Czech Fortress Reborn as a Home

International Herald Tribune

Blink and you could miss one of the tiny villages that dot the winding roads around Prague.

It was the search for a fixer-upper cottage that led Jan Sedlacek to one of them: the small town of Trebotov about 20 kilometers, or 12 miles, from the Czech capital. The community is better equipped than most in the area, with a modest grocery store and a couple of restaurants. But for Mr. Sedlacek, 57, owner of a real estate and construction investment company in Prague, the attraction turned out to be the local fortress, or tvrz.

Over the years, Mr. Sedlacek had rebuilt a few country cottages, but he wanted something close to Prague that he could work on. Photographs that he took when he first found the fortress show quite a ruin. The tile roof had caved in; the plaster walls were cracked and peeling. “It was very run-down,” he said. “But by the state of it I could tell it was manageable for me.”

The structure dates to the 10th century, but Mr. Sedlacek says most of what can be seen today is Renaissance-era architecture. Among the many residents over the centuries was a local priest who moved out in 1625 when the Catholic Church took over the property.

The fortress , like many such properties, was seized by the Communist government after it came to power in 1948. Restitution was made in recent years, but few families were interested in trying to revive such rambling properties.

In 2000 Mr. Sedlacek bought the fortress and its 6,035 square meters, or 1.5 acres, of land from the state for about 5 million koruna, now the equivalent of $249,380. Then he began to rebuild the living space, which today totals about 2,000 square meters, or 21,527 square feet.

“You can find many properties on the market and they are very cheap but in very bad condition,” said Martin Pracka, an architect with Studio 97 in Prague who handles both reconstructions and new builds. “While the situation varies from case to case, you can plan, on minimum, double the purchase price for a reconstruction. You have to pull down, take away and then you start again.”

Mr. Sedlacek agreed: “The purchase price is only the beginning of getting it into shape.” He said the two-year reconstruction, not counting furnishings or landscaping, cost around 100 million koruna. The work included the installation of security features and ensuring that every room had telephone and Internet service.

Because the property is protected, the renovation plans required approval from the National Heritage Institute.

“A major job was to track the building’s history and its previous owners, to include important historic details,” said Mr. Sedlacek, who supervised the project. “The reconstruction lasted from 2001 to 2003 and we focused on it full time. It wasn’t just the financing but finding the people with the experience and knowledge” to do the work properly.

The wooden steps throughout the property were refurbished, as were the door frames, which are a bit shorter than those used in most homes today. The kitchen is now thoroughly modern, but contains a brick bread oven and smoker that were there when Mr. Sedlacek acquired the building. He also commissioned made-to-order fittings in wood and metal to match the house’s historic feel.

Highlights of the property include a Romanesque wine cellar, indoor swimming pool, consecrated chapel and Baroque ballroom. The grounds feature a tennis court, an enclosed squash court and a 500-square-meter cottage with a kitchen.

The Sedlacek family lived in the house full time for about five years. But they eventually moved out when the family had grown to include four children, and they had opened the property for weddings and events.

Mr. Sedlacek put the fortress on the market in November 2011 for $10 million. (Top-end properties in the Czech Republic often are listed in U.S. dollars.)

That may seem like a long time without a sale, but Linda Martynkova, an agent with Svoboda & Williams real estate in Prague, which is representing Mr. Sedlacek in the sale, said it is typical for such properties.

“Bearing in mind it is a meticulously reconstructed fortress with a history spanning over more than seven centuries, and reflecting on the price as well, the number of potential buyers is naturally limited,” she said. “To find an ideal investor takes time.”

The price includes the period furnishings, which were handpicked for each room.

Today, the building could be used as a private home or a variety of commercial uses. There are self-contained apartments that could be rented out, or the building could be a restaurant.

Mr. Sedlacek said he is selling because he wants to focus on a new project, but he adds that the fortress was a pleasurable undertaking.

“There’s a different type of energy that comes from old buildings and material,” he said. “I tried at all costs to use original methods and materials, even going so far as to purchase other old homes for their wood and bricks. In doing such a reconstruction, you have to know what and how it was done in the past, which is demanding.”

Mr. Pracka agreed. “This should be a hobby, to look for added value and to improve the structure to broaden the history of the house,” he advised. “And buy something close to your heart.”