The Glorious Yet Now Abandoned Constanța Casino
In 1903, local Romanian politicians agreed that it was time for the city of Constanța to have a modern casino, "...like those which inspired the French Riviera". The Liberal government at the time immediately approved the project. The project was awarded to Daniel Renard, a Romanian architect of French descent who lived in Constanța. Daniel Renard was 32 years of age and a graduate of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His proposal to build an Art Nouveau structure stirred countless controversy, being supported by the Liberals in power but harshly criticised by the entire opposition.
As the building's foundation was being cast, the politicians who appointed Renard were replaced. The construction was halted and Renard was quickly replaced with Petre Antonescu. Antonescu envisioned a theater-like building with two towers in the Neo-Romanian style and thus begins working on the new plans by pouring a second foundation. However, two years after Renard was removed the Liberal Party regained power in 1907. Renard was reappointed, resuming his project as he had envisioned from the beginning, in the Art Nouveau style. Renard had a third foundation laid.
The works started again in 1907 and was completed in 1910 with a total construction cost of 1.3 million lei, excluding other expenses such as furniture, fittings, architect's commission, etc. Each of the three foundations cost 70,000 lei, the boardwalk cost 370,000 lei to extract from the sea, the furniture itself cost approximately 90,000 lei while the total costs railings, gratings, chandeliers, lighting fixtures, furniture, and all other decorations cost 547,616 lei – according to Romanian art critic and researcher Doina Păuleanu and historic documents in the City of Constanța archives. Historical documents also show that electricity was installed by the Sociertatea Anonimă de Gaz of Budapest and railings, gratings, and metalwork items were executed by the Wolf Factory in Bucharest. The asphalt on the outer sidewalk and the iron grating including three gates, were made by the M. Segal Company in Bucharest costing 19,000 lei. The city also purchased a piano from the Otto Harnisch Company in Bucharest and hired an orchestra of 18 people at a cost of 20,000 lei per season.
The inauguration took place on August 15, 1910, in the presence of Prince Ferdinand. Speeches were held paying homage to King Carol I, Prime Minister Ion I. C. Brătianu, Minister of Public Works Vasile Morțun, and a performance by the Davilla Theatre troupe and a celebratory grand ball took place for Constanța's nobility and elite. After the opening, on March 15, 1911, Mayor Titus Cănănău of Constanța leased the building for one-year to Alphonse Heitz, owner of the Café de Paris restaurant in Bucharest. Plowing through political opposition, on the same day the contract was awarded, the County Commission authorised gambling, equipping the Casino with two billiard tables and 17 gambling tables for card games. In a short time, the casino in Constanța became one of the most popular establishments of its kind in Europe.
The building attracted both admiration and criticism. For example, the travel journal of French diplomat George Oudard in 1935 mentioned the following: "One thing which is disappointing in this welcoming place: the white casino, pretentiously complicated, of the most dreadful and horrific style of 1900, which burdens the sea coast." The casino did not escape the criticism of local media either, being characterised as a "Hulking heap strewn with all sorts of gewgaws and cheap fineries" by journalists in a March 1910 edition of the Conservatorul Constanței newspaper, while journalists of the publication Drapelul in a December 1911 editorial criticized mayor Titus Cănănău for not doing more "to squander time and resources as to hinder the monstrosity". Many of the decriers were against the asymmetric architecture of the building, the gaudy construction elements, and the architectural lines, albeit innovative, that made the building discordant in relation to Romanian neoclassical architecture of the time.
Inside the Casino today. Images by Roman Robroek
After a year, however, in 1912, the City of Constanța opened a bidding process for management of the Casino. A 20-year lease was awarded to Baron Edgar de Marcay, represented by attorney Nicolae P. Simonide from Bucharest. The Baron was the owner of the "Society of Great Establishments". As part of the lease agreement, the Society was obligated to construct a luxury hotel for the upper-class clientele of the Casino. The result was the Palace Hotel, inaugurated on July 13, 1914, with 250 rooms with baths, electrical lighting, heating, balconies, a world-class restaurant, and a roof-top terrace. French Architect E. P. Goue received the order for the hotel projecton March 28, 1912. A restaurant annex was also built in 1912. By this time, some local newspapers have changed their tune of the structure. The luxury of the casino and world-class gambling attracted the wealthy from all over the world. Many rich socialites would arrive incognito to the Romanian harbour city. The halls of the casino were filled with drama including several tales of those ruined at the tables who found their end by throwing themselves into the sea or shooting themselves in their hotel room.
