Art Deco gem could be torn down for view of the Parthenon

ATHENS, Greece (AP) _ A shimmering reflection of the Parthenon greets passers-by glancing up at the vast wall of windows atop Greeces new Acropolis Museum. But from inside, the picture isnt so clear.

A row over a move to tear down two listed buildings _ one of them an Art Deco gem designated a monument in its own right, the other owned by Oscar-winning composer Vangelis Papathanassiou of Chariots of Fire fame _ to allow a better view of the Parthenon from the new museum threatens to overshadow the long-anticipated venues opening.

The 1930 Art Deco building at No. 17 Dionyssiou Areopagitou St. was built by Vassilis Kouremenos, a graduate of Paris Ecole des Beaux Arts and reportedly a friend of Pablo Picasso.

It is probably the most impressive example of its kind in Athens, said Kostas Stamatopoulos of the Hellenic Society for the Protection of the Environment and Cultural Heritage.

With its pink marbled exterior, a mosaic of Oedipus and the Sphinx adorning the top story and marble statues of women in traditional dress flanking the wrought iron door, it is the most eye-catching building along the broad, leafy pedestrian road leading to the Acropolis entrance.

But No. 17 and No. 19, a gray structure that has not benefited from the care lavished on its neighbor, also stand between the new museum and the Acropolis. A visitor looking out from the museum towards the Parthenon would see the two buildings rear facade of plain, charmless walls.

In May, Culture Minister Giorgos Voulgarakis said at a news conference that the two buildings would be removed. Greeces archaeological council voted in early July to revoke the listed status of the more significant Art Deco building and allow its demolition. Although the council was evenly split, with 12 voting for demolition and 12 against, the head of the council favored tearing the building down _ and he carried a double vote.

The Culture Ministry said it would not comment on the issue until later.

When news of the vote to tear down the buildings emerged, outraged residents and architects launched an e-mail campaign urging Voulgarakis not to sign the councils recommendation. Without his signature, the buildings cannot be demolished. An Internet blog was launched, and e-mails of support began flooding in from around the globe.

Both buildings are at stake, said architect Nikos Rousseas, whose office is on the ground floor of the Art Deco building. They are very important. … No. 17 is a monument, not just a listed building.

Athens has sorely needed a new venue to house antiquities from the 2,600-year-old Acropolis. The old museum on the Acropolis hill near the Parthenon temple was cramped and overcrowded. It closed down in June, and the new museum promises to house artifacts that had remained hidden away in storage rooms because of a lack of exhibition space. A massive operation begins next month to move 300 marble statues atop the Acropolis into the museum.

Greeks hope it will one day house the Elgin Marbles _ a collection of sculptures removed from the Parthenon in the early 19th Century by Lord Elgin and currently housed in Londons British Museum. For years, Athens has sought their return, although the British Museum has refused. But a space awaits them in a gallery on the top floor of the new museum.

The glass enclosure of the gallery provides ideal light for sculpture in direct view to and from the historical reference point of the Acropolis, U.S.-based architect Bernard Tschumi, who designed the museum, wrote in a promotional leaflet.

The new concrete and glass facility, constructed after years of delays and fierce criticism over its location, structure and hulking size, is expected to open in early 2008. Critics say its style is incongruous with its surroundings, on the edge of Athens old district of Plaka.

We are tearing down two listed buildings to showcase one of dubious aesthetics and bulk, said preservationist Stamatopoulos.

And many are now questioning whether it is right to sacrifice Greeces more modern past in order to promote its ancient history.

Lets be more open-minded. Greece is not just antiquities, said architect Rousseas, who has posted information on the Art Deco building outside its front door, along with details of how visitors can help in the campaign to save the buildings by writing to the culture minister.

The new museum is not the one to judge what part of history is important and what is not, he said. We cant do things like that at the expense of other monuments and works of art.

Rousseas said the listed buildings had been taken account of in the new museums initial design plan, and the museum was allowed to be constructed taller than would otherwise have been the case especially to grant visitors a view of the Parthenon from the top floor.

The Art Deco building caught the eye of visitors as they gazed down on Athens from the Acropolis.

Looking from above, you can see the new museum and these buildings, said Michael Seigel, a tourist from Tampa, Florida visiting Athens for a few days with his family. Theyre very pretty. Theres no reason to see them destroyed.