A Remnant of Its Era
Once known far and wide as a leading luxury hotel, the Südbahnhotel am Semmering today stands in the shadow of its nostalgic past, perched on the edge of the foothills of the Viennese Alps. I imagine it taking in the sight of the gaping abyss every morning and asking itself anew: How much further forward can I lean? Where can my soul escape to when the driving winds blow my history away once and for all? Or should we invert this gloomy thought. Might it not be more a matter of the individuals who find their way here today? Individuals such as the artist and photographer Yvonne Oswald. Born in the Salzkammergut lake region of Upper Austria, she first studied at the University of Applied Arts Vienna, then crossed the Atlantic to attend Parsons School of Design in New York and returned via Paris to Friedl Kubelka’s School of Artistic Photography in Vienna. It is not the countryside that intrigues her, it is city life. And yet it was years ago on a walk in the countryside around Semmering that she stepped around that final curve in the road, the hotel still hidden from view. Suddenly it spread out before her in all its grandeur: the sight overwhelmed her. On tiptoes, she peered into the old windows for a first glimpse of what had once been the soul of fin de siècle Vienna. And she was fascinated. “I could not stop asking questions about the history of this place. I just knew I had to do more here.”
“I could not stop asking questions about the history of this place. I just knew I had to do more here."
“I tried to get a sense of who was here, what was here and why everything was the way it was. You have to fall into a deep, meditative silence to do that. For me, this work was like traveling to another world, as if I were aboard a ship floating over the countryside. In these rooms, passionate love affairs played out, people died, culture was created.”
A Place Where Viennese Society Loved to Gather
Negotiations with the owner followed and a five-year photography project began unfolding. “The stories, the people, everything in this building was still so palpable. Like an elderly woman you would never think of reproaching for her age.” A grande dame you might say. As a former grand hotel, this complex has so many more stories to tell than could be touched on in this text. The Südbahnhotel was built in 1882 at an elevation of exactly 1000 meters above sea level. It was one of several major hotel projects of the Südbahngesellschaft (Austrian Southern Railway Co.). It was a spot where Viennese society loved to gather, a stunning gem in the crown of Austrian architecture, society and tourism. Gustav Mahler, Sigmund Freud, Gerhard Hauptmann, Karl Kraus, all of them were here. That is, until the impending Second World War sent its harbingers of doom. “With its law banning Jewish society from stepping foot in a hotel, the National Socialists sealed the demise of the Südbahnhotel.”
Today the building stands empty. Yet the old walls, the faded divan, the vast Waldhof Hall, the chandeliers, fabrics and wallpapers – they all tell tales of that long-ago age. As long as people like Yvonne Oswald keep listening carefully. “I tried to get a sense of who was here, what was here and why everything was the way it was. You have to fall into a deep, meditative silence to do that. For me, this work was like traveling to another world, as if I were aboard a ship floating over the countryside. In these rooms, passionate love affairs played out, people died, culture was created.” She tried to capture all that in her book about the Südbahnhotel, to provide a narrative for it, to illustrate it. A work that would touch people. And that would see the kind of triumphs the history of a grand hotel deserves. A solo exhibition in the Jewish Museum in Vienna in 2015 got things off to a good start; this year the series of works was featured in a show in New York.
A Backdrop for Nostalgia
It is uncertain what the future holds for the Südbahnhotel: “I hope fate smiles kindly upon this Grande Dame. The hotel would be difficult to use for tourism. I would envision it developing more into a cultural venue.” A vision that seems to be coming closer and closer to fruition. After the decade-long stand of the beloved theater festival Festspiele Reichenau, literature and music will once again resound within these venerable walls with the Kultur.Sommer.Semmering festival. Albeit temporarily. But yet with lasting effects. As Gustav Mahler once said: “... one is, so to speak, only an instrument upon which the universe plays.” And the Südbahnhotel is far from relinquishing the stage as one of those instruments.