The kaleidoscope of fashion

24 Grēcinieku Street

Like all ancient cities, Riga is multilayered and complex. Riga has been rebuilt and expanded several times over the years due to fires that burned it down. The old stones retain many stories, but they remain silent. Libraries, archives, and recollections of witnesses help reconstruct the complex mosaic of time. It is painstaking work, like that of a gold digger, but it brings joy to the researcher who found the answers and explanations to his questions and mysteries! It is a feeling unlike any other – when the thread that you hold in your hand acts as a link between the past and the present. Now let us travel through time, where we shall walk down Grēcinieku Street, to House No. 24, and talk about the history behind the location of the FASHION MUSEUM.

One Street, Many Names

Riga was officially founded in the year 1201, however a settlement of local tribes appeared here much earlier. It was centered around the area where Rīdzene (or the Rīdziņa) River had flowed into the Daugava River. Now this is where 13. Janvāra (Latvian for January) Street is running, but long before this there was a landing stage located here, at the confluence of the two rivers.

Plan of Riga, 1638. Copperplate by M. Merian.

Photo: The Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation

Grēcinieku Street, or the Street of Sinners, is one of the oldest streets in Riga, and it may be called the city-forming street. In the 14th century records, it was named the Street of the Rich (Platea Divitum in Latin, 1387; de Rikenstrate in Low Dutch, 1402). In the 14–16th centuries, this street was highly concentrated with the real estates of the wealthiest merchants in Riga – they were attracted by the port, located on the Daugava nearby. The largest of these estates belonged to a merchant named Sundern, so in the 15th century the street became known as Sundern Street (Sundern Strasse). Some of the oldest parts of walls in Fashion Museum have survived since that time.

Incidentally, the gate at the end of the street along with the round defensive tower that was part of the fortress wall, were also named after Ratmann Wolfert de Sundern. In the 16th century the tower was used for storing the city’s grain crops, but during a fire in 1547 all the grain was burned down. Although the fire did not cause significant damage to the tower itself, it was still converted during the 17th century to what was considered at the time an advanced mechanized water intake facility. Horse-operated piston pumps pumped water via underground wooden pipes from the Daugava River into a reservoir located in the building next door. From there, the water ran through wooden piping into the city’s wells and the houses of rich citizens. This system functioned until 1863, as is apparent from the name of tiny Ūdensvada (or “Pipeline”) Lane at the end of Grēcinieku Street.

Gradually the name Sundern in the street’s title transformed into Sünder, which means “the sinner,” and so the “Street of Sinners” has appeared (Sünderstrasse, or Grēcinieku in Latvian). Consequently the name originates from a mere typo instead of an exciting horror story about sinners – what a disappointment, isn’t it? However it is very likely that sinners did walk down this street – after all, it led to the Town Hall Square, the centre of medieval entertainment, where Passion plays were followed by pageantries, competitions, tournaments, dancing, and festivals, and where the city scales and execution sites were located.

Fortifications of Riga.


Another interesting story relates to the 13–14th centuries: typical of the medieval period, many dwelling houses in the Old Town had long narrow yards behind them with household outbuildings – such as horse stables, cowsheds, and pigsties. There were also roads, on which cattle were driven up to graze on meadows surrounding the city. These roads were later built up, but the memory of their initial purpose persevered in their names for a long time. A narrow back street behind Grēcinieku was once known as Pig Street, and later it was given a better sounding name of Peldu (or “Bathing”) Street.

In 1677, almost all buildings in the neighbourhood were destroyed by fire, and new ones began to appear. The importance of Grēcinieku Street especially grew after 1701, when there was a raft bridge built at the end of the street (where you will find the present Stone Bridge) which was the first bridge built across the Daugava.

Old Riga before the Midsummer night, 1842. Litograph by T.H. Rickmann.


The street was often called Great Grēcinieku (Grosse Sünderstrasse), as opposed to Small Grēcinieku which was the street that led to the Blackheads House. The name Grēcinieku held out for several centuries, surviving great fires, sieges and the city’s transformation into a major centre of trade, industry, and culture for the Russian Empire, moreover, it even survived through two world wars. But in 1950, during the Soviet era, the street was renamed for ideological reasons in honor of a member of the revolutionary guerrilla movement Imants Sudmalis. In 1990, when Latvia regained its independence, the street was renamed back to Grēcinieku.

