Like all European monarchs, the Habsburgs had an extensive collection of carriages. Until his death in 1916, Emperor Franz Jozef I, married to the famous Empress “Sissi,” almost exclusively used horse-drawn carriages. The Imperial stables in Vienna exceeded all others in their magnificence and size. Around 1900 there were no fewer than 600 driving and riding horses stabled at Schönbrunn Palace, mostly Lippizaners and Kladrubers. The Imperial Mews contained about 400 carriages; the state carriages for personal use by the Imperial family (some of which dated back to around 1750), other town carriages, all kinds of service carriages, and a large number of sporting carriages in all possible models. The Viennese Fiaker still say that no fewer than 250 carriages could be harnessed at the same time! About 400 members of staff including coachmen, footmen, grooms, and many different kinds of servants were permanently employed in the stables. Each stable had its own workshop for small repairs, a smithy, and a saddlery. The massive collection of vehicles and the incredible treasure of harness were permanently kept in perfect condition.
After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a large number of the carriages were sold. Fortunately, most of the state carriages were returned, as well as the most interesting sporting and service carriages. They now constitute the world-famous carriage museum in the renowned “Wagenburg” at the Schönbrunn.
A dress chariot built in Vienna around 1850 by the Imperial Carriage builder, Armbruster, was sold around 1870 and was rediscovered 125 years later in the props of a Hollywood film studio. When I purchased the carriage, it was in a dreadful state of disrepair and decay. But those of you who know my enthusiasm, also know my passion for the historical significance of the horse and the carriage in history … it was a challenge I was committed to undertaking.
The incredibly difficult restoration assignment was given to the Belgian restorer, Patrick Schroven from Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-Waver, who had already proved
able to take on such massive jobs among other things by means of the reconstruction of the magnificent English Road Coach “Commodore.” He began work in July, 1998. After 10 months of research, travel and investigation, the actual restoration began. All the woodwork, ironwork and painting were carried out in his workshop. Due to the huge extent of the project, about 60 expert craftsmen were called in from 7 European countries (Belgium, Austria, Germany, England, the Netherlands, France, and Sweden) – among others: a metal-turner, a wheelwright, a wood-turner, a smith, a wood-sculptor, an iron-founder, a copper-founder, a gilder, an ivory cutter, a cane-weaver, a glass-turner, a patternmaker, a chaser, a braid-maker, a gold-embroiderer, a saddler, a passmentrymaker, a fabric-weaver, a tailor, a wigmaker, a whip-maker, a button-maker, a hatter, a lace-maker, a gold-leaf expert, a lamp-maker. The co-ordination alone for all these people and the personal supervision of each stage of the activities was a full-time job for Schroven for 18 months.
Such a magnificent carriage had never before been found in such a dilapidated condition and renovated completely. Techniques were used that had not been employed for 80 years. The restorer faced all difficulties head-on; no compromises were accepted. All materials used had to be identical to the original … from the incredibly fine silk-velvet hammercloth that covers the imposing boxseat to the delicate coachlace that is used to trim the cushions … from the real 23.5 carat double thickness gold-leaf that covers large parts of the undercarriage and the body to the buckles on the shoes of the coachman’s livery!
After 30 months of effort, many sleepless nights, and thousands of hours of labor, the masterpiece reached its completion. The formidable carriage was exhibited during the open days in Achel, Belgium on November 17th to 19th, 1999, thanks to the famous harness-maker Henk Van der Wiel. It was Europe’s final opportunity to admire this unique carriage before it left for the USA and to its home at the Florida Carriage Museum in Weirsdale, Florida.
This Armbruster Full Dress Chariot, or as it is called lovingly by some the “Golden Carriage,” is the only full-state carriage in the United States, and it’s right here in Central Florida.