The Home of NYU Prague: The History of Our Small Square

Malé náměstí, the small square which is triangular in shape, may not be as famous as its closest neighbor Old Town Square, and may not have been where hundreds of thousands gathered with their jangling keys in the heady days of the Velvet Revolution, but even modest little Malé náměstí has an impressive and long history.

In the 14th century, Malé náměstí was called Ovocné náměstí (Fruit Square) in honor of the fruit markets held on its southwestern side. By the following century it was renamed to Pod Uzdáři (Under the reins) because of the accoutrements for horseback riders which were peddled on the square. It was only in the 17th century that the square was called something resembling its present name – Malý ryneček – which was Czechified to Malé náměstí in the 19th century.

The two buildings which currently house NYU Prague’s academic centers, Malé náměstí 2 (also known as the House at the White Lion – if you look above the Gothic portal, you can still see the double-tailed lion in the angled coat of arms) and Richtrův dům (Richter’s Palace) have stood on the square for centuries and have witnessed coronation parades march by, as Malé náměstí stands on the city’s “royal route”. The House at the While Lion is the older of the two, dating back to the 12th or perhaps even the 11th century. According to some accounts, the first Czech bible, which was the first bible printed in a Slavic language, was printed here in 1488. Only about thirty copies of this bible exist today.

Richtrův dům is now a fusion of what once were four separate buildings. It was built in the 12th and 13th centuries on Romanesque foundations, and in the 14th century was home to Prague’s first pharmacy. The building’s appearance changed over the decades and centuries, acquiring a baroque façade in the 18th century, completed by a large portal with classical columns in 1798. In 1836, the palace was bought by Jan Richter, a Prague jeweler who bequeathed it to the St. Bartholomew poorhouse upon his death. In 1882 the first Prague telephone switchboard was located here. After the decision to raze Prague’s Jewish ghetto and large swathes of the old city was made in the late 19th century, the central office in charge of selling property for development was located in Richtrův dům.

The primary reason for locals to visit Malé náměstí from 1855 on was to visit the U Rotta building -- Prague’s largest and best-stocked hardware store. This shop, with a storefront renovated in 1897 and decorated with idyllic scenes of workers and artisans by the celebrated painter Mikoláš Aleš, was a mainstay of Prague life until it was replaced by the Dům lahůdek (House of Delicacies) in the 1990s and subsequently by its current tenant, the Hard Rock Café.

The tract of buildings along the eastern side of the square remain city property to today. Until 2006, various offices of City Hall could be found behind the buildings’ ancient facades. Under the Mayorship of Pavel Bém, much of city hall was moved to the Palác Škoda in Nové Město (where the rent, paid to a Swiss businessman who allegedly had ties to the mayor, was several times the city’s current market rent for comparable space). For almost 10 years, the 6 buildings on the eastern side of Malé náměstí sat empty, the city receiving no rent from these lucratively located properties. In 2015, life returned to the buildings when city hall rented space in the largest of them, the “Dům u Zlatého rohu” (House at the Golden Horn) to the Scout Institute, which started organizing a rich array of programming for the scouting community and the public at large. NYU Prague has been holding events there for several semesters in cooperation with the Scout Institute. Since 2016, the city has rented out the rest of the buildings in that complex to NGOs and some departments from the Charles University Faculty of Social Sciences.

Today’s Malé náměstí can be seen as a textbook example of the dangers of over-tourism, with tourists snapping selfies by the ornate iron 16th century well and a glut of outdoor cafes overwhelming the square with their huge umbrellas bearing the logos of the Hard Rock Café, Coyotes Bar, Hotel U Prince and Taverna Toscana. But the presence of the Scout Institute, Charles University, NGOs and several start-up firms in the square’s eastern side buildings, alongside NYU Prague and North Carolina State University on the western and southern sides of the triangle, give one hope that the near future of the square belongs to educational and civil society-supporting endeavors. May Malé náměstí maintain a good mix of local, as well as global, civic culture in the heart of Prague’s Old Town.

written by Thea Favaloro, Associate Director of NYU Prague

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