Jan Palach Square – Namesti Jana Palacha
If ever there was a place in the city that highlights why names of locations change over the years it’s the current Jan Palach Square. The names used here include it’s location, its function, a prince, an empress, two composers, a communist name and a memorial. It’s a fascinating look at the development and renaming of an area going back to 1791.
1791 to 1869
Old Czech maps name the whole area “Na Rejdišti”. German maps may also call the square “Tummelplatz”. Both refer to a area for training horses attached to a riding school that stood in the place of today’s Rudolfinum. The reason the square would have developed was that a ford in the river joined this place with Klárov on the far side of the river. A new iron footbridge opened in 1869 to replace an older wooden footbridge across the river. NOTE: in the map above, ALL the buildings will be demolished in the next 50 years.
By 1889 the square has been radically transformed. The riding school has gone. A bank called Bohemische Sparkasse opened in 1825 and on their 50th anniversary they decided to build a cultural centre on the north side of the square where the riding school used to be. This building was named after Arch Duke Rudolf, the son of the emperor Franz Josef (Rudolf would be killed in a hunting accident in January 1889) so maps from 1885 show the building as the “Rudolfinum”. The square in front of it was redesigned into a recreational park and was renamed to the Square of Prince Rudolf. This was combined with a riverside promenade also named after Prince Rudolf. The south side of the square had got another big new building by 1885, the Academy of Applied Arts and Architecture.
Most of the city redevelopment of the Old Town and Jewish Ghetto has now been completed. A new vehicular bridge now connected our Square of Prince Rudolf to the far side of the river at Klárov. Originally to be called Prince Rudolf Bridge the authorities decided to call it the Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand Bridge in honour of his 50th birthday. Our square was briefly renamed Empress Zita Square after the Austrian Empress, wife of the last Austrian Emperor Charles. The attached promenade kept it’s old name after Prince Rudolf.
The end of the First World War brought a raft of name changes to the city with Imperial names being replaced by Nationalist names. The square was now renamed to the Smetana Square (famous Czech composer) and the Prince Rudolf promenade was renamed Alšovo (after famous Czech artist Mikuláš Aleš). Maps from this era also show the Rudolfinum building also referred to as the Parliament. By 1924 another large building now occupied the east side of the square, the Philosophical Faculty of the Charles University (scene of the December 2023 mass shooting that killed 2 teachers and 12 students). The Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand Bridge was renamed to Mánes Bridge (famous Czech artist).
The occupying Nazi regime simply renamed our square to Mozartplatz. The Rudolfinum stopped being the site of Parliament.
Post-war, Smetana Square returns but not for long as after the communists take over in 1948 it was renamed to the Square of Red Army Soldiers with a huge Soviet red star in the middle of the square. For a time May 9th-16th 1945 the square had literally served as a place where dead Red Army soldiers were temporarily buried after being killed during the liberation of Prague.
1969 to Present
The January 1969 death of Jan Palach, student of the Philosophy Faculty located on the square, strongly but unofficially links his name with the square. This is not made official until December 1989 when the first Vaclav Havel government instigated a wide-ranging renaming of pre-1989 communist street naming. Our square officially became Namesti Jana Palacha or Square of Jan Palach at this time. It was the first location to be renamed. In 2016 the memorial “House of the Suicide Mother” was added to the south side of the square.
Jan Palach Square was used in the tram shooting scene of the film “Gray Man”.