Ivan Levinsky – The Man Who Built Lviv

Issue 76, February 2015.

Ivan Levinsky – The Man Who Built Lviv

Famed 19th Century architect fused the folk traditions of Ukraine with the modern philosophy of the western world to leave his mark on the architectural traditions of Lviv.

Ivan Levinsky is recognized as a landmark figure of the late 19th Century not only in Lviv, but right across Ukraine. While primarily known for his work as an architect, builder, and businessman, he was also a professor at Lviv Polytechnic Institute and a recognized philanthropist. He was one of the leading architects in his day, and is noted for introducing Ukrainian ethnic motifs into modern building methods. His artistic pottery company became renowned throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while his building materials company and architectural firm were among the leading companies in turn-of-the-century Lviv. His work on some of the most iconic buildings in Lviv – including the Main Train Station, Opera & Ballet Theatre, and Hotel George- shows how he literally left his mark on Lviv, and why he is simply known as “The Man Who Built Lviv”.

Levinsky was born in 1851 in Dolyna, in the Ivano-Frankivsk region, as the son of a folk school director. The family moved to Stryj after the death of his father and later to Lviv so he could attend the Lviv Real School, which offered a technical and applied sciences curriculum. Later he graduated with honours from the Lviv Technical Academy and moved on to professorial work at the Lviv Polytechnic School and at the Lviv Polytechnic Institute. It was this technical education, combined with his father’s love of folk art, which would lead Levinsky to start his own artistic pottery company. 

Fusing Folk Art with Western Technique: Levinsky the Entrepreneur

Soon after graduating in 1875, Levinsky partnered with Julian Zachariewicz to buy land in northwest Lviv (Kastelivka). In 1888, he began building his factory on Kzhyzhova St. (now 58 Chuprynky St.) and by the next year he opened his seminal Ivan Levinsky Tile Stoves Factory. At the beginning, it was a small enterprise – only 2 floors and 5 employees. Levinsky was interested in the development of pottery and bought equipment and a special furnace for making tiles, ceramic dishes, and the like. Soon after he hired professional potters and ceramists and by 1894 his company featured 25 employees making tiles, bricks, vases, sculptures, and other building materials. Clay was imported from nearby Glynsk (near Zhovka) and Oleyov (near Zolochiv), as well as premium coal clay from the Czech Republic. Just 20 years later, his company would become one of the most successful enterprises in Halychyna, employing over 800 Leopolitans.

During the factory’s golden years (1910-1912 especially), there were five separate units – each considered to be their own ‘factory’: floor and all tiles; decorative vases and dishes; small ceramic items; stoves; and sculptures. Levinsky was a pioneer – he engaged local artists, architects, and sculptors to create his original stoves, stove tiles, and tile sets that introduced Ukrainian folk motifs into the Western European tradition. His products were considered to be of exceptional high quality and unique style.

Building Lviv: Levinsky the Architect

At the same time he was building his factory into one of Galicia’s premiere businesses, Levinsky continued to work as an architect and constructor. You can still see many of his spectacular architectural works, especially in buildings on Chuprynky St. (11, 11a, 60, 103), Kotlyarevskogo St. (25), and Bandery St. (4, 6). His Ivan Levinskogo architectural bureau helped design and build many of the most famous buildings in Galicia – including such eminent masterpieces as Lviv’s main train station, Hotel George, and the Opera & Ballet Theatre. Working together with such esteemed architects as H. Helmer and F. Fellner, they also designed the Galicia Pavilion at the World Exhibition in Paris, the Chamber of Commerce, and many of Lviv’s hotels and banks. It is difficult to move around Lviv without noticing something that Levinsky and his companies had their hands in designing! It’s important to remember that Levinsky was celebrated even in his own time. For example, his company was awarded the Imperial Russian Technical Society’s gold medal at an international exhibition in Odessa in 1911.

Levinski’s style combined Carpathian folk architecture into Viennese Secession. He designed and built hospitals and sanatoria right across Galicia, including Horodenka, Kolomyia, Ternopil, Vorokhta, Zalishchyky, and Zolochiv.  For example, here in the Galician capital, he helped design the maternity hospital (originally the Jewish Beth Hulim Hospital) on Rapoport Street by incorporating Eastern and Jewish symbols into the Moorish Revival style of architecture. His pièce de résistance, however, remains Lviv’s spectacular Opera & Ballet Theatre, of which his building company provided local materials for the undertaking.

At the turn of the century, Levinsky’s enterprises employed nearly 1000 people and until 1914, his company received the exclusive right to supply facing and building bricks for government buildings across the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, at the end of WWI, the Polish authorities refused to pay for the Levinsky’s Austrian orders and his company collapsed as a result. He died in Lviv of a heart attack soon afterward and is now buried in Lviv’s Lychakivsky cemetery. Remembered as a gifted architect, cunning businessman, effusive philanthropist, and a true patriot, Levinsky is today considered to be the Man Who Built Lviv. While his factory would change hands several times over the years, it would never again be so glorious or influential as the Ivan Levinsky Tile Stoves Factory.