Fennia building provided entertainment and celebrations throughout the ages
The golden age of the Fennia building, which was completed at the end of the 19th century on the edge of Helsinki Railway Square (Rautatientori), began in the early 20th century, when businessman Karl Edvard Jonsson from Sweden opened the Grand Hotel Fennia. The charming hotel with its spectacular winter gardens became one of the most significant meeting places of the high society of its time.
The story of the Fennia building that was completed in 1898 on Mikonkatu has many layers. There were great expectations for the hotel property at the planning stage, but the hotel did not reach its full glory until ten years after its completion, when a skilled businessman from Sweden became the owner. The building is designed by the renowned architectural firm Grahn, Hedman & Wasastjerna. It represents Viennese Baroque style, and its façade is decorated with the coat of arms of Finland. Opened in 1899, Hotel Fennia was founded by an influential group of cultural influencers and merchants, including Esplanadi restaurateur Josef Volontis and brewer Paul Sinebrychoff.
The original Hotel Fennia consisted of five floors. There were a restaurant and a café on the ground floor, and each floor had 17 rooms. The three-storey, cross-shaped courtyard wing had a ballroom, a private kitchen and 26 rooms.
The corridors of the building and the ceilings of the hotel rooms were decorated with ceiling paintings typical of Viennese Art Nouveau. The interior of the hotel, from beds to silverware, was ordered from Stockholm. According to the fire insurance policy, the building also had an electric lift.
Hotel Fennia’s financial success remained moderate before the change of ownership ten years later. In 1909, Swedish restaurateur Karl Edvard Jonsson took the reins and grandly renamed the hotel he had renovated as Grand Hotel Fennia. It was the beginning of Fennia’s golden age.
Grand restaurateur in Finland
Jonsson was already known in the hotel and restaurant sector before claiming the ownership of Fennia. Little is known about the beginning of his career in Sweden, but in Finland, Jonsson’s business skills attracted attention years before Fennia’s triumph.
Before coming to Helsinki, Jonsson ran Turisthotellet, known as the entertainment centre of Savonlinna. With ingenuity and a renewed selections of programmes, Jonsson led his restaurant to success. With the funds brought about by the success, Jonsson prepared to conquer the metropolitan area.
Restaurateur Jonsson’s debut as the new owner of Fennia in 1909 was, as expected, grandiose. The hotel’s new, glorious name was just the first step: the architecture of the building was drastically renovated, and the interior also got a new look.
The old kitchen was transformed into a winter garden. A pyramid-shaped glass roof was installed in the garden space designed by Jarl Eklund, under which a fountain was placed. At best, the water in the fountain rose to a height of up to eight metres. It glistened in the colours of the rainbow, and its flower arrangements were changed once a week. The fountain was framed by palm trees that grew in every corner.
The luxurious winter garden, which was later expanded, quickly became the favourite meeting place for Helsinki’s high society.
The official opening of the Grand Hotel Fennia was celebrated at the end of January 1909, and the splendour of the new hotel made the opening guests gasp. The event employed 157 waiters, who, clad in dark green tailcoats, agilely zigzagged between the tables as the famous Simon Steinberg accompanied the evening with his orchestra.
Despite the glamorous kick-off, many townspeople were somewhat sceptical of Jonsson’s project, and there was a common fear that history was to repeat itself: during the building’s ten-year history, many companies operating in the house had gone bankrupt in a short amount of time.
It was a difficult time to succeed. The structures of Finnish society were in transition. Finland had autonomy as a Grand Duchy, but Russia had begun to radically reduce its rights. The world was heading closer to the outbreak of the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the independence of Finland in 1917 and the harrowing civil war in the spring of 1918.
However, Fennia managed to reverse the trend and restore the building’s good reputation. Its restaurant did not particularly belong to any specific social class, but customers from all social circles gathered at the restaurant but managed to maintain its high standard.
Location for the film Sylvi
Fennia’s owner Jonsson handled publicity with great skill. One of the best-known projects he participated in was the filming of a film based on Minna Canth’s play Sylvi on Fennia’s roof in July 1911.
The profit from the venue rent itself did not directly make Jonsson any richer, as the owner did not charge the production company much. The extensive publicity from the project, on the other hand, spawned profits for Jonsson.
The great centenary
Fennia was honoured to hold the centenary of the Office of the Governor-General in 1909. Butler Thor Blom describes the celebration in his book “En hovmästare berättar”. According to the book, Director Jonsson travelled to St. Petersburg to purchase food: caviar, sturgeon, fillet and other finest delicacies. Ice cream artists arrived from St. Petersburg to make festive ice creams at Fennia’s confectionery.
The staff anxiously awaited the party, as Russian detectives had been investigating the hotel for possible attacks for weeks. At the party, each course of the dinner served to Governor-General Frans Albert Seyn and his wife was tasted by Police Commissioner Walmqvist, and only then was Butