Monumental façades, marble pediments, balustraded balconies, mythical scenes painted on ceilings… The neoclassical mansions of Ermoupoli on the Greek island of Syros, are about as far from the tiny, sugar-cube houses so redolent of Greece as you can get. Along with its marble-paved streets, its imposing town hall and Italianate theatre, Ermoupoli exudes an air very different from anywhere else in the Cyclades, even 150 years after its heyday.
In the mid-19th century it was a thriving cosmopolitan centre of industry, commerce and culture. Then it was Greece’s leading port and second largest city, and a trading hub for the eastern Mediterranean. Those days are long gone, but Ermoupoli is still the only place in this part of the Aegean that actually feels like a city. It – along with rest of Syros – may not be on the well-beaten tourist track yet architecturally it is one of the most fascinating in the Greek islands.
The story of how the neo-classical houses came to be built on Syros is as intriguing as the structures themselves. In the early years of the 19th century, when most of Greece was under Ottoman rule, Syros enjoyed a special position. Its population was mainly Catholic, rather than Orthodox, and hence came under the protection of France and the pope. This made it a refuge for people fleeing from massacres in various parts of the Turkish-ruled empire.
The most notable influxes came after atrocities in the islands of Chios and Psara in 1822 and 1824 respectively, but they also came from Crete, the Peloponnese and areas of Asia Minor. In 1820, there were around 4,000 people on Syros; eight years later the population of Ermoupoli alone had grown to 13,800, and that figure burgeoned to almost 20,000 by 1853 and was just over 22,000 in 1889. (Today, incidentally, the population of Syros is about 24,000, of which a sizeable minority of 4,000 are Catholic.)
The Chiots, in particular, had a huge influence on Syros. Many were ship builders, ship owners and traders, who found the island’s natural harbour, as well as its central position on sea routes in the eastern Mediterranean very much to their liking. But they encountered one major, and very basic, problem – the indigenous Catholic inhabitants, who lived in Ano Syros on the hill above the harbour, were unhappy to have these Orthodox refugees amongst them and refused to let them build houses there.
Tale of two cities
The first solution was to build on wooden pontoons out in the harbour, but as the newcomers wanted to put down stronger foundations, literally, they began to build on the area around the harbour. In 1826 the new town was christened Ermoupoli after the god Hermès, the protector of trade. The well-to-do ship builders and traders made the most of the influx of Bavarian engineers and architects who accompanied King Otto following the establishment of a monarchy in 1833 in the wake of the Greek War of Independence. It was not just houses they built, but a complete town with harbour facilities, schools, a lighthouse, and water and sewage systems.
The earliest houses were very similar in appearance to those in Asia Minor, with Ottoman-style overhangs and enclosed wooden balconies. Few of these remain, but one excellent example can still be found in Apollonos street. The ground floor is of stone, but the first floor is constructed of lath and plaster.
The European architects, however, brought with them the neo-classical style that their Greek clients took to with aplomb. The architecture was fairly restrained at first, but later it became more elaborate and similar to that being executed in other parts of Greece including Athens.
There are two types of typical neo-classical structure on Syros: one with a shop or warehouse on the ground floor and living quarters above, and the other purely residential. You’ll find many examples of the first style in the streets behind the waterfront that still form the commercial quarter of Ermoupoli – for instance, the Stathopoulos bookshop on Stamatiou Proiou has been in existence since 1918. The area to the east and north of the main square is mainly residential, though a few of the mansions have been converted into hotels, so you can experience their grandeur for yourself.
Houses were built of either local stone or marble, or, more usually a combination of the two. Predominantly stone-built houses employed marble in places, particularly as supports for balconies, around doors and windows, as doorsteps and as parapets, cornices and pediments. Look closely at some buildings and you may see a band of marble a couple of inches thick running around the structure: marble was used as a course between floors. So easily available was marble in Syros, in fact, that it was even used to pave streets, and these can still be seen today, especially around the main square. The marble is from the nearby islands of Tinos and Paros, where it is still quarried today.
One of the most striking differences between the houses of Ano Syros and their counterparts down the hill in Ermoupoli is the work that has gone into the masonry in the latter. The pattern is regular, with blocks of the same size laid in an “isodomic” pattern, or in different heights and widths in “pseudoisodomic” style, though you can spot more irregular arrangements, especially on older houses. Corners are usually reinforced with larger stones, a technique called “quoining”. Those façades that were plastered were painted in a limited range of colours, notably white, pale yellow or ochre, which, along with the shades of natural stone and marble lends considerable harmony to long-range views of the town.
Flat roofs were the order of the day in Ermoupoli and usually they incorporated a layer of seaweed for insulation and a waterproofing course of volcanic pumice stone. Practically all structures were two or three floors high, though those built on slopes – such as the houses around the bay to the east of the town – took account of the topography by having three or four storeys at the back on the lower part of the cliff, and fewer at the front. Most houses would have had cisterns in the basements, which were usually barrel vaulted. The date of construction and, more rarely, name or initials of architect can be found carved on some façades, usually above the door, but you might also see dates in ironwork on balcony balustrades.
The floor plan was rectangular, with the sides perpendicular to the street being the longest, though often a wedge-shape was created to fit in with outline of the plot – houses nearly always filled an entire available plot, with courtyards being rare in Ermoupoli. You can spot a courtyard at the back of the Prasakakis mansion on Stam Vafiadaki street. Unfortunately you can’t see right into it from the street, but its trees are visible behind the one-storey wall, which incidentally has a double wooden door with a fine triangular pediment. (Update: I cannot locate this mansion on Google street view – there are houses with small courtyards along this street, but none with wooden door and pediment.)
Let there be light
Windows and doors are an eye-catching feature of neo-classical houses. The streets may have been relatively narrow, but even so, plenty of light flooded into the houses, especially on the upper floors thanks to the plentiful supply of large windows. The doors were often grand, almost always panelled and often with carved decorations, sometimes a marble porch with pilasters and fanlights covered with decorative metalwork. Windows, too, were frequently adorned with pilasters. Wooden shutters were common, usually louvre-style, opening outwards.
Look out for brass doorknockers in the shape of a hand – they are common throughout Syros and other Cycladean islands, and are said to protect the inhabitants from evil spirits. They are available for sale locally if you fancy one on your door at home.
Almost every house had at least one balcony, usually with marble base and corbels, or supports, and metal railings. Crane your neck and look up when you pass under marble balconies and you may well see carved decorations such as rosettes on the underneath of both the base and the corbels. A few older ones with wooden bases can still be seen. A building on Thimaton Sperhiou street owned by the Kois family has both examples: the main balcony on the top floor is of marble while the smaller one to the right has a wooden floor, and is also notable for its curved shape that accommodates outward-opening shutters.
This house is interesting for a number of other reasons. The ground floor is given over to an optical shop owned by the family: peek inside and you will see a high wooden ceiling supported by slender iron corbels on marble pillars – a very unusual feature. The private residence is not open to the public, but it does boast a magnificent marble stairway, with a very fine post decorated with carved acanthus and rosettes, while the ceilings are exquisitely painted with descriptive scenes.
Nearby are two adjacent houses that were originally owned by the same man – Mikes [sic] S. Galatis. One is a two-storey plastered house, the one next door a larger, masonry house on three floors. A narrow alley divides them, but at the top you’ll see an arch spanning the gap. It serves no function, it is simply as if the houses are holding hands so you know there is a relationship between them, in this case the joint ownership.
The streets of Ermoupoli hold other, more quirky, features. The Kechayas house, between Diogenous and Athinas streets in Vaporia, just east of the magnificent church of St Nicholas, has a stately pediment on the roof of the two-storey building. Yet look again and you will see four marble corbels obviously intended to hold a balcony on a never-built third floor.
The cream of Syros’s neo-classical houses were built between 1840 and 1890. The opening of the Corinth Canal in 1893 meant that the island ceased to be the hub of shipping trade in the eastern Mediterranean, while the development of steam took business away from Ermoupoli’s sail shipyards. There have been waves of revival and decline since, the lowest point probably being the hungry years of the German Occupation, when hundreds starved to death. In the 1971 census, the population was as low as 13,500. In more recent years, the growth of the Greek tourist industry has brought economic prosperity back to the islands, even those like Syros that do not depend solely on it for survival.
Walking the streets of the city, you’ll come across houses in a broad spectrum of repair. Some are on the verge of collapse, others have already succumbed, yet more could do with serious refurbishment but could be saved. Others need little more than a coat of fresh paint or new shutters, while others are in pristine condition. But while some have been lovingly restored, even made into hotels or restaurants so we can all enjoy them, there are a few where the restoration has been less than sympathetic.
Up on the hill
Visitors to Syros should take the chance to compare Ermoupoli with the old town of Ano Syros, not just for the architecture but for the magnificent views from the top. The town was probably first settled in the 13th century, and was built on a hill away from shore as protection from pirates. The hill is crowned with the Catholic church of St George.
Its streets are typically labyrinthine, and it was originally entered by one of several gateways. As with most of the other traditional settlements of the Cyclades, this made it easier to defend.
The houses are smaller, with thicker, rougher walls and smaller and fewer doors and windows. They are built of local stone, nowadays whitewashed because this reflects the heat, but originally they would have been in a natural colour to blend in with the surrounding hills and make them less obvious to invaders.
They are usually of two floors, with internal stairs and a trapdoor, and no more than two or three rooms on each level. The kitchen generally had a separate entrance. Extra rooms may have been added as the needs of the family for more space demanded. Disputes often arise today over ownership of houses, because one man’s roof is another man’s terrace – and the latter may even have built on it – and both will claim rights over it.
Many thanks to Sally Trainor and Hugh Farmer for their help in researching this chapter – as well as their wonderful hospitality!