Herculane Project: The young working to secure a future for Romania’s balneal heritage
A young team is working to give a new lease on life to the architectural patrimony in the spa resort of Băile Herculane, one of the oldest in the country while highlighting the role it can play in community regeneration and reactivation.
In 2017 a group of then architecture students set off to alert of the deteriorating state of many of the historic buildings of the spa resort of Băile Herculane, in Caraș-Severin county, embarking on a project to save the area’s balneal patrimony. They set up Herculane Project, aiming to reactivate the ensemble of the Neptune Baths and the resort’s historic center.
When the team started their work at Băile Herculane, they wanted to promote the area and highlight its resources and development opportunities. They were looking for various parties who would undertake the kind of project they are developing today. “Afterwards, we realized that it would be simpler and more efficient, for us as well, if we were the ones doing the project,” Oana Chirilă, the coordinator of Herculane Project, explains.
The encouragement received from professors and other people in the field they had come into contact with gave the team the impetus and courage to start working on the project, which began after a visit to Băile Herculane. Oana Chirilă wrote an article on Bored Panda, warning of the state of the Neptune Baths and pointing to the degradation process threatening many other historic buildings and monuments in the country.
“If they can be so beautiful in this sad state, just imagine how beautiful they can be when life happens between their walls. As an architecture student, when I saw it, I was shocked… I jumped inside through a broken window and couldn’t stop myself from asking: “What can we do? How can we save it?” And that question it’s on my mind since then,” she asked in the article, which gathered some 22K views in just a few days and helped kick off Herculane Project. A few days later, they were meeting with the City Hall of Băile Herculane. “And everything happened so quickly that we did not even realize we were already in the project; it didn’t make any sense trying to convince others in the field to do it but rather to do it ourselves,” she explains.
They set up the Timișoara-based Locus Association, a team that now encompasses architecture graduates and students, IT specialists, economists, marketing and communication specialists, but also collaborators of a variety of backgrounds and ages.
Nestled in the valley of the river Cerna, Băile Herculane (Hercules’s Baths) has a history going back to the times of the Roman presence in the region. It started to develop while it was part of the Habsburg Empire and went from being a military health center to which the public had limited access to a modern spa resort with culture and leisure facilities. The popularity of the resort endured through the Communist period, when new hotels were built in the 1960s and 1970s. Many wanted to holiday there to enjoy the site’s thermal springs and scenic natural surroundings. Besides its natural resources, the resort has 74 sites listed in the 2010 National Register of Historic Monuments: 14 archaeological sites, 55 monuments and architectural ensembles, and five statues.
At the beginning of the years 2000, the resort was privatized, a process which later came to the attention of prosecutors. Many historic buildings were left with an uncertain status and vulnerable to the process of decay. Among them, the building of the Neptune Baths, which the Locus Association is now working to safeguard as a first step in a long-awaited restoration process.
The building, which used to host thermal and sulfur baths, was erected between 1883 and 1886 according to the plans of architect Alpar Ignat. It is part of the Casino Ensemble, which also includes the building of the Casino and the Traian and Decebal hotels.
The first step in the project to revive the Neptune Baths architectural ensemble was the emergency intervention designed to stop the decay of the monument and remove the danger it posed to passersby and tourists. The start of a restoration project at Neptune Baths depends on settling the legal issues surrounding the site.
The building belongs to the Băile Herculane City Hall, but the land is owned by two private individuals, who did not sign off on the revitalization project at Baile Herculane, which means that the restoration cannot happen, only works to secure the monument. The team of the Locus Association is constantly in contact with the local and county authorities searching for solutions on how the situation could be settled.
“Drafting a restoration project would take a lot of time, and we suggested to the administration that it would be better if they organized an architectural solutions competition on the task book to have the best specialists proposing a project there. Again, to have the bids at a different level than where they were; it would take a lot of time, not to mention the entire approval process because it is a monument of national interest and needs to go through many commissions,” Oana Chirilă explains.
As the Neptune Baths started getting more attention, so did the entire historic center of Băile Herculane. Vila Elisabeta, carrying the name of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, who used to visit the site, will be refurbished as part of the RO-Cultura program, with the help of the Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway grant scheme, the Culture Ministry announced last year. The Hercules Square in the resort’s historic center underwent refurbishment, and funding was also allocated for renovating the former military sanatorium in the resort, another historical monument, built in 1906.
