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History of the Presidential Palace

 

The history of the Presidential Palace in Helsinki dates back to the early 19th century, when the modest wooden town was transformed into the neoclassical Pearl of the Baltic. After the devastating fire of 1808, only brick and stone buildings were permitted in the centre of the town. Reconstruction of the centre gained momentum after the war of 1808–1809, when Finland became an autonomous part of the Russian Empire and Emperor Alexander I declared Helsinki the capital of the Grand Duchy. All new buildings were now required to be of a high standard and to have an imposing appearance.

MERCHANT HOUSE

In 1814, architect Pehr Granstedt designed an impressive house for J. H. Heidenstrauch, a wealthy merchant and shipowner. The first floor of the three-storey building (today the Presidential Palace) was reserved for commerce, the second for residential use by Heidenstrauch. The third floor was divided into apartments that were let. Completed
in 1820, the building served as a merchant’s house for 17 years, until the Senate of Finland bought it as a residence for Russian Emperors in 1837.

IMPERIAL PALACE

The purchase of the merchant house was preceded by a planning stage that lasted several years, during which time the Imperial Palace was to be sited variously on the Observatory Hill, the east end of the Esplanade Park, and at Katajanokka. At the Emperor’s order, however, the idea of building a new palace was abandoned, and the merchant house was refurbished for imperial use. The plans for refurbishment and extension of the house were drawn up by Carl Ludvig Engel, the architect responsible for creating the characteristic neoclassical centre of Helsinki. The new wing comprised a ballroom, banquet hall, kitchen, staff facilities and an Orthodox chapel.

On the first floor were the kitchens and the living quarters for the staff , on the second were facilities for official functions and the Empress’s rooms. The dining halls, the ballroom and the chapel were two storeys high. On the third floor were the Emperor’s private rooms, and also access to a small viewing tower. Furnishing of the interiors was mainly entrusted to artisans in Helsinki. Some of the finer pieces of furniture and lamps were brought from St Petersburg.

THRONE ROOMS AND PLANS FOR ROYAL CASTLE

For the ceremonial opening of the Diet, the Ballroom was converted into a Throne Room (the present Hall of Mirrors) in 1863. In 1907, a larger Throne Room was built (the present Hall of State), complete with a waiting room, designed by architect Jac. Ahrenberg. After the Civil War, there were plans to use the building as the residence of the future King of Finland. It was at this time that the building acquired its Finnish appellation of linna (‘castle’), and some interior alterations were carried out to make it suitable for the purpose.

PRESIDENTIAL PALACE

After the consolidation of the young republic’s system of government, the building was refurbished as the Presidential Palace in 1919–1921, and central heating was installed in 1938. The last comprehensive rebuilding and conservation works were carried out in the early 1970s.

Renovation of the building is currently under way and it is estimated that it will take two years to complete. The greatest changes are caused by the need to reinforce the building’s foundations, which are in a poor condition. Additionally, the technical systems will be upgraded, surfaces will be repaired, and accessibility and safety will be improved. The Presidential Palace will thus be renovated to meet modern requirements, while respecting its architectural and cultural-historical values.

 

LIFE AT THE PALACE

The Presidential Palace building has in the past been used for many purposes. During the First World War, it served as a military hospital, and during the Russian Revolution it was the headquarters of the Executive Committee of the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. During the Civil War in 1918, the building was occupied by the military staff of, first, German and, later, Finnish troops. After the war, it was used by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs.

Most Finnish presidents have lived in the Presidential Palace. K. J. Ståhlberg moved there with his family soon after the first presidential elections in 1919. The first Independence Day reception was held as an afternoon reception during Ståhlberg’s term. Presidents L. K. Relander, P. E. Svinhufvud, Kyösti Kallio, Risto Ryti and J. K. Paasikivi also lived in the palace with their wives during their terms. C. G. E. Mannerheim chose to live in Tamminiemi, where President Urho Kekkonen and Mrs Sylvi Kekkonen moved later.

After Kekkonen’s term, President Mauno Koivisto and Mrs Tellervo Koivisto lived in the Presidential Palace almost throughout Koivisto’s term as president, before moving to the new official residence, Mäntyniemi. President Martti Ahtisaari and President Tarja Halonen and their respective spouses also lived in Mäntyniemi. Currently the Mäntyniemi residence is occupied by President Sauli Niinistö and Mrs Jenni Haukio.

The Presidential Palace is used for official state functions and for other official business. It also houses the Office of the President of the Republic and the President’s Study.