ALONG, ONE LANE ROAD leads from the outskirts of town to the palace. The road takes an absolutely straight course to its target, cleanly bisecting the fields which lie between; it could more easily be an old runway than a road. It takes me half an hour on foot to reach its end. I meet no one along the way.

Officially, this place is called ‘Sanatorium,’ but the name is as much of an historical leftover as the area itself; the sanatorium closed years ago. A few families still live out here though. The palace’s servant quarters and stables were converted into apartments. Some children playing by the lions tell me where to find the caretaker.

It’s unusual for these sorts of places to have a caretaker. It’s also unusual for these sorts of places to still have a roof and plaster on the walls, so the almost humorous collection of boards, barbed wire, tree limbs and what appears to be parts of old fluorescent light fixtures nailed across the windows seems to be doing some good. The rusty, dinner plate sized padlock on the door also makes an impression. One of the kids says the caretaker doesn’t let anyone in, and probably not you either, but you can ask.

When I knocked on his door and introduced myself, he did seem rather suspicious of who I might be and why I was there, but eventually we ended up sitting on some stumps in the old gardens, and he told me the history of ‘Sanatorium.’

At the end of the Northern War, Peter I granted these lands to Admiral Golovin, the “Father of the Russian Navy.” By the mid 18th century, the lands had been divided in two and sold off by Golovin’s descendents. Small Taitsy was owned by A.P. Gannibal (Pushkin’s great grandfather) and Large Taitsy went to A.G. Demidov, a member of the extremely wealthy Demidov family, which owned factories across Russia.

The palace dates back to 1774–75 and was designed in strict Classical style by I.E. Starov, one of Petersburg’s leading architects. Being perfectly square, the building is a rare example of centric composition in estate architecture of the period. Small round terraces complete each corner and the palace is topped by a belvedere, from which you can see the whole countryside. Demidov himself never lived here. The estate house was built for his consumptive daughter and there is some speculation that its unusual design was dictated by her illness; she could walk from room to room, enjoying unobstructed views of the parks and following the sun on its daily course.

Taitsy used to be surrounded by 220 hectares (550 acres) of parks. There was a landscape park, a regular park, and numerous pavillions and other structures. None of these things remain. The park’s most famous feature was a powerful natural spring, which has an interesting history of its own. When the Imperial family was building the magnificent parks of Tsarskoe Selo and Pavlosk, the architects ran into a problem: there was no nearby river substantial enough to feed the planned system of ponds and fountains. Furthermore, the relative elevation of Tsarskoe Selo prevented the creation of an artificial river to draw water from the surrounding countryside. The only water source in the area at a higher elevation was the Taitsy spring.

Over a period of 7 years—quite fast considering 18th century technology—two engineers built the Taitsy Aqueduct, a fantastic system of underground galleries, shafts and tunnels stretching the 16 km (10 miles) from Taitsy to Tsarskoe Selo and reaching a depth of 17 m (56 ft) as it passes under the Izhorian Heights. This aqueduct provided water for over a century, but by the early 1900’s it had fallen into disrepair. The last thorough examination of the aqueduct occured in 1904, when a student traversed its entire length, noting the condition of the rooms and tunnels. Now the aqueduct is quite impassable in most places. A group of volunteers made a heroic attempt to save it in the 1980’s, but ultimately they had to abandon the project.

The latter 19th century also marked the decline of the Taitsy palace. Demidov’s descendents had run into considerable debt, and in 1862 the government assumed the estate. The palace was remodeled and in 1897 became Russia’s first sanatorium for patients with respiratory illnesses. After the Revolution the estate was used as a resort for Party officials and as a regional hospital before finally being vacated around 1994. Over this time the interior appointments of the palace had been slowly stripped away. The caretaker described how for a long time the only two items to remain were an 18th century billiards table and a beautiful mirror. But then they were taken too.

By this time the sun hung low over the palace’s west facade and the stumps had grown uncomfortable. We said goodbye, I promised to send pictures, and started back down the long road.

I returned the following winter. A think blanket of snow covered the grounds and the palace still had locked inside it the weeks of sub-zero temperatures that preceeded my visit. Crystalline frost covered the insides, frozen walls glistened under a flashlight’s beam...

Location: Russia / Leningradskaja oblast' / Gatchinskij rajon / posjolok Sanatorij

Photography: Summer 2002, Winter 2003