A Missing House

Looking at the façades of Grēcinieku Street, one can notice that House No. 24 is significantly younger than its neighbours. How could a building from a completely different era spring up amongst the old-timer houses of Old Riga? And what happened to its predecessor? In order to get the answers, we must go back in time.

House No. 24 Grēcinieku Street, 2015.

Photo: archive of Fashion museum

The twentieth century was particularly severe on the Old Town of Riga. On the 29th and 30th of June 1941, the crossfire between the retreating Red Army and the German Wehrmacht destroyed the central part of the Old Town, which included the Blackheads House, Town Hall, and St. Peter’s Church. The surrounding houses lay in ruins, and to this day, one side of the street which was once built up to the very embankment, still remains empty...

1944. On the upper right corner one can see Grēcinieku Street and demolished house No 24.

Photo: Latvian State Historical Archives

In the autumn of 1944 the situation was reversed: the Germans were retreating, while the Russians were pushing forward. Once again the Old Town suffered, including House No. 24, that was built for Ratmann Beck in the beginning of 18th century. In 1945 the ruins of the building were removed, leaving the site to remain empty for many years.

Façade of House No. 24 Grēcinieku Street, 1908.

Photo: Latvian State Historical Archives

In the late sixties, the plot of land was handed over to an influential construction organisation called “Latvmezhkolhozstroy” (later “Latvagropromstroy”), and in 1978, a building designed by two architects named Ilmārs Paegle and Boris Ozols was erected and still stands. It won the praise of the professional community as one of the few buildings that has been designed and built in perfect harmony with the architectural ensemble of the Old Town while displaying novelty, namely the use of aluminum for the exterior trim.

24 Grēcinieku (at that time Imanta Sudmaļa) street, 1970s.

Photo: Latvian Museum of Architecture

Ilgvars Niedols, an experienced building engineer who was in charge of the construction work at that time, told us that the organisation had managed to acquire the exclusive area for building, only due to the fact that in the late sixties, one of his former fellow students had been in a high position in the Riga administration. Moreover, in the Soviet times interest in the “bourgeois” past was irrelevant, although in this particular case historians were invited, and the builders managed to preserve the old cellars under the house.

After Latvia regained its independence in the 90s, a fire broke out on the top two floors of the house, one of which was the attic where the archives were stored destroying a lot of documents, including drawings of the building. Subsequently the house was reconstructed, and now it is an apartment building which offers a magnificent view of the Old Town.

Old postcard – port in Daugava River by the Old Riga.


An Enterprise for Each

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the economic life of Riga was in full swing. Although the landing stage, due to the lack of space, gradually moved further away from the Old Town, the port still dominated the street. For example, the very last house on Grēcinieku Street, which stood by the waterfront, was the hotel “Warsaw” with its famous cabaret restaurant: the visitors of the restaurant were mostly sailors from far-away countries, therefore it was often referred to as the Tavern of the World.

View of the hotel “Warsaw” on the end of Grēcinieku Street, 1929, Nikolai Herzberg.

Photo: Latvia State Archive of Audiovisual Documents

The neighbourhood was always crowded, in fact there was a city market on the Daugava embankment up to 1930. Moreover, nearly every house in the Old Town had its own store, shop or an enterprise of some kind. House No. 24 Grēcinieku Street was no exception – sometimes it was difficult to figure how the relatively small building could possibly accommodate all of these enterprises, offices and workshops. The house, however, had a “secret”: there were two smaller buildings hidden in the yard, where warehouses and workshops had gone unnoticed. There were many of them, from the Swedish joint stock company “Producer,” which, according to newspaper announcements, bought up “animal skins, hog bristle, and horse hair,” and the office of the “Minimax” joint stock company (manufacturer of fire extinguishers) to the “Kartopres” company, which made flytraps. For some time there was also a shop in House No. 24 which sold household goods, as well as metal and plywood... Production and trade in Latvia developed rapidly, and every corner of the Old Town was in demand.