The casino was visited by the Russian Imperial Family in 1914.
The Casino hosted yearly parties kicking off the tourism and swimming season on the Romanian Riviera. The Sirena publication documented such a festivity stating, "On April 3, 1916, the Casino reopened to a fanfare of public amazement. The reopening presented this season as one of cleanliness and better taste than previous seasons with several upgrades being done to the terrace and billiard tables. As billiard was not available, the immense billiard room was transformed into a large consumption room for food and drink at this time. Barul American (The American Bar) also radically changed in appearance and comfort, introducing many luxurious updates and innovations that had you feeling as if you were in a great European City... In the Great Hall, Emilian Gheorghiu's orchestra drew public attention through the perfect execution of classic and modern art pieces, especially the use of the cellos. In the evening after drinks and supper, the auditorium was transformed into a cinematographic projection room where large audiences would gather to view cinematic pieces."
In the autumn of 1916, when the bombings of Constanța began during World War I by the Germans, the casino building was transformed into a hospital and used by the Red Cross. The nearby Port of Constanța was the primary target of the Germans, but the close proximity of the Casino left it inevitably affected.
Ten people were killed in the Casino when it was hit by shrapnel. Images of the bombings of the Constanța shore, including the casino itself, can be found in the Imperial War Museum. The casino became functional and reopened November 19, 1917. Repairs were finally completed by 1928. The casino was later completely restored between 1934–1937 by the initial architect Daniel Renard himself.
During World War II the Casino became host to German troops in 1941, who used the building for accommodation. Once again, the Casino was bombed in June 1941. The targets were the same as in the First World War but this time, the devastation was greater in the Peninsulă district of the city. The war left the Casino abandoned and ruined with both Allied and Russian forces targeting the city and bombing the structure. The aftermath of World War II left the symbolic building surrounded by abandoned sentries and wired fencing
After communism came to Romania, the post-war communist government decided to transform the casino into a House of Culture to support communist propaganda. The casino was renovated by the communist government with a detachment consisting of 100 political prisoners from the Poarta Albă slave-labor camp, under deputy engineer Aurel Mărășescu. A survivor and laborer attempted to put together a list of prisoners that worked on the project and managed to remember 59 fellow prisoners. He stated, "We worked between 12 and 14 hours a day including Sundays. First time I was a bricklayer. Everything was destroyed in that building. There was nothing, no doors, no windows, no fixtures. It was a wreck... ". The prisoners slept in a seaside area, being the only place in the building where the sky wasn't visible. There was no heating available and they were at the mercy of the elements even resorting to eating animal organs, according to one of the prisoners. The project was the same every day. Work, gruelingly and endlessly and then sleep. At the end of July 1952, the building was reclaimed by the three colonels of the Securitate who were responsible with supervising the prisoners and the project: Albon, Cozmici, and Crăciun. In 1956, the building was declared part of the national patrimony.
Due to large operational expenses, the building has remained closed since 1990. The last major repairs of the building took place in 1988.
Constanța City Hall tried to rehabilitate the building in 2006. In 2007, the casino was leased for 49 years to the Israeli "Queen" group. After numerous delays, local authorities took back the building more damaged than before its transfer to the Israeli company. January 2018, Europa Noastră, with the support of the European Investment Bank Institute, as a founding partner, and the Council of Europe Development Bank as an associate partner, listed the Casino as one of 7 most endangered sites in Europe.
In 2014, the edifice was transferred to the administration of the Romanian National Investment Company as a final rescue solution. An auction was held to award the contract for the execution of rehabilitation work in the casino, with 5 private companies signing up. All five firms were disqualified for to not meeting the minimum qualification standards set by the government. A period of appeals and litigation followed, meanwhile the casino remained abandoned.
10 Million Euro were allocated to the rehabilitation of the Casino, but due to litigation and political frenzy, the money and Casino have remained untouched. The mayor of Constanța in 2018, Decebal Făgădau, announced that the City of Constanța would begin public works and conservation efforts. Finalisation of the works were to occur on 14 November 2018, on Dobrogea Day, independent of the National Investment Company's auction date.