It all began with a love story: at the time of Empress Catherine the Great, celebrated actor of her majesty’s court theater, Sila Sandunov, fell for fellow actress and Empress’s protégé Elizabeth Uranova. Unfortunately their mutual affection was jeopardised by the Grand Chancellor of Russia himself – Prince Alexander Andreyevich Bezborodko, who wanted Elizabeth as his mistress. Lucky for the forbidden lovers, Catherine the Great took the matter in hand: not only did she blessed their marriage, the Empress gave Elizabeth diamonds as a part of her trousseau.
The newlyweds moved from St. Petersburg to Moscow, where commercially-savvy Sila decided to invest his wife’s money into building an upscale bathhouse. This was a clever move as the fire of 1737 had destroyed most of public banyas in the city. Moscow’s first stone bath house, Sandunovsky banya opened its doors in 1808 and enthralled the public with deluxe furniture and elegant silver tubs. Sila Sandunov was the first to introduce male and female sections in a bathhouse, before that men and women had to bathe in the same room.
In 1890s Sanduny underwent a profound transformation, when the new owners – millionaire heiress Vera Firsanova and her husband A.N. Gonetskiy – decided to turn the worn out banya into a bathing palace. Gonetskiy spent several years travelling the world and studying bath traditions in different countries: from architecture to technologies. He returned to Moscow with the most ambitious banya project in Russia’s history and invited Boris Freidenberg, one of the best Viennese architects at the time, to to help him implement it.
Finished in 1896, the refurbished banya was not just a visual stunner, but a technological marvel as well. Interiors of the electrically-lit three-storied palace combined elements of baroque, rococo, gothic, classicism and industrial style. To ensure there was enough water, Gonetskiy had built an aqueduct and set up expensive water filters. Also the new Sanduny offered their services to both rich and poor, and the cheaper rooms were cleaned as thoroughly as the expensive ones.
Sandunovsky banya has survived three wars, a revolution, multiple government changes and still remains Russia’s most spectacular bathhouse. Sanduny’s walls remember Pushkin, Chekhov and opera singer Shalyapin – the latter used to call the place “Tsar banya” – and have recently seen celebrities like John Travolta and Naomi Campbell.
Today Sandunovsky banya comprises three male and two female bath departments, private rooms and a spa-center, being the perfect place for aesthetically-pleasing banya experience.