Old Town Hall became an administrative centre of the Old Town of Prague in 1338, when the estates acquired approval of king John of Bohemia to establish it. It was here where the Czech noblemen elected Jiří of Poděbrady as a Bohemian king in 1458. After the Battle of Bílá hora, it was used as a prison for the leading rebels, out of which 27 were decapitated on the 21st June 1621 on the square in front of the city hall (crosses marked in the pavement). The 18th century brought about significant modifications, when the four Prague towns united into one and the Old Town Hall became the seat of the town’s united official administration in 1784. The modifications were attended by the following architects: arch. Matěj Hummel, arch. Petr Nobile, arch. Pavel Sprenger, arch. Bernard Grueber, Jan Bělský and arch. Bedřich Münzberger. In the same year, the first commemorative book was established and since then, significant visitors of the city hall add their signatures in this book. The most prominent ones receive copies of the city hall keys as a symbolic key to the capital city. Since 1871, weddings have been held at the city hall.
From the 1st July 1922 until the beginning of October 1941, the Old Town hall stored remains of an unknown Czechoslovak soldier from a cemetery near Zborov. During the occupation, the tomb of the unknown soldier was removed upon an order of K. H. Frank.
During the last days of occupation, the city hall was the centre of the uprising, and the Czech National Council worked within its basement. On the 7th May 1945, the city hall was shot at and set on fire. The Eastern and the Northern wing opposite the Týn temple were completely destroyed, and the tower with the astronomical clock (Orloj) and the chapel were badly damaged. On the ground floor, the archive of the Capital City of Prague was destroyed, together with a library and valuable collections. To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the liberation, the collapsed part of the building was repaired, preserved, and the blank window was furnished with a grille and memorial plaques. The authors of these modifications were ing. arch. J. Koreček and academic sculptor J. O. Lankáš. There were several attempts to open tenders for completing the destroyed parts of the building, yet they were never realized. Surprisingly, the fire did not destroy the elevator within the city hall’s tower, which was made in 1927 and it was a rare piece, which was in operation for a long time. It was taken over by the National Technical Museum and added in its collections, and in 2000 a new elevator with a barrier-free construction was finally put into operation within the main staircase and in the city hall’s tower.
Throughout its existence, the city hall passed all the architectural periods. Today, it is made up of a block of houses from different eras, which were gradually added to it. The base is formed by Romanic houses, the remains of which are located in the basements. Yet the dominating style in the interiors and the exteriors is Gothic.
The city hall’s core is in the Gothic corner house of Wolflin of Kámen from the end of the 13th century. It has a richly decorated Gothic portal and a window with the emblem of the Old Town and of the Bohemian kingdom. A mighty prismatic tower was annexed to this house, 69.5 m high, completed in 1364, on which the astronomical clock was installed later.
Within the body of the tower on the first floor, a chapel was built with richly decorated bay, consecrated in 1381, and preserved until today. The chapel used to be open for public through the first floor of the city hall’s tower; at present, you can see a chamber with the astronomical clock’s apostles from this place. The chapel is made up of a crosswise aisle and a pentagonal bay. There is an emblem above the entrance portal into the chapel – a wreath carried by two kingfishers and the letter E – known motive of Václav IV. E probably stands for the initial of Queen Euphemia (Žofie) and relates to her coronation in 1400. On the outside of the bay corner, there is a copy of a remarkable Gothic statue of the co called Old Town Madonna, and excellent example of sculptural art from the end of the 14th century. The bay is one of the most beautiful monuments of our Gothic in the 2nd half of the 14th century. It is covered by numerous plastic decorations with motives of human faces and animals. The sculptures of the Bohemian patrons date back to the 18th century.
