Last weekend, we celebrated „zürifäscht“.
Once in three years, Zurich is having a blast. On two consecutive nights there is a spectacular display of fireworks on the lake, with classical music on one evening, and popular songs on the other. The fireworks are world class. 2.3 million people – half of Switzerland and droves of visitors from the near abroad – crowd the streets, drawn into town by food stands, Ferris wheels, high-wire artists between the highest church towers, a Hong Kong dragon boat race on the Limmat river, orchestra stages and bands on every corner. When the fireworks are over around midnight, masses almost trample each other to death on the narrow bridges across the river.
This year we enjoyed a special perspective on the fireworks of Friday night.
On our trip to China we met Magi, a well-known cartoonist from Zurich. She has a studio mid-town, at Winkelwiese #10. There we met for some Chinese soup (with Mediterranean add-ons), wallowed in China travel memories, and clambered up through a dark and winding attic staircase to a tiny open terrace on top of Villa Winkelwiese. From there, all of downtown Zurich was at our feet and we watched the gigantic fireworks from above.
Villa Winkelwiese is located at one of the most privileged spots within the most expensive city on earth. Its big stately rooms on three floors – more than three meters high, with parquet floor, a manorial central staircase, surrounded by a large idyllic wild green garden – is inhabited by a colorful apartment-sharing community of youngsters, about ten of them. Students, as far as I can tell: Easy-going, all in a tumble. Feels like a dormitory. And Magi has her studio here.
To Chinese soup and Tsingtao beer, Magi told us about the villa’s history. My memories have been dimmed by “zürifäscht” but enhanced by some internet browsing, and this is the story that unfolds.
In October 1929 – just before the Black Friday crash that turned into the Great Depression – a Swiss bank director by the name of Ernst Gross was on a business trip in New York. He smelled that something really bad was brewing up – he saw the crash coming – and he cabled home per Morse code, as it was used then, to his co-directors: “Sell at once, stop” followed by a long list of stock titles to be sold, mainly US stock. The immediate answer from Zurich was: “Makes no sense, stop, will certainly not sell, stop”. So he cabled back and ordered to immediately sell at least his private share of all these titles and cash them in.
This happened, the crash came, and while his bank – like all others – suffered monstrous losses, bank director Gross was sitting on a huge pile of cash, knowing that it would become worthless sooner than later.
That’s when he purchased – in one of Zurich’s most privileged locations – “Zur Schönau”, a residential house built in 1836 by music teacher Heinrich Arter. He had it torn down and in 1932 – when nobody else had any money – he built a villa in the latest style of the time – with knobs on, big electrical foldaway windows to his garden, walk-through safe in the basement (for all his money), wine cellar, a service elevator to transport prepared food from the kitchen to the upper floors, and so on and so forth.
The villa has two faces. Toward the small road – the Winkelwiese – it looks chunky, repellent, showing small windows and a lot of gray stone. It shows its charm to the other side, toward the large secluded garden, and in particular on the inside.
Ernst Gross, the banker, died in 1952 and left behind two daughters. One of them, Dr. Vera Susanna Gross – lived after her father’s death in the top floor apartment – unmarried and childless. The two lower floors were let in 1969 to the most famous citizen of Zurich – the former mayor Landolt and his wife. Both tenants were granted life estate by the Gross family, and it is one of the peculiar twists of this story that both tenants enjoyed their life estate until they passed away at the age of 100.
Meanwhile Vera Groß had died without relatives, and she bequeathed the villa to a charismatic sect. That’s when the city government stepped in and purchased the building in 1974 for 3.9 million Swiss Francs, without a clear concept of what to do with it. (Maybe they even had a concept, certainly some officials might have loved to move in there, but the last tenant with life estate didn’t consent to die for another 30 years).
In 2003 the ex-major’s widow, Frau Landolt, finally passed away at the age of 100, and the city put out to tender the lot and premise for a building lease of 62 years.
300 applicants moved forward and 31 elaborate project offers came in. The running was made by Frank Binder, heir to the German pharmaceutical corporation of Merck, who proposed to take the old villa down and erect a brand new big residence in its place. The price was 4.5 Million Swiss Francs plus a yearly payment of 210’000 for the 62 years of the lease.
Now a whole range of protests and objections was raised – from political parties, the neighbors, and just about anybody. The plans have been on hold now for 10 years and the villa is in a state of in-between. The student apartment-sharers – just as Magi with her studio – have temporary leases that are extended by quarter. Mr. Binder has a signed contract. As soon as his plans get official blessing, which could last another ten years or happen tomorrow, it will be torn down, and until then from its roof top terrace the villa allows for the most beautiful views on the fireworks of Zurich.