Urbanc Palace Reconstruction

Urbanc department store in Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia, was built in 1903 in French Art Nouveau style. There are six large display windows in the entrance hall, that were equipped with beautiful Art Nouveau etchings on glass, but after 100 years only one was preserved intact. The pieces of the second one, that was shattered in 1989, were also preserved for eventual future reconstruction and were very important for understanding the ornament differences on windows of different height. In summer 2011 began the reconstruction of the six glass plates and finally in summer 2012 they were built-in. The ornamental acid etched glass in Urbanc Palace is a unique example of the architectural heritage of European Art Nouveau in all its beauty and size as well as a rare witness of once flourishing art and craft of glass etching.

Urbanc Palace in the early twentieth century with the glass etchings on inner side of three left and three right shop windows at the entrance. After the WWI Ljubljana lost some Austro-Hungarian glare and became a part of the underdeveloped balcan Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. You can notice on the first left window, that etched glass was covered to hide the ornament, that was not fashionable any more in the thirties.

St. Mary square in the early thirties with Urbanc Palace on the right side of St. Mary’s church. The two buildings stand on  the south end of the main street to the railway station on the most important square at the time.

Concise summary

The Urbanc Palace building was completely restored and Shop interiors fully equipped in spring 2011, when the high fashion department store Gallery Emporium was opened. The only missing part, that should be added to complete the reconstruction, were windows with acid etched ornaments. The windows, where etched glass should be built in, were glazed with industrial frosted glass until the reconstruction would be finished. In summer 2011 we signed the contract and started with work. The job couldn’t be done in our Studio, because the glass was too big to be brought in, so we rented an industry hall. We didn’t know how many difficulties were waiting for us in the process, as we didn’t embark on something so big before.

Acid etching of glass is a very dangerous process where hydrofluoric acid and its salts are being used, which is highly corrosive on human tissues, so high measures of safety were taken into account.

We took great care, that the expenses didn’t go overboard, as we didn’t know exactly how long it would take and how many windows would be finished successfully. We started preparing facilities for etching and in the same time we produced first samples 1 by 1,5 m in size, to set all the parameters, strength of acid and adhesion of resist materials. In November 2011, after eight samples were made and the expected quality was reached, we started with the first big glass and successfully finished it just before Christmas.  We expected the whole project to be finished in February 2012, but there were so many issues to be solved during the process, that we finished the last etched glass in late April 2012.

Two close up details of the new windows, showing the different layers of opacity and transparency.

The glass was installed in the window frames in early September this year, when all the missing details of inside structure of the store windows were finally successfully solved.

Instead of 7mm grinded optical glass, used in 1903, we used 6mm toughened float.


We know that there are only a few, maybe even less than ten, workshops capable of reproducing the historical acid etched glass in Europe nowadays. And the recession forced our dear colleague from Vienna to close his shop in 2010 after more than one hundred years of continuous operation. Studio for etching glass Goddard and Gibbs in London was closed even a year before. We’re trying to keep the art and craft of glass etching running in spite of ignorance by Slovenian governmental institutions for preservation of cultural heritage and market which is successfully killing the most fragile and noncommercial arts and crafts.

The beauty of Art Nouveau ornament and the size of the glass make our project unique in European context. You can’t find anything similar in European cities and what’s most weird of all is that not one single book on art of architectural glass etching has been written yet.

Detailed description

The Urbanc Palace was built in 1903 by the architect Fridrich Sigmund as the first modern department store in Ljubljana, a provincial capital of Austro Hungarian monarchy at the time. It was a part of great modernisation after the earthquake in 1895, when hundreds  of chimneys collapsed and thousands of cracks appeared and gave a good excuse to demolish many beautiful baroque buildings and renaissance palaces, replacing them with modern architecture with big windows and lots of architectural ornaments from the catalogue.  Only few replacements were better than the buildings before them and Urbanc Palace is certainly one of them. The architecture shows some French and Belgian influences and is composed in Art Nouveau style. Only twenty percent of the building was initially used as a store, the rest in lower floors was used for storage and the third and fourth floors were apartments.

Only the place that is used as the entrance hall today was the shop at the beginning of 1903. It was designed as a gallery with the curved stairs and decorative pillars in the middle of the space with the sculpture of a woman symbolising textile crafts. It was surely one of the most beautiful Art Nouveau shop interiors at the time. Six shop windows were glazed with the 7mm optically perfect glass, which was not common at the time. Almost all other shop windows were glazed with sheet glass that has optical disturbances, when looked through.

