A village named Kumrovec [...] is at the same time an open-air museum and the birth place of Josip Broz Tito, the leader of antifascist movement in the Second World War and the president of former Yugoslavia. It has been a museum since 1952, when the idea was born, coming into existence as a means of celebrating life achievements of the man who created social and political system of that time. [In] 1973 an idea of establishing an ethno-park is born [and the town was used for massive Day of Youth celebrations.] A few years later the project grows in proportions now comprising Memorial park Kumrovec which included two additionally built architectural objects: Memorial house and Political school. Objects contain congress and sports halls, an amphitheatre, a library, a movie auditorium, a picture library, a film library and a pool which served for organizing various events and until 1981 the Political school was a part of the Memorial park. During the nineties the buildings served as a shelter for refugees which resulted in considerable devastation.
"Do you believe in ghosts?"
I had just divulged my macabre hobby to my Uber driver, sharing with him my bizarre infatuation with exploring abandoned sites alone.
"Hmm," I responded, unsure how to proceed. Should I tell him about Kumrovec's Memorial Home?
Last month, I rented a car in Zagreb to travel an hour north to visit tiny Kumrovec, not to see the 15th-century Veliki Tabor Castle or the open-air architectural museum with tour buses parked out front, or even the birthplace of Tito that draws thousands of visitors a week. No, I was there to explore the abandoned political school, a nightmare of a building I cover in my next post. But as I drove into town, I noticed an odd building sprawled out on a hill, a 1970s red-tile and spandrel glass disaster (forgive me, I have yet to meet a Brutalist building deserving gentler adjectives). What the....? From afar, it looked like an over-sized slab of meat thrown on the grass; up close, it was no prettier.
In keeping with the spirit of Brutalism, it was unclear if the building was occupied so I had no choice but to get closer. And closer. And even closer, leaving behind a trail of nose smudges on the glass where I had strained to see through the mirrored glazing to better take in the gorgeous interior. Then, as if by magic, I found myself standing on a thick, red carpet in an empty dining room, looking up at a cluster of yellowing globe lamps collecting water. The interior was stunning even without furniture, especially for those of us that enjoy the clean lines and warm wood of mid-century modern design.
Later, I realized I had been standing in the dining hall of Kumrovec's Memorial House, a complex built in 1975 that served as the Political School of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia (Savez komunista Jugoslavije) until 1981, when it was moved to the building I had originally come to see. Renowned Yugoslav architects Ivan Filipčić and Berislav Šerbetić designed this cluster of three buildings to be so modern and well-equipped that it transitioned into a luxury hotel and conference center in 1981 with relative ease, but then again, Brutalism is a pretty amorphous architectural style. And when Croatia's Yugoslav chapter came to an end, the facility found itself without purpose and hastily shut its doors, reopening briefly in the 1990s to house refugees from Vukovar fleeing the violence and massacre that ravaged the town. Currently the complex stands empty... Or does it?
Once I was inside the main building, it took me a few minutes to adjust, frozen in place as I listened for company; nothing, just the pounding of my heart. I had been perfectly content looking in from the outside, so getting inside was an unexpected surprise and I suddenly had free reign to take all the pictures I wanted. I did a quick walk-through of the building, really a muffled run on wall-to-wall carpeting, and imagined myself as Alice jumping into the rabbit hole.
The front desk was neat as a pin, complete with a guestbook from 1989, the original switchboard system, and healthy plants lounging under the skylight; it would have been the most natural thing in the world if the concierge returned right then, having stepped out for a bathroom break. I didn't understand, was this place empty or not? If it's empty, why are tables and chairs -- the originals to the building, no less -- arranged for an intimate afternoon meeting? And if it's not empty, why does everything smell musty and strips of wood paneling hang from the ceiling? Why is there artwork placed just so, a hideously shaggy tapestry in earth colors shouting "1970s!" and a stump of dark wood resembling an exceptionally unhappy totem pole? I was tempted to take a seat on the exposed foam stools, just to see if Lloyd would appear behind the circular-shaped bar to take my drink order.
After a little while, I went into the bowels of the building, the kitchen. My phone's flashlight did a pitiful job illuminating the cavernous space, so I was left in the dark alone with only a bit of ambient light to help me navigate the maze of steel tables and ovens. That's when I heard it, someone upstairs. A quick scraping drag of a sliding door, someone walking around in dress shoes. I guessed it was the groundskeeper based on the car parked out front and music coming from another building. Not wanting to get caught, I turned off my phone and practiced my story: I'm looking for Tito's birthplace and Google Maps sent me here; is this not it? For a full sixty seconds, I stood as still as the ugly totem pole and strained to hear the person above me. Finally, the door squealed shut again, leaving a deafening silence in its wake. I exhaled and continued with my exploration, feeling relieved and emboldened.
With my camera battery dying and the rest of the facility begging to be explored, I started to head out. As I passed through the lobby, situated directly above the kitchen, I looked at the front doors: two swinging glass doors. I looked around, and spotted another pair of glass doors to a side entrance down the hall. Feeling a pressure building in the back of my throat, I peered over the balcony down into the empty dining hall: sunlight poured in from large picture windows, windows that doubled as sliding doors; those were the only sliding doors in the entire building, and I already knew that they were so badly rusted that someone had to throw their weight into them for a mere crack of space. What exactly had I heard when I was in the kitchen?
I ran for the exit.
Before we move on to photos, here is another piece of information I found online about the Memorial House, a slightly different history than my other source:
On the hill above the Kumrovec village in 1974, on the Day of the Republic, the Memorial House was opened which, despite the pseudonym name, was actually a business and catering facility that everyone had to pay for accommodation or meal. There were various congresses and seminars, celebrations of weddings and all other celebrations. After 1991, some quite different occupiers came to the memorial house, displaced mostly from the Vukovar region. With the arrival of potential investors from Saudi Arabia in Kumrovec, the megalomaniac story of the seven-star hotel was briefly hailed. Slovenske Terme and Terme Tuhelj in Croatia also showed interest, but nothing has happened so far. Objects fail, local government and the population are dissatisfied because there is a potential but not a plan to use it. The idea was also told that the Spomen-home would be ideal for the accommodation of the first Croatian Museum of Film not only because there already exists a three-hundred-seat projection hall, whose nearly 40-year-old equipment is still functional and not just because Tito was a well-known film-maker and held movie nights when he came to the hometown, which could be an additional tourist bait, but also because the geographic position opens up the possibility of cross-border co-operation. A valuable facility, built in the seventies, covers 90 thousand square meters and every year it is increasingly demolished. The building is divided into three units, spomenički, smještajni i hotelsko-turistički, odnosno ugostiteljski dio. There is nothing useful about it now.
-Abandoned Croatia Facebook post from three years ago, translated from Croatian to English via GoogleTranslate
And, according to this source in 2007, maintenance staff do their best to stave off dilapidation at the complex, and they've done an excellent job preserving the space and landscaping. As for the future of the site, that's unclear; the main building seemed staged for magazine photo shoot (the only reasonable explanation I could come up with for the bizarre setting) but apparently it's always been like that. In 2011, outside investors showed interest in purchasing the complex but that seems to have sadly gone the way of the hotel's guests.
I came across these postcards in a dark storage room and assume the photos are from the mid-1980s. There was a ton of promotional material like this scattered about, including pins commemorating something in 1989. Postcard captions translated into English:
Dom boraca NOR-a i omladine Jugoslavije > Home of the Liberation War fighters and youth of Yugoslavia (NOR = Narodnooslobodilački rat)
Ljetna pozornica uz dom boraca > Summer stage at the home of the fighters
Sportsko-rekreaciona poljana > Sports and recreation field
Rijeka sutla > River Sutla
Harsh daylight and harsh architecture, a winning combination. Other recent exterior photos can be found here.
Lobby & front desk
Lounge area & bar
Downstairs: pool & dining
I found some videos on YouTube of what I assume is a Croatian band playing inside the hotel in 2013. Here's a video of them playing in the pool, quite interesting. There's another one of them playing in the theater, which looks very different from the theater I visited (picture below), making me think I either missed it or it has greatly deteriorated over the past few years. (Only one way to find out: go back!)
Amphitheater & hotel rooms
The midday lighting was a bit harsh for photos, but I took a few of the absolutely derelict amphitheater. As for the building with the hotel rooms, I was devastated to get inside only to realize that I'd forgotten to charge my spare camera battery, meaning I only got a few photos -- and not even with the tripod I'd dragged with me -- before I was left in the dark with just a cell phone. The building was extremely dark, damp, creepy... and full of mystery with never-ending carpeted stairways and halls (then again, Brutalist buildings aren't known for their natural lighting and ADA-compliance). This is one place I'd return to explore, but with fully-charged batteries and a strong headlamp.