Stone windmills, some in ruins, dot the hillsides, and the town and surrounding villages are home to more than 350 churches and chapels. Hydra’s status as a national historic landmark protects its unique and beautiful architecture. Any new buildings must stay in keeping with the island’s historic architectural style, using authentic colors and maintaining the traditional Hydriot character. As a result, no modern building developments (high-rise apartments, hotel complexes) can spoil Hydra’s traditional atmosphere. In addition to cars and mopeds, neon signs have been banned. Hydra’s architecture, which includes simple houses as well as grand manors, is unique to the island.
When a few Albanian families settled on Hydra in the seventeenth century, they built their homes on the higher slopes of the mountains at the back of the harbor as they could defend this area more easily from roving bands of pirates. Called Kiafa (“top” in Albanian), this neighborhood still exhibits the building styles characteristic of that time, including the arched bridges over narrow streets by which residents crossed from one house to another without having to go outside.
Hydra’s regular houses are generally tall, narrow two-story structures built in clusters and surrounded by walled courtyards. There was no urban master plan or building code in the town’s development, which rather reflects both communal traditions and familial privacy interests. According to Constantine Michealides in his study Hydra: A Greek Island Town,
In building a new house, the first concern of the builder, who in many cases was the owner himself, was that the building not interfere with the use of an already established public path. From that point on he had as much freedom as the particular features of the site would allow. Orientation played a secondary role to the issues of adjusting the house to the site and the site to the house. Irregularly shaped streets resulted from the fact that no attempt was made to keep straight building lines. The party-wall system was widely used, particularly in areas where high density was desirable. … When a son or daughter was married, a new house was … then built within the uncovered space of the parental lot, although it was treated as a separate unit and given a direct entry from the street. This process gave rise to the odd lot shapes and dead-end accesses. … [The typical house was] a simple rectangular or L-shaped container. Available materials and methods of construction (stone walls, timber roofs and floors) dictated this shape. … [A] clearly established spatial sequence [led]to the individual house. The sequence can be described as follows: public street–penetration–private uncovered space–penetration–private enclosed space (house proper). … The kitchen is located downstairs because of the oven, cistern, and well, while the living and reception room is placed upstairs where [it overlooks] the public streets and the house court. Bedrooms are on both floors. (61–64)
Older houses were generally constructed of whitewashed stone, with tiled roofs. Most also had cisterns for collecting rainwater and marble drinking fountains. The custom of whitewashing the gray stone houses and cobblestone streets with lime developed in the nineteenth century as a sanitary measure to prevent the spread of disease. Another charming characteristic of Hydra’s architecture is the bright colors on the shutters, doorways, windows, balustrades, and loggia walls of the houses: because of the lack of water, the houses did not typically have lush gardens or a lot of plants, so the inhabitants added a touch of bright color in order to break the monotony of the grey and ochre of the stone walls.
Built by wealthy Hydriot shipowners, the island’s great, fortresslike mansions bear witness to its period of economic prosperity at end of the 18th century. Though impressive in size and magnificence, they also retain many elements of the island’s simpler homes. Made of grey stone from the nearby island of Dokos and usually built into the sloping hillsides within the limits or along the edges of the town, thus three or four stories tall, most of the manors have quite modest facades, with windows outlined in whitewash and limestone cornices. According to Michaelides in Hydra: A Greek Island Town,
These palatial residences are distinguished from the common houses by a number of features. In size they tower over all other structures. In form, the main house is always rectangular and approaches a cube in volume. Their architectural character is very much determined by the exposed grey stone masonry which is laid in regular coursing, and by the direct, restrained, and unpretentious manner in which the facades are treated.
These facades are thought of as screens separating the life within the building from that outside it, and as such they are strictly two-dimensional. The roof eaves protrude very little, window frames are placed on the same plane wit the masonry surface, and three-dimensional embellishment is totally lacking. The only departure from this very restrained treatment is found in the whitewashing of the window outlines, together with the relieving arches above them. (80–82)
These homes tend to retain the traditional spacial sequence leading to the house: penetration from the public street into a private uncovered space and thence to the main house. The spacious, high-ceilinged interiors, however, are generally adorned with wall paintings, garlands, carved wooden ceilings with hand-painted borders, door casings, stone arches, and geometrical designs embedded in the marble floors. Mostly built in the mid- to late 18th century by Italian architects, these mansions generally had separate rooms for men and women, a large lounge, room for displaying icons, and a special smoking room for the men. Famous for their quality and craftsmanship, Hydriot furnishings showed a Western influence and gave the already imposing manors of Hydra an added majesty. These mansions generally have beautiful walled gardens and spectacular views of the sea, often from magnificent private terraces.
Hydra’s Historic Mansions
The mansions and manors of Hydra have a history and architecture unique to the island. As most of these structures are still owned by private families, many are not open to the public. Some, however, now house public services are open to visitors.
Tsamados Manor (School of the National Merchant Marine): Located on Hydra Port’s east side, by the museum, up from where hydrofoil passengers debark, this manor was built between 1780 and 1810 by Admiral Anastasios Tsamados, a hero of the Greek War of Independence who died in 1821. The mansion now houses Hydra’s Merchant Marine School or Naval Academy, the oldest school of its kind in Greece, which began operation in 1749 and moved to the Tsamados Mansion in 1930.
Kriezis Manor (senior citizens’ home)
Gorogiannis Manor: Built in 1780 this mansion, located at the top of Kala Pigadia, is one of the oldest mansions on Hydra. Currently owned privately, it is not open to the public. It can be viewed from the outside, however, and the walk up Miaoulis Street from the center of the harbor is picturesque and leads through one of Hydra’s residential areas.
Tombazis Manor (School of Fine Art): This four-story building is on the west side of Hydra Harbor, heading toward the canons, near the statue of Kountouriotis. Its original owner, Iakovos Tombazis, was the first admiral of the fleet of Hydra. Decorated inside with paintings depicting the historical events and ships of 1821, the manor now houses the School of Fine Arts of Athens and serves as a hostel for its students. Visitors can occasionally look inside.
Voulgaris Mansion: Built by Georgios Voulgarism Hydra’s governor from 1802 to 1812, on the western side of Hydra Harbor, this mansion is known for its beautiful and interesting decor. Georgios Voulgaris was in charge of building the wells at Kala Pigadia. The mansion is unfortunately not open to the public.
Giorgios and Pavlos Kountouriotis Manor (Museum of Modern History of Hydra): Built between 1802 and 1816, this mansion was originally the home of George Kountouriotis, a wealthy shipowner who fought in the War of Independence. Grandson Pavlos Kountouriotis later became first president of the Greek Republic. The manor complex consists of three buildings and a garden and is operated by the Greek Ministry of Culture as the Kountouriotis Family Museum and the Post-Byzantine Art and History Museum of Hydra.
Boundouris Manor (not open to the public)