History: Villa San Marco

History of the Villa San Marco

The Villa San Marco – originally Swallow Villa – has a turbulent history that reflects the changing fortunes of its surroundings. The building has changed hands several times, too often for a coherent narrative thread to be spun from the history of its inhabitants. There are no written records – they have been lost in the course of the numerous changes of ownership. The lives and work of the inhabitants have also left hardly any traces. Each section stands separately, as the individual owners of the villa had no relationship to each other.

The Villa San Marco which originated as Swallow Villa is the seat of the Merano Academy
The Villa San Marco which originated as Swallow Villa is the seat of the Academy Merano

From the few documents that have survived, we know that the villa was built at the instigation of a woman, namely the “hochwohlgeboren” Rosa Lohner. She was the client who, around 1894, commissioned the Viennese architect Alexander Graf to design a residential building on the large triangular plot of land at the intersection of Innerhoferstraße, Weingartenstraße and Grabmayrstraße in Untermais. Today’s Grabmayrstraße is called Hubergasse or Kirchsteig at that time, Innerhoferstraße, on which the access road to the villa is already located at that time, is named after Valerie, the last-born favorite daughter of the Austrian Empress Elisabeth. In the cadastre, the property is registered with the address Valériestrasse number 3. To the north, the property borders on the garden of Schloss Maur, which is later incorporated into the magnificent grounds of the Hotel Palace. It is the golden age of the spa town of Merano. In Obermais and in Untermais – at that time independent municipalities – construction is bustling. A large number of holiday domiciles are built for the aristocratic and wealthy families of the Central European upper class, who first come to the town as tourists because of the mild, dry climate in the Merano valley basin and because of the spa facilities, and then become permanent visitors with their own residence.

Rosa Lohner is the second wife of the Viennese industrialist Jacob Lohner. He founded the Lohner Werke, a renowned company that manufactures vehicles and engines and will shape the history of the then still young Austrian automobile industry. It was at the Lohner Werke that Ferdinand Porsche gained his first notable work experience at the beginning of his career.
Why Rosa Lohner chooses Merano is anyone’s guess. Perhaps, like many other holidaymakers, she came to the flourishing climatic health resort as a spa guest. When her husband Jacob died in 1892, she probably decided to turn her back on the hectic life in Vienna. In any case, in 1894 the architect Alexander Graf was commissioned to design a villa in the style of an Alpine hunter’s lodge.
The building plan provides for a spacious living room for Rosa Lohner on the mezzanine floor, plus a second room, which is marked “Maria” in the architect’s drawings. This refers to Maria Dvorzak, who appears as the owner of a third of the villa. The current state of research does not give us any information about who Maria Dvorzak was and what her relationship was to the building owner. It is even more difficult to trace Rosa Lohner’s everyday life in the Schwalbenvilla. Perhaps she chose the name Schwalbenvilla because it evoked in her the idea of a carefree life in a lovely, unclouded climate. What can be traced very well, however, is Rosa Lohner’s active participation in public life in the city. We know from newspaper reports that she was connected with the Merano spa committee, which was responsible for organizing spa operations, determining the entertainment program for spa guests and running the spa house.

Gate to the Villa San Marco

Rosa Lohner dies on 19 July 1910 in Igls near Innsbruck. The family tree shows no direct heirs. Not even a year passes and the villa is acquired by the couple Paul and Clara (or Klara) Förstemann from Alt Geltow near Berlin. The newspapers of the time report on this change of ownership and on Clara Förstemann’s charitable work for poorhouses and parishes.
On 6 November 1911, only eight months after the purchase of the property, Paul Förstemann died in the Schwalbenvilla to which he had just moved. The Bozner Nachrichten report: “From Meran, 6. ds., we receive a letter: Private Paul Förstemann from Alt-Geltow, who has been staying in our health resort with his wife for a long time, bought a house here last spring and had the charming Schwalbenvilla in Untermais adapted to his taste and comfort during the summer. And now, as he has been living in his own home for three weeks, a heart attack has brought his life to a sudden end. The body has been transferred to Germany.”

The villa passed to his wife Clara and remained in her possession until 1923, although press reports show that the widow Förstemann was only present in Merano until 1917. It is possible that Clara Förstemann preferred to return to her home town after the end of the First World War and the annexation of South Tyrol to Italy stipulated in the peace treaties. She died there on 14 December 1933.

After the fascist seizure of power in Italy, the villa suffers the same fate as numerous other properties in the new Italian province of Alto Adige: it is expropriated. On 4 November 1923, by order of the Prefecture of Trento, it became the property of the state. Four years pass before the property is given a new purpose: On 25 October 1927, the Opera Nazionale Combattenti, the welfare organization for war returnees, is recorded in the land register as the new owner. Most likely, the villa serves as accommodation for several soldiers and their families during this period.
Subsequently, various state bodies passed the property on, depending on what purpose it was to serve from time to time. In 1930, the property changed hands again and passed to the domain administration. This is probably also the year in which it was given the name Villa San Marco. From then on, the villa served as the headquarters of the State Construction Office, Department of Water Protection Structures, and as the official residence of engineer Aldo Andreucci (1894-1982), who had already worked in Friuli and in the Belluno area and was now responsible for water protection structures in the Merano area. Andreocci had previously worked closely with engineer Eugenio Miozzi, the builder of Bolzano’s Drusus Bridge and the famous Liberty Bridge in Venice. Together the two engineers developed a riverbank stabilization system, which was christened after them, and wrote the work “Tipi speciali di difese fluviali adottate dal Ministero delle Acque italiane in Val Passiria (Alto Adige)” [Special types of river defenses tested in the Passiria Valley (Alto Adige) by the Italian Ministry of Water Management], published by Vallardi in 1931.

The Villa San Marco now becomes a stately residence again: the family of engineer Andreocci undoubtedly cultivates a distinguished lifestyle. One of the first mentions in the sources from that period is when the family is looking for a maid. In 1931, the Andreocci couple announce the birth of their daughter Ines. Until 1934, Aldo Andreocci is intensively involved with water protection structures in the Merano area. It is not known exactly when and why he leaves his post in Merano.

Even after Andreocci’s departure, the Villa San Marco continues to serve the Water Conservation Buildings Department of the State Building Office. In 1997 it was assigned to the History, Art History and Archaeology Department of the Domain Administration. The building has been listed since 1981. Over the decades, several state officials and their families occupied the villa until 1993, when the Academy for German-Italian Studies rented the second floor and set up its headquarters there.

Source: Anna Pixner Pertoll, Meraner Villenbau um die Jahrhundertwende. Ein Beitrag zur Wohnkultur im 19. Jahrhundert

Find out more about the Villa San Marco: Architecture ➔