Monday, January 20, 2014

Recovering and Rebuilding: Athens in 1953


1953 - Greece was finally at peace and rebuilding after a terrible decade of invasion, occupation, and civil war.  The Civil War had ended in 1949, during which tens of thousands died from starvation and Communist death squads. And the brutal civil war had followed invasion and occupation by German and Italian troops during World War II.  By 1950, a constitutional monarchy was in place, with backing from the United States and NATO. Athens was the capital, the economic and political center of a recovering country. Rebuilding the economy and putting people to work was a critical element of the Truman Doctrine. As written in Wikipedia, "The Truman Doctrine was an international relations policy set forth by the U.S. President Harry Truman in a speech on March 12, 1947, which stated that the U.S. would support Greece and Turkey with economic and military aid to prevent them from falling into the Soviet sphere."

In many ways, the Cold War began in Greece. The United States played a heavy-handed role in running Greek affairs from the late-1940s through the 1960s. As a benefit, Greece experienced its first two decades of peace in the 20th century, as well as an unprecedented economic boom. But there were many critics. For anti-U.S. views of the post-war era in Greece, I recommend Papandreau (1970) and Roubatis (1987).

This short introduction to the political situation in the 1950s sets the stage for my family's residence in Athens. Many American companies set up offices to design and construct civil works and infrastructure development projects, mostly funded by U.S. foreign aide. My father was a hydraulic engineer and accepted a job to help conduct watershed and hydraulic studies as part of major water supply projects. Planners expected Athens to grow in the post-war era, although I doubt they anticipated that it would eventually be a metropolis of 3.09 million in 2011 (General Secretariat of National Statistical Service of Greece).

Athens in 1953

In 1953, Athens was still a very "European" capital, with tree-shaded streets, parks, and elegant early-20th century houses. The following photographs document some of my father's wanderings in this historic city.
This is the view from Mt. Hymmetus, a mountain range east of the city. In 1953, Athens was a compact urban area with fields and olive groves on the outskirts.  Today this scene would reveal total urban sprawl, concrete, and smog. And notice the clear blue sky. My father noted in his diary that he had never been to a major city with such clean air.
Athens in 1953, Kodachrome film
The contemporary Acropolis viewpoint (Kodak digital file)
This is the view northeast from the Acropolis.  In 1953, Athens was a city of 2- and 3-floor stone buildings with sloped tile roofs, and just a few taller modern buildings. Fortunately, Athens was not bombed in World War II (although the Port of Piraeus was). Many elegant mansions and townhouses from the late-1800s were still standing. But most were torn down in the pell-mell burst of post-war uncontrolled urban growth. Only in recent years have Athenians realized how much of their architectural heritage they destroyed. Now much of Athens is a boring concrete mess with massive traffic jams.
Temple of Zeus with Mt. Hymmetus in the distance
Temple of Zeus
The Temple of Zeus and Hadrian's Gate have always been popular tourist sites.
In the early 1950s, you could walk right into the Parthenon and clamber among the rocks. Now tourists are restricted to wood boardwalks.
Syndagma Square and the Grande Bretagne Hotel
Changing of the guard, Syndagma Square.
Syndagma Square, in front of the Parliament Building, was the tourist and political center of Athens. Parades were held here and families brought their children on Sundays to walk around. The hotel in the background is the Hotel Grand Bretagne (Ξενοδοχείο Μεγάλη Βρεταννία), in business since 1874. On Christmas Day, 1944, while Winston Churchill was a guest (the German Army had been driven out only three months previously), British army engineers discovered a huge dynamite bomb in the sewers below the hotel (Churchill, 1953). The bomb was successfully defused, sparing the hotel and its illustrious guest. Note the yellow tram. I remember when the tracks were taken out in the late-1950s, one of those misguided "modernization" steps to substitute smelly diesel buses instead. I wonder if General Motors had a hand in this as in U.S. cities?
The older parks and city squares were beautifully planted with palms and gardens.  Many now are paved.
Omonia Square, Athens, 1953
Omonia Square was the heart of the commercial city, close to markets and factories. The Metro to Piraeus and Kiffisias ran underneath. Notice the blue sky....
Paltea Kotzia, in front of the National Bank of Greece Building
From Omonia, you could walk south on Athinas Street towards the Monastiraki District and the Acropolis.
Central Market, Athens
Central Market, Athens
Walk south from Omonia, and you soon reached the famous Central Market. It has not changed all that much to this day. We have explored the Central Market before (click the link).
Athens Flea Market, 1953
Athens Flea Market, 1953
Further south, one would have entered Monasteraki Square, in the Plaka district. On a narrow street to the right was the flea market.  It is still there, although rather modernized. We have explored the flea market before:
Somewhere in the Plaka, Athens (Kodak digital file)
The Plaka area also has not changed too much, but it has been gentrified over the decades. For a more recent view, click the 2013 link.


Churchill, W.S., 1953. The Second World War, Volume VI, Triumph and Tragedy.  Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, NY., 717 p.

Papandreou, Andreas, 1970. Democracy at Gunpoint: The Greek Front.  Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 365 p.

(Note, this is the same Andreas Papandreou who was Prime Minister of Greece in the 1980s. He had a troubled relationship with the United States when it suited his political needs, even though he served in the U.S. Navy, had U.S. citizenship, married an American wife, and taught economics at Berkeley.)

Roubatis, Yiannis, 1987. Tangled Webs, the U.S. in Greece, 1947-1967. Pella Publishing Company, New York, NY, 228 p.

Camera notes

All 1953 photographs were taken with a Leica IIIC rangefinder camera with 5cm f/2 Summitar lens (I still use this lens regularly). The Kodachrome film was processed in the United States or France with difficulty because of the undependable postal service in the early 1950s. I scanned the Kodachrome slides on a Plustek 7600i film scanner using Silverfast software.

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