Ogive arcades of the former cloisters are applied in the fronts of the council houses. The next house, so called Western house, is decorated by a beautiful Renaissance three-fold window with an inscription Praga caput regni (Prague, head of the kingdom). It was made after 1526. Behind it, there is the wedding hall. Above the window, there is a full coat of arms of the Old Town of Prague cut in stone. Under the main cornice, there is a band with 19 emblems cut in stone, with the coat of arms of the Old Town of Prague repeated in the middle. The individual emblems are attributed to the council members, according to the number. Above the windows of the next house with a new-Renaissance facade and two high windows leading into the large assembly hall, there is an inscription: (translated as:) Mindful of dignity, strive for the best. There is the Old Town’s coat of arms in the middle of the facade. The original set of the merchants’ houses has been preserved in the interior layout of the cellars and the city hall’s ground floor, including Gothic ribbed vaults, arbours and passage ways from the 13th and the 14th centuries. So in the basement of the corner house U kohouta (At the Rooster), there is an original two-piece Romanic ground floor dating back to approx. 1200. Standing out is the house U minuty (At the Minute) with a cloister, originally Gothic, re-built in Renaissance, decorated by figural sgraffiti dating back to the beginning of the 17th century, discovered under the Baroque plaster only in 1905.
The council hall (or also the council room) is the most valuable relic of the city hall and the centre of all the former course of events, which was established in the second half of the 15th century. The entrance is decorated by a Renaissance marble portal with an inscription Senatus. There is a preserved beam ceiling with rich Renaissance paintings on the coffers dating back to the 2nd half of the 16th century, and with gold-plated chains. The sculpture of the suffering Christ from 1410 named Ecce homo represents a valuable piece of Bohemian high Gothic and is placed on a late-Gothic richly carved bracket with an angel carrying an inscription Sons of man, judge justly (Juste iudicate filii hominis). The town emblems are inserted in the portals above the door, and there are 46 guild and 12 town coats of arms hung on the wooden wall facing, partly from the 15th and the 16th centuries, partly completed in the 19th century. There is a beautiful Baroque tiled stove.
Further memorable rooms are located on the 2nd floor, and they are the Jiřík’s Hall and the Brožík’s Hall.
Jiřík’s Hall is named after the bust of king Jiří of Poděbrady (made by Tomáš Seidan in 1873). There are valuable wall paintings from the beginning of the 15th century on the walls. The hall was modified by architect Pavel Janák in the 1930s. On the wall, there is a picture named View from the Petřín Hill by Karel Liebscher, 1902.
Brožík’s Hall was modified in 1910 by architect Josef Chochol. It is used as an assembly hall and takes up the entire ground plan of the house and the height of two storeys. It has been named after the author of two spacious oil paintings on canvas (8 x 5 m), Václav Brožík: Master Jan Hus in Council of Constance and Election of Jiří of Poděbrady as Bohemian king. Representative Engel was the model for the face of Hus, and in the second painting, there are figures with faces of Rieger, of the sponsor Oliva, J. J. Kolár, M. Tyrš, of representative Mattuš, professor Stupecký, and even the actual face of the painting’s author and his father. The entrance hall is decorated by two lunettes by Brožík, originally designed for the National Museum’s Pantheon: Charles IV founds a university in Prague (7th April 1348) and Jan Amos Komenský presents his pedagogical work to the city council at the Amsterodam city hall in 1657.
The entrance vestibule with a Gothic vault was decorated in 1909 by paintings according to Mikoláš Aleš cartons with themes of Prophecy of Libuše and Tribute of the Slavonics to the city of Prague. The paintings according to cartons were realized by Jan Špilar. In 1937, they were carried out in a mosaic by painter Stanislav Ulman; the ceiling mosaic was realized by architect Jan Tumpach. Behind the entrance to the city hall, there is a copy of Myslbek’s sculptural group named Lumír and the Song.
The cloister with its Gothic premises serves the purposes of an exhibition hall.
Visitors will find remarkable namely the astronomical clock on the Southern side of the town hall’s tower. It was built in 1410 by Mikuláš of Kadaň, and perfected at the end of the 15th century by master Hanuš of Růže. According to a legend by Jirásek, the astronomical clock was built by master Hanuš. After the completion, Prague councilmen had him blinded in order to prevent him from building a copy. Master Hanuš took his revenge by stopping the astronomical clock. In fact, the astronomical clock really did stop in 1865, and there was a risk that it would be removed. Luckily, Prague watchmaker Ludvík Hainz managed to repair the mechanism, and he became its caretaker together with his descendants.
The astronomical clock is made up of three parts: at the top, there are mechanical figures. Every hour from 9.00 a.m. to 11.00 p.m., 12 apostles, each carrying his attribute, appear in the two windows below the small roof. In the left window, viewed from the visitors, the first to appear is St. Peter with a key, then St. Matthew with an axe, St. John with a chalice, St. Andrew with an X-shaped cross, St. Philip with a cross. St. James with a washboard, and in the right window, it is St. Paul with a book, St. Thomas with a spear, St. Simon with a saw, St. Thaddeus with boards, St. Bartholomew with leather, St. Barnabas with a scroll.
During the fire in May 1945, all the figures on the astronomical clock made by Eduard Veselý were destroyed. The original figures from the early-Baroque period have been partially preserved in the Museum of the Capital City of Prague. There were replaced by wooden statues of apostles made by woodcarver Vojtěch Sucharda in 1948. Together with the movement of the apostles, also the figures on the sides of the astronomical clock start to move. The skeleton pulls the rope and starts the apostles’ walk in the two windows via ringing. He nods towards the Turk – allegory of Lust, who refuses by turning his head. The Miser – allegory of Miserliness – nods his head with a pouch in his hand and shakes his cane in a threat, and the Vain man next to him – allegory of Vanity – looks at himself in the mirror. The Rooster in the window crows when the windows close – he awakens for another hour of life and the clock on the tower starts to chime.
There are immovable wooden figures installed at the level of the calendar desk, named Philosopher – allegory of Philosophy – with a pen feather, Astronomer – allegory of Astronomy – with a telescope, Chronicler – allegory of Rhetorics – with a book, and Archangel Michael with a fiery sword.
The astronomical clock is divided into a calendar with a zodiac and a clock. The calendar desk with allegories of months has been created in 1865 by Josef Mánes. Its original is deposited in the Museum of the Capital City of Prague, and there is a copy by Bohumil Číla from 1946 on the town hall. Besides several different times, the clock also displays astronomical data. The movement of the figures is formed similarly to that of a cuckoo bird in the cuckoo clock. The mechanism is placed in the town hall’s wall in a stone spire to which there are two keys: one for the caretaker, the second stored at the magistrate. There are lots of functional original parts in the machine. It is a matchless and unique technical relic. Before the end of the war, the astronomical clock was wounded via a crank, then it was connected to an electric motor. Big Ben in London works on the same principle.
The astronomical clock shows four different times:
The Central European time (Old-German) – it is shown by the sun hand, it is marked by Roman numbers on the sphere’s perimeter. The clock only started to measure this time after the reconstruction in 1948. Before that, the clock went by the Old-Bohemian time, when the new day started with the sunset (golden Gothic numbers in a separately controlled ring outside the sphere). Babylonian time (unequal) – the hours last longer in the summer than in the winter, because this time is measured from the sunrise to the sunset. Prague astronomical clock is the only one in the world capable of measuring this time. Star time is displayed on the Roman numbers. There is a calendar dial in the lower part of the facade. It shows the day and its position within a week, a month and a year.
A clock was placed at the top of the tower in 1805. There is a gallery for visitors offering views of the Old Town.
The astronomical clock was repaired and restored in the period between September and November 2005, with a reconstruction of the clock machinery, the astronomical dial and Mánes’ calendarium.
In 2010, the astronomical clock celebrates 600 years. This anniversary is not bound with a certain date.
The Romanesque-Gothic underground of the Old Town Hall.
The town hall underground gives insight into the time of the beginning of the Old Town. The city level was then several metres lower than today’s level. The city terrain had to be artificially increased due to frequent flooding, so that already in the 13th century the original ground-floors of the houses became undergrounds. The oldest part of the Old Town Hall’s underground is the Roman hall from the 2nd half of the 12th century, preserved are also the foundations of the tower, a hundred years younger. Wells and a cisterns for rainwater are located there. Naturally, there used to be prisons under the town hall, two of them can be seen even today. The use of the underground space by prisoners is evidenced by their names engraved on one of the Gothic portals. A sacred place with a cross of charred beams reminding the last days of the Second World War when the Old Town Hall was largely destroyed is also part of the underground.
The Old Town Hall is a National Cultural Monument.