The gold dome of the Vienna Secession building, the Art Nouveau landmark that is one of Vienna’s most unique architectural masterpieces and a popular tourist draw, has been robbed of several of its laurel leaves. The theft took place some time between 6PM Monday, April 23rd, and 6:30AM Tuesday, April 24th. Authorities believe they likely scaled the scaffolding to reach the dome and then broke off six to eight leaves. The leaves were pulled off roughly, causing an estimated 10,000 euros worth of damage to the head of cabbage. The damage bill exceeds the value of the stolen leaves themselves is only about 1,000 euros each.
Affectionately known as the “Krauthappel” (cabbage head) because of its spherical shape, the dome is undergoing restoration as part of an ongoing renovation of the building. It’s been 30 years since any conservation was done, and it was in acute need of repair to its wrought iron structure. The leaves needed to be removed, cleaned, regilded and reattached. The Secession launched a “Gild the Dome” fundraising drive where people could adopt one or more of the 2,500 leaves to pay for its gilding.
Starting in December 2017, the wrought iron dome structure, 28 feet diameter, was dismantled and the leaves removed for individual treatment. Each of the 2,500 leaves and 311 berries were cleaned, resurfaced and regilded, then manually welded back onto the dome structure on the roof. They’re almost done now. The dome restoration should be complete by the end of the month, theft notwithstanding.
The Secession building was the brain-child of a group of artists, Gustav Klimt most prominent among them, who chafed under the neoclassical strictures of the Viennese artistic establishment at the Academy of Fine Art. They wanted a new exhibition space to showcase diverse modern arts, from literature to crafts to oil paintings, in a setting that was itself a reflection of contemporary architectural styles. In 1897, they formed the Secession, a reference to their abandonment of the Academy to found their own association, and commissioned architect Joseph Maria Olbrich to build an exhibition hall in cutting edge Art Nouveau style.
The building’s modern materials, stark geometry, whimsical decorative elements like owls and lizards on the exterior walls and distinct lack of Greek columns did not endear it to the staid architectural community. It was roundly criticized, and the gilded laurel leaf cupola was derided as a cabbage head.
Because the plans scandalized the conservative city council, the Secession only had a 10-year permit, so they didn’t expect the building to keep standing past a decade. Yet here we are, and the Vienna Secession Hall remains in business today as the oldest artist-led institution dedicated to the display of contemporary art. The snide “cabbage head” insult has evolved into a term of warm appreciation.