Grēcinieku Street in 1929, Nikolai Herzberg.

Photo: Latvia State Archive of Audiovisual Documents

But the main activities of the No. 24 inhabitants included manufacturing and selling clothes and fashion accessories, and dancing. Beginning from the late 19th century, the building housed, sometimes on the on-and-off basis, a fancy goods store of the “J. Grün” company, owned by Izrael Grün. In 1909, he bought out the entire building, which belonged to him and his successors down to the end of the 30s. In the 20s, enterprising Adeline Tsilevich not only rented rooms in the building, but also kept a small shop for hat feathers in her apartment. In the late 20s and early 30s, another hatter, a certain Hirsch Lanesmann, moved into House No. 24 for a couple of years, along with his hat shop. And in 1931, the knitting factory (or rather, a knitting workshop) “Latriko” owned by vigorous Chaya Leah Levit, also settled in the building. For some reason, enterprising ladies found No. 24 highly appealing.

Passport of Chaya Leah Levitt, owner of the company “Latriko”, 1920.

Photo: Latvian State Historical Archives

As for the second activity – dancing, the dance courses first settled in the building, in the hall of the first floor, in 1910. Down to 1921 (with the interruption made by the World War I) the courses were managed by Olivier Keller, who was an experienced dance teacher. In 1922, when Moritz Grebzde, a new dance teacher, moved into House No. 24, the courses took on a new life. The fashionable and elegant Moritz Grebzde, who had studied dancing in Paris and in other European cities, imparted style and gloss to his project. He was a professional and an enthusiast, and in 1926, he was the first person to organize dancing competitions in Latvia. One could find advertisements of Moritz Grebzde’s dance courses in the newspapers at the time. His interests were not confined to teaching: he wrote book on dancing and even attempted to publish a magazine, but this project was unsuccessful, causing him financial losses.

Dance teacher Moritz Grebzde.

Photo: from Moritz Grebzde’s book on dancing, 1938.

Moritz Grebzde’s wife, Emmy, was also a woman of action and not devoid of commercial vein. She opened a beauty salon, at the location of 24 Grēcinieku Street. This was a novelty in Riga, especially since she had studied in Paris, at the Université de Beauté. Emmy readily shared her secrets of charm with the ladies of Riga. The most surprising thing was that she was in fact a simple village girl, who was able to make her dream a reality: a company of her own, travelling abroad, regular columns in a magazine, a wonderful husband – all of that appeared idyllic! Unfortunately, the idyll ended too soon: in 1931, the couple divorced. As the scandal sheets of the time gleefully observed, in 1933 Moritz married his dance partner, while Emmy became wife of a student.

Travelling passport of Moritz Grebzde, end of 20s.

Photo: Latvian State Historical Archives

Meanwhile, dark clouds were piling up over Europe. The dramatic events of history were reflected in the fate of one small house, much like a drop of water. The press of the late 30’s and early 40’s contained fewer advertisements, announcements, but more official lists of any kind: now individual houses, as well as people, did not matter, they could simply be brushed off... So, in 1939 the newspapers published lists of repatriates – the World War II began, and the majority of Germans left Latvia. Among them were those who were leaving 24 Grēcinieku Street. In 1940, during the Soviet occupation period, the newspapers published lists of nationalized companies and the knitting workshop “Latriko,” 24 Grēcinieku Street, was one of them... Nationalization did not last long: in 1943, the German authorities reported the elimination of the company. Soon the old building burned down.

Today, House No. 24 Grēcinieku Street is home to the FASHION MUSEUM. When you think about what was happening in this place before and the types of people who lived here, its present occupation does not seem unintentional. This ancient place, retaining so many layers of history and many amazing stories, is perfectly suited for a museum. Looking at its exhibits displayed under ancient vaults, it is easy to imagine how in the late 19th century, silk dresses rustled as they were elegantly worn by ladies from the wealthy family of Beck; what fancy goods were purchased in the Grün’s store and how, in the 20’s, graceful beauties hurried home after Moritz Grebzde’s dance courses, fluttering out of the house into the street. How fancy hats and elegant coats were left by ladies in the hallway of Emmy Grebzde’s beauty salon. Even now, the past is still nearby.