“It did transform in the four years. When we got there, the historic center was in a state of advanced degradation. Most of the buildings had been abandoned, anyone could go in,” the architect explains. “A series of investments appeared, and some works were carried out, including on behalf of the state but also the private investors present there. At the same time, we started having more and more projects, and I hope we brought a fresh breath of community and social projects there. What was very important over these past four years was, as a positive transformation, is the cooperation that exists between us as an NGO and all the other actors important there, such as the local administration, the departments for culture, the private investors that weren’t there at all before; somehow I think and hope that this aspect contributed to the positive changes. Three historic monuments are undergoing restoration there, the Hercule Square was restored in the historic center, a class B historic monument, and of course, the things we do at Baia Neptun contributed a lot to promoting the area and maintaining the monument in an acceptable preservation state.”
All the work the team does is funded through sponsorships or fundraising campaigns. “We don’t have a constant revenue influx in the association to allow us to work there regularly,” she explains.
In 2017-2018, at the start of the project, the team drafted a technical project covering the emergency intervention to secure the building. It was approved by the City Hall, and based on it the construction permit was issued. In the meantime, a part of the monument collapsed because works could not be carried out for lack of funding, and additional tasks had to be completed. “We managed to do much of the work in 2019, most of it from the technical project, but we also did some extra things, extra because even though they were not included in that project we needed to intervene as much as possible to protect the building and prevent a possible new collapse.”
A fundraising campaign targeted at companies is currently ongoing, and the team hopes to be able to raise a bigger sum to do several interventions at once, which would be more efficient. “We are currently in a waiting stage because we have some money we can invest, but it would be more efficient to do several works at once than doing single interventions once a month or every two months.”
This year, they plan to intervene on two roof framings that are in an advanced state of decay, “close to collapse, unfortunately.” They would also want to set up eavestroughs and drainpipes. “As this is a building 200 meters long, we calculated at some point that we would need more than 1 km linear of eaves and drainpipes. The needed quantity of material is quite large there.” They will also have to seal the building again as some people have forced the entries. Another project is to have the monument video-monitored, something that would require electricity on site.
To finalize all the interventions covered by the technical project, the team still needs to raise EUR 30,000 out of a target of EUR 100,000. “We have managed to raise some money because we have launched an online campaign, ‘30 Companies, 30 Donations’, and we already have several enrolled companies that donated and contributed; we hope others will follow as well.”
Donations of construction materials also help, from wood and building board to consolidation materials for monuments. “In general, reversible materials because the intervention is a reversible one meaning we cannot carry out permanent works like a restoration; all the things we do need to be easy to dismantle when the building is refurbished.”
Several companies have already helped the association with materials, and many have expressed interest in taking part in the restoration project as well. “What is interesting is the fact that we are in talks with several companies and from some of them we received written confirmations for donations; when the building is restored, they wish to be part of the project with donations 100% of materials. This is a very important aspect because it means that the building has an important significance from a constructive point of view for these companies and, in the future, when it can be restored, I hope that the administration or the architects that will work there will be able to take this aspect into account.”
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Asked about what authorities could further support the restoration project of Neptune Baths, she mentions several ministries. “Yes, the Culture Ministry could definitely push and make efforts to solve the legal situation, why not the Justice Ministry, it is, after all, a question related to justice there, the Development Ministry, the EU Funds ministry because large sums are needed for such a restoration; there are many actors at the central level that could get involved and contribute especially due to the fact that the monument has an emotional significance, in addition to its cultural and historical one. We are all connected to Băile Neptun.”
At the same time, the economic impact of the restored Neptune Baths turned into a modern spa should also be taken into account, she explains, as this would help other historic monuments in the area get refurbished. “The building, if it were to become a modern spa, at current standards, could bring high revenues to the community in Băile Herculane; it would also be an engine for the other historic monuments to enter restoration because when they were built, they were built in such a way to depend on one another. At least in the case of the Casino Ensemble, where the Neptune Baths are located, it is useless restoring one hotel if the rest are in a state of decay and cannot be used.”
The work with the local authorities entailed a learning process, but what matters is working towards the common goal, she explains. “We have managed to build a relationship built on communication and transparency; even though we had our small conflicts they got settled in time, and as long as everyone at the table, when we meet, understands that we have a common goal, things end well.”
Among the projects the Locus Association designed was a push to have the site included in a UNESCO axis called Great Spas of Europe. “It would have been a great opportunity for Băile Herculane, which is among the first spas in Europe and has all this history and diverse culture, but it wasn’t possible at the time.” A more active institutional involvement would have helped, but even so, if the option opens again in the future, it would be a helpful label to have. “Such a label would attract an even greater promotion of the site. For instance, at the EU funds for historic monuments, if they are listed as historic monuments, as is the case of Neptune Baths, a certain sum is given, but if there is also the UNESCO label, the funds were almost double for some programs. There are many advantages if the site were to be listed - for the owners, the administration.”
‘You cannot break the tie between a person and a site’
The association works with the conviction that the national patrimony has the potential to become an engine for community regeneration and reactivation and has devised several projects along this line.
This year, they hope to be able to organize the summer school for students, a project aiming to link Herculane Project to the university environment, among others.
“Over the past years the summer school was an important event we have there at Herculane; we were students when we started the project, and this aspect of bringing the youth there, of making interventions, of carrying further all the knowledge we acquired, of bringing in specialists and connecting them with the young is very important. If the pandemic situation allows it, we hope to be able to organize the summer school in August.”
They are also working on keeping the community engaged around the cause of the local patrimony in the digital environment, also bearing in mind the current sanitary context. “This year, we are organizing the project for which we received financing from Kaufland - Cornicari Digitali. It is a project to promote the patrimony in Baile Herculane. It will take place online; we have projects in this respect where we try to activate the community, not just the one there but also the patrimony loving one. We are trying to shift a bit the approach and do more online although you cannot break this connection between a person and a site or a monument.”
The team received mixed reactions from the local community. Some were very helpful, offering accommodation or food when they were carrying out works. Others were a bit more reticent, probably due to disappointing previous experiences, she explains. “The feedback was dual in the sense that some of them, when we got there were reticent, did not necessarily trust us also I think because in time there were many promises from so many people and when some young people come, with no resources, no money, no nothing and say 'we’ll do it', you think twice before supporting them. But there were very many members of the community who helped us, many who offered us accommodation, helped us with food when we had projects there, we have some who registered in the association, the NGO, they said they wanted to contribute.”
Meanwhile, some of the tourists visiting Herculane were very enthusiastic and wanted to help in any way they could. “What is nice to see is the involvement of tourists; in the past years, when we had projects there, many contributed. If we were working to consolidate a pavilion, they wanted to come and help with something, for instance, dig on a foundation. This was very interesting for us and a good sign, and we were very happy to see that this support exists.”
The members of the Locus Association usually save the weekends for going to Herculane to check on the site while working in the evenings, after their regular jobs, on the project. “A regular day starts at 5:30 – 6 pm; we meet at the office, we plan for the coming days, share tasks among us, do brainstorming on some projects, try to prepare bills, calls, draft emails, updates; it depends on what period of the year we are in.”
When it comes to the association’s short-term plans, the team hopes the intervention at the Neptune Baths will be finalized, and the building will no longer be a danger for passersby or tourists.
“I would hope that in two years, the intervention at the Neptune Baths is finalized and the building preserved, without structural issues, that it is no longer a danger for passersby, tourists, anyone passing by there.”
She would also like to see a bit more support from the authorities for patrimony projects in general.
“I would also like to see a more focused endeavor from the state authorities towards the restoration and reactivation of the monument. Beyond what we do, and I hope we will manage to finalize, I would like to see a little more support from the central administration for such projects, not necessarily only for Herculane but for other areas as well. Cultural patrimony is such a wide component of our resources, and it is a pity not to make use of it as we should, especially in the current context. Not just the baths but also historic houses and buildings that can be reused. It would be good to start to generate programs through which we can support owners and administrations to make an effort in this respect.”
In the meantime, the cooperation between all the parties involved remains key in furthering the project of reviving the Neptune Baths.
“I hope we will carry on with the same perseverance because it is not that easy being active in the cultural sector. With Băile Herculane, we were lucky that the place is a brand in itself, it is well known, everybody has been to the resort, has some sort of connection with it; there is also the nostalgia of some memories and stories, and this helps us. […] I believe the key is the cooperation between all the stakeholders; it is not that easy bringing them all at one table and making them stay once they are there.”