- What’s On
Hidden among the concrete blocks of Teşvikiye is a magnificent mansion riddled with mystery. Masquerading as a Venetian palazzo, Tozan House has disappearing passages, secret stairs and eccentricities it shares with its creator. Andrew Finkel investigates. Photographs by Simon Upton
Now you see it, now you don’t. Tucked in amid the “new brutalism” of the 1960s and 1970s apartment blocks in the Istanbul neighbourhood of Teşvikiye is, for all intents and purposes, a Venetian palazzo. It is easy to overlook – the top storey is covered by another three floors belonging to the building next door. Easier still to walk past, down Hüsrev Gerede Caddesi, without noticing the plaque commemorating the house’s one-time owner, Safvet Lütfi Tozan.
However, Safvet Lütfi Bey would no doubt have approved of this anonymity. The ltalianate mansion that bears his name also bears his eccentricities, including various bolt holes that appear to lead nowhere. There are tales of hidden staircases leading out to the spacious back garden and there is a rumour, too, of a tunnel leading right down to the shoreline at Beşiktaş.
The house once contained many fine objecrs, the lifetime collection of a man who is rumoured to have had many secret aspects to his life. It is said that he sold arms to Franco and during the Second World War was a double agent, spying for the English and being chased by the Gestapo. He also procured arms for his own country.
Safvet Lütfi Bey’s appearance was dashing; his fortune was vast. The story goes that he was the sole survivor of a plane that crash-landed in the Black Sea. Found clinging to a fisherman’s boat, he was taken to lstanbul, where he appeared before the American consulate, to whom he gave some prime intelligence concerning the fate of the Resistance in Belgrade, gleaned from a German officer at a dinner party in Bucharest.
Rare for a house in Turkey, but befitting the swashbuckling habits of its owner, the Tozan Apartmanı has a baronial feel. The great blocks of stone of the great rounded pentagonal entrance hall are in fact an illusion-trompe l’oeil painted on the plaster. lt is easy to imagine the shadows of an Errol Flynn-style sword battle emanating from the flickering light of the fireplace. Except that the hearth in the living room is false as well.
The sombre walnut panelling and staircase are real enough, as are the Bavarian crystal lampshades and Baccarat chandeliers. The house served at one time after its construction in the 1920s as the guesthouse for the Mobil Oil Company, whom Lütfi Bey went on to represent. The network of kitchens and servants’ quarters below stairs was clearly capable of lavish entertainment.
The Italianate garden is spacious and surprisingly rustic for so central a location. It is overlooked at a respectable distance by the Palais d’Italie, once to have been the Italian embassy, but now a technical college.
The master bedroom, on the first floor, shares the odd pentagonal shape of the entrance hall. It has an unusual additional alcove which appears to have housed the bed concealed behind a curious gilded wrought-iron partition.
After Safvet Lüfti Tozan’s death, his possessions were dispersed at an auction still famous more than twenty years on for having provided the seed for many of today’s important art and furniture collections. “lt lasted days and the bidding went three times higher than the estimates,” recalls Raffi Portakal, the Istanbul art expert whose father oversaw the bidding. It is the furniture and carpets that most people remember. The proceeds and house went to the educational foundation, Darüşşafaka. Now  the foundation has sold the house and it is back on the market at a serious price, probably nor far short of the Venetian palazzo on which it is modelled.
When Mike Read, the plant conservation officer for Fauna and Flora International (FFI), uncovered a large illegal trade in wild bulbs from Turkey in the 1980s, he and his colleagues were greatly concerned…
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