The inner glass plates were decorated with the Art Nouveau floral ornament with the acid etching process that was quite popular at the times. The size of the plates however is 2×3 m,  which makes them extraordinary large for acid etched glass, so we believe that there were only a handful in Europe at the time.  And there was not much time left to make bigger and better ones around Europe as the war started knocking on our doors.

The First World War was such a shock for Europe that nothing was the same after 1918. New times brought new hopes and new beauty, so no historicistic or Art Nouveau style has ever been used again. Change of aesthetic measures and rejection of rich ornaments of the past caused the many crafts to die. One of them was acid etching of glass and you can hardly find an etched glass that was made in the twenties or thirties in Europe, especially in middle Europe.

Europe lost almost all acid etched glass plates in the Second World War. Many cities were bombarded and the glass is the most fragile of all things, so not much was left. This is the reason why we don’t even have a single book on the subject of architectural etched glass today.

It was in a way erased from human memory. On other hand we have thousands of books on stained glass, which has a more durable structure and many survived the terror of war.

Ljubljana was not bombarded in WWII and many etched glasses were preserved, but vandalism and communism took their part too, so we lost at least a half from 1950 to today. A few were shattered and many were stolen. The Urbanc Palace was nationalized by the state after communists established dictatorship in 1945.

Emptied department store in the iron years after the communist revolution. The picture was taken in 1950, when the building and the business  was nationalized by the dictator regime. There is a slight shadow on the first left window showing the shiny image of the etched ornament.

Public property in the sixties with the picture of dictator Tito and blankets on the shelves, where finest textile was sold in the times not so far back, not to be remembered. Sic transit gloria mundi.

The building was misused and disrespectfully rebuilt two times until the fall of Yugoslavia and declaration of Slovenia’s independence.

Pictures  from  2006, just before the property was given back to the owner’s ancestors,  show the last stage of barbarianism, caused by the proletarian revolution. There is not a trace of an normal relation betwen the quality of the building and the quality of the business inside it.

When the owner’s ancestors got the building back in 2006, they immediately started with the conservation. The house was carefully restored under the control and with help of two governmental institutes, Zavod za varstvo kulturne dediscine and Restavratorski center. The law in Slovenia gives a lot of power to the governmental Institute for preservation of cultural heritage, so they almost can force the owner to restore and reconstruct every detail. And the reconstruction of  the acid etched glass was among them.

The city of Ljubljana and Ministry of culture covered part of the costs for restoring the façade and roof with all the architectural ornamentation.

The building is declared a monument of architectural heritage.

How it looked like before the project began

After the Second World War and the communist revolution the building and business was nationalized from the owner Felix Urbanc, who built the department store in 1903 and ran the business for almost fifty years. During the communist dictatorship the Urbanc palace was still used as a department store, but as the population became poorer and poorer, the store sold lousier and lousier things. At the end of the nineties it was used as an outlet for textiles and kitchenware. Up to 2006, when the denationalization gave the building back to the owner’s ancestors, the picture inside the store was really grotesque.

Two pictures of the only preserved original, the upper one was taken in 1985 and the lower in 2006. The original was thoroughly cleaned and is waiting for its new life in a small museum in the fifth floor of the Urbanc Palace in future.

The two remaining acid etched ornamental window glasses were covered with paper, curtains and hidden behind the store shelves for all the time from 1950, while the building was considered “public property”. On New Year’s Eve 1988/89 cheap champagne was sold on the square in front of Urbanc Palace in bottles only, so someone who didn’t know what to do with the empty bottle threw it in the very appropriate show window of Urbanc Palace and shattered one of the two remaining etched glass plates. I noticed that next day while walking by the house and went there after the holidays, to ask for the broken pieces and kept them in my studio for more than twenty years, when they helped us to reconstruct the varieties of the ornament.

Two pictures of the fragments of the shattered glass, taken for the digital assembly.

There was no photography of the interiors in which etched glass is visible, so if the cracked pieces of the broken window wouldn’t have been kept, it would be completely impossible to conclude that the ornament was not the same on all the windows, but was raised with the height of the windows.

There was an exhibition on acid etched glass in Ljubljana in 1971, where 126 photographs were exhibited, but the ones from Urbanc Palace were not among them, because they were hidden behind the shelving and curtains, so nobody noticed them then. Acid etched glass is sometimes visible as dark lines on light background and sometimes as white lines on dark background, depending on the light. This is why the etched glass is one of the most difficult objects to take pictures of.

Cronology of the project

Visualisation of the only preserved acid etched glass prior to reconstruction in spring 2011.

Visualisation of the six new acid etched glass plates after reconstruction in autumn 2012.

  1. The project should reconstruct the original outlook of the richly ornamented acid etched glass of six shop windows, left and right from the main entrance, that were almost all destroyed in the last hundred years. Other architectural decorations in the building are beautiful but common, while acid etched glass of that size is something very special and rare and also extremely difficult to produce.
  2.  Research was made to find all the available photographs of the original glass but there were only few from the eighties, one of which was taken by my team. We carefully cleaned and scanned the remaining etched glass and small parts of the shattered one. The perfect surface of the original 7mm glass shows that the grinded and polished optically perfect glass was used.
  3. We started with cleaning the original, scanning it, continued with assembly of shattered glass parts digitally, retouching all the mistakes and errors on original drawings, preparing the working plans for the two glasses after the originals, preparing structural sketches for the four missing ornaments (three of them are equal, so only two different drawings were made), the two missing ornaments were drawn.
  4. We prepared the acid mixtures for all three stages of etching and made samples to discover the sought after transparency and opacity, calibrating the resist mask to reach the right thickness of drawing lines (acid is etching in all directions and is making lines thinner, so they should be drawn a little bolder to get it right at the end)

Resist masks (three on each glass plate) were drawn and three etchings in 350 liters of etch mixture were done for each glass plate. The resist masks were then removed and the glass was cleaned.

  1. Because we feared the unknown difficulty factors caused by the size of the glass, we didn’t take enough care to make pictures of the process and stages of work.
  2. We believed that the quantity and hydraulics of the enormous amount of acid will present the major problem, but this was easily managed. The most demanding part was the optical geometry of scans of the parts of the shattered glass plate. It was not possible to put the pieces together unless the scans were perfectly taken in two dimensions only and without any distortion.
  3. The only conservation method was to make copies with the same ornament.
  4. We used the exact same process of etching as was used in 1903, with almost completely equal results.
  5. The 7mm glass plates are not produced any more, so we took 6mm float that was strengthened to get even better durability.
  6. The results are more than satisfying and the windows contribute to the outlook of the interior.
  7. The acid etched glass is easy to maintain and does not stain like sandblasted ones. The only maintaining procedure is cleaning with glass cleaner and wiping it dry.
  8. The project was well accepted by the local media and got a large publicity.
  9. We believe that governmental authorities made a great mistake by permitting the architect of the shop interior, to close the once opened windows, to get more walls for arrangements inside the shop window. The shop windows should be clear, so the unique acid etched glass plates could be seen from inside and outside. It is very important for etched glass, to be “between” the inside and outside life and movement. The way as it is built-in now, makes the etched glass visible only from the inside and without seeing through it. The artificial light and the white curtain behind the etched glass is definitely a flop made by governmental conservators.

Glass acid etching

There are only a few arts and crafts in human history that somehow disappeared and nobody cares for them. Acid etched architectural glass is one of them. Every project of reconstruction is an important contribution to keep it in people’s perception.

We started in 1985 with no help from the old masters as there was never a glass etching workshop in Ljubljana, nor any place else in Slovenia. We learned everything from old German and English technical books and from experimentation and practice. Through time we reached knowledge that was superior to our Vienna colleague, who inherited a glass etching workshop, that ran since late nineteenth century and whom I visited for the first time after ten years of work. I expected to learn something from him, but it was more the opposite.

Arts and crafts of that kind are non commercial. We lack a European Chamber of Commerce that would have the goal to keep an eye on the few most endangered (but precious) arts and crafts of Europe. They could help them promote their service Europe wide and should help them with organized European presence on the most important fairs worldwide.  Millions of Euros are given to European farmers, but not a cent for European Arts and Crafts.

Europe Nostra is a marvellous project and it should grow high. Hopefully the time will come, when a big book of European rare arts and crafts will be published.

It is not a coincidence that I first heard for Europa Nostra, when I bought “an interesting book” in an antique book shop in Luzern. It was a jubilee edition for the 40th Anniversary with projects from all over the Europe and wider. I thumbed through several times, but there was not a single project from Slovenia in it. Somebody was taking great care in Slovenia that nobody would hear for Europa Nostra organisation.