that they had business ties with the West. It has always been prestigious.
CnP: Have you tried to get in touch with Nikulichev's descendants? Perhaps they could share some facts about the mansion.
IM: A woman contacted me, she resides in the north of Italy. She told me she was happy I am restoring the house. She'd like to come to Vologda and Ustye. She told me that her granny had tried to draw up the papers and claim the house but it never happened. I also got a letter from another woman who lives in the Tambov region. Unfortunately, it is quite hard for me to get information from people I don't know well. I hope we'll meet one day or they will come to Ustye to see the mansion and tell their stories about the ancestors. I've invited them to come over.
CnP: Tell me about your plans. What will you make out of the mansion?
IM: I'd love to open the ground floor for everybody in 2022. I hope I will be able to do so and I will not face any financial difficulties. I am optimistic about it. I will launch a café with its own philosophy. You come to Ustye and drop in to have a cup of tea or coffee chewing on a cake, you will be able to chat or watch a movie, take part in a workshop, you know. The mansion is in the center of the village facing the main street where our few tourists walk. The embankment is 50 meters away. It is being reconstructed now.
IM: The first floor will host two apartments for guests with enfilades. The spacious rooms will offer fantastic views of the Voskresensky pogost and the Kubena river. The authenticity of the rooms, their building materials, will be emphasized by modern furniture and appliances. No plans to buy up antique shops!
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CnP: You paid the equivalent of 20,000 euros for this mansion. How much will the restoration cost?
IM: Well, so far the restoration works have cost me more than 10,000 euros. Some works which we made together with my friends and my father who is a licensed restorer do not count. I believe restoring the ground floor will set me back some 15,000 euros in total. A lot of money will be required soon to draw up and approve the restoration project. The project review alone will cost some 1,000 euros. Design and installation works will be much more expensive.
CnP: Where do you get the money from? Does the state help you financially or do you pay from your own pocket?
IM: Most of the money is my savings. I can't say that my salary is enormous, still I somehow manage to allocate the money and save some money for the maintenance and other major works. Unfortunately, I can't receive state grants because the mansion is my property. As a rule, grants support non-commercial projects. I hope I'll be able to take part in certain tourist projects soon. We have a project website which both tells the story of the Nikulichev mansion and the village of Ustye. I am convinced that the village has a great tourist and cultural potential.
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IM: The website's Support Us page links to our Patreon where you can learn about the privileges if you subscribe to either of the plans. Once you subscribe you'll have access to our Telegram-channel and learn about the restoration progress in full detail; we will send you postcards created by Vologda-based artist Vladimir Elve. We've recently released a series of postcards with Ustye landscapes made by my friend Alexey Yuzhakov. We don't have that many subscribers but we've managed to raise a certain amount which we'll spend on tools or scaffolding for the mansion. This is still quite a good support for us.
CnP: What kind of relations do you have with the local authorities? I've read that the local committee for the monuments protection is very strict with you, isn't it?
IM: This is true. We've repaired the wooden window frames. The committee believes it was illegal, they put it on record. But the committee has failed to take into account the fact that certain elements of the frames were 100% rotten, some of the frames had no glass and that we haven't replaced a single original frame with a new one. We've just removed old paint, sanded the wood, made up for the losses in some places and installed the glass. And please bear in mind that the woodwork was carried out by my dad who is a licensed restorer. Luckily, court has thrown out the accusations and dismissed the case. And I was very happy about it!
CnP: What's the progress with the restoration works?
IM: You know it only seems that there's little progress and activities keep piling up. But when I look back I understand that we've done a lot. Throughout 2020 our main task was to remove bird dropping from the attic. There was so much of it, the layer of 35-40cm covered the attic floor. We used shovels to put it in sacks which we brought down through a hatch.
IM: It was a hard and dirty job. In total we brought down 200 sacks weighing 20-25kg each. All in all, some 4,5 tons. One of the achievements was the restoring of the drainage system because it allowed us to prevent the walls from crumbling. We've completed the works in the fall of 2020. Last summer in 2021 we cleared the walls from old paint and repaired the windows on the ground floor. We succeeded. Now the walls inside the house are white and the original windows are fixed. Looks like we did a great job!
CnP: What is the most difficult now?
IM: I think it is quite difficult to find the right approach towards drawing up the restoration project and have it approved. I don't know how to make it in the most efficient way, to save money and my nerves. The market of restoration services in Russia is developing and it is quite hard to navigate it. It turned out that the legislation on the protection of monuments has many inaccuracies too.
CnP: What kind of problems do you face as an architect?
IM: One of the key issues is the object's legal status, which is a non-residential building. This results in an avalanche of problems. Utilities costs for non-residential buildings are not regulated by the state and are 3-4 times higher than for residential buildings. For example, this winter we used electric heaters to keep the temperature inside the building above zero.
IM: Every month I get a bill worth of tens of thousands roubles (or 200 – 300 euros). I am talking about 5 degrees centigrade, not 15 degrees. We need the temperature in the bulding to be above zero because we keep working inside. This temperature helps us to preserve the stucco work, the plaster rosettes and cornices. The building is not connected to utility networks this is the reason why we can't change the legal status, i.e. from non-residential to residential.
CnP: What one should pay attention to first of all when buying an old house?
IM: You have to think twice. You have to understand that it will be a long-term project, 5 years at a minimum. I personally believe that you have to love and get pleasure out of what you do – this is crucial for me whatever the project. If you feel your long-term restoration project will keep bringing you pleasure and you are ready for any kind of difficulties – go for it!
CnP: Any surprises in the house? Did you find anything interesting in the attic or in the basement?
IM: I wouldn't say so. Nothing that precious. But you know what – the fact that the house has a basement was a surprise because the owner was convincing me that there's no basement. But the owner could not but know that there was a 2.5m deep flooded basement. It is located under one side of the mansion. It was a tough task to pump out the water and clear it of soil and rubbish. The basement is fitted with a cast iron sewage pipe which is surprising too – the village of Ustye does not have any central sewage system. We believe it corroborates the legend about the Nikulichev baths – looks like the baths did exist on the ground floor. And I've already told you about the surprises in the attic! That's pretty much it!
CnP: Is there anything old and authentic left in the house apart from the stoves and window frames?
IM: Sure thing – we have authentic window mechanisms on the first floor, they are called cremones. The knobs are missing but almost all of the mechanisms are intact. The gear mechanism operates the two vertical rods at the same time; one rod extends up into the window frame while the other extends down into the window frame.
IM: We also have authentic doors beautifully adorned with wooden inlays, we'll have to remove oil paint from them.
CnP: Please tell me about your team, how do you share responsibilities?
IM: A friend of mine, also Ivan, helps me a lot. We take most of important decisions about the mansion together. Alexey Yuzhakov helps us with the Internet and IT. It is thanks to him that we have such a great informative website! He is the author of the panoramic photo-tour of the mansion, everybody can have a look inside our house from their cozy chairs! Alexey has created this 3D-model of the house, you can rotate it in your browser window as if it is a toy! And my father is behind most of the woodwork, we wouldn't have coped without him! And we also make posts on Instagram.
CnP: Look, how will you attract tourists to the village once you've restored the mansion? The nature is beautiful, the landscapes are picturesque, the embankment of the Kubenskoye lake is attractive, but what about Ustye's tourist infrastructure? And what can Ustye offer as a travel destination?
IM: Unfortunately, Ustye has zero tourist infrastructure. ZERO! But it has so many places of interest few people know about. Okay, the center of the village has precious historical buildings and museums, besides you can go to the Spaso-Kamenny monastery located on an island. It is the oldest monastery in Russia's Northwest! It was built in the 15th century.
IM: The village is surrounded by unique and interesting places such as the village of Nikolskoye – check our Instagram highlights. This village used to have a fantastic estate with a large park grown with relict trees. This is where some plants grow which are on the Red Book. Before the 1917 revolution the owner of the estate Mezhakov even hired a gardener from England to take care of his unique park. The park is still there and you can take a walk there but no one looks after it. You will hardly find a restaurant or a café in Ustye to have a snack, you will hardly find a room to rent if you want to spend there a couple of days. In most cases people drive to Ustye from Vologda to take a plunge in the river and enjoy the beach. The view is stunning – there's a church with a tall belfry on the opposite bank. My dream is to make the Nikulichev mansion a modern tourist space where one can have a cup of good coffee, a place to rest and buy souvenirs.
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CnP: I can imagine that after spending 3 years in Milan your coffee will be the best in the neighborhood! I am really happy that there's a trend. Proactive people buy old houses, invest their money and soul and create beauty around themselves! I went to the village of Plyos on the Volga and I was so pleased to see all those restored traditional Russian wooden houses. I told myself – look, this is true Russia which does not exist anymore! Do you agree?
IM: Totally! I decided to buy the mansion because I saw other people do the same things across the world and in Vologda – you can check the projects implemented by the Yakimov family! There are now rescuing their fourth mansion in Vologda!
CnP: Do you know if the local administration has any plans to revitalize the main square? It has preserved a lot of pre-revolutionary houses, there's a church nearby, basically, all the ingredients to make the village attractive for tourists. I checked archive images of central Ustye and the square had its own integrity.
IM: I get along with the local administration quite well. I know its head. They show interest in the paper I did for my master's degree in Milan. They think it can be useful for them for the development of Ustye. The central square changed a lot of course. The latest major loss was when a huge old wooden house burnt down (but you can still see it on Google Maps). I am happy that the local administration created a common space there. Of course, I would like it to be more aesthetically appealing but there are art-objects scattered across the place. You know no one built an ugly commercial structure instead of the burnt down house.
CnP: I bet the purchase of the Nikulichev mansion was noticed by the locals. What do they think of your project? Are they happy the house will get a kiss of life or they don't care?
IM: I am grateful to the residents of Ustye for their kind hearts and positive attitudes and comments on social media. Perhaps some people say some unpleasant things behind my back because they don't know me personally but I've never heard anything of this kind. Passers-by often say hi and ask if they can drop in to check what's inside. People often tell me that their relatives used to work in this very building as clerks, salespersons or watchmen. Of course, I let everybody in!
CnP: What will your mansion look after the restoration? Which room will be yours?
IM: I don't think I will have my own room. I see the mansion as a project. Once I restore the house I will stay there from time to time. Just thinking about living in such a building takes my breath away! As I've already told you the interiors will remain authentic which will be highlighted by modern appliances. I believe this will make a perfect match and it will emphasize the spirit of the history of mansion.
CnP: You don't regret you spent all your money on this mansion instead of an apartment in Vologda, do you?
IM: I have so far regretted nothing! On the contrary I am happy I have the house now!

CnP: Who are you: a romantic, an optimist or a realist?
IM: All things considered it looks like I am the mixture of the three! I bought the house because I was a romantic. My optimism helps me to make my dream come true, I don't give up! And my realism is what I need to pursue my goal according to a clear plan.
CnP: What would you tell those who would like to buy and restore an old house for themselves?
IM: I will be happy if my words become a trigger and you'll buy an old house. Follow your dream! If you feel the same – just like me – do not lose your chance! Difficulties may discourage you but they are part and parcel of this adventure. If you live in Russia choose from buildings which are not on the list of Russia's cultural heritage. Restoration will be less problematic. And do pay attention the Kaliningrad region, which has so many interesting objects!
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We very much hope that you loved the passionate story by Ivan Magarev, who's restoring an old merchant's house near Vologda in Russia's northwest!

Photo credits: @ivanmagare, @nikulichev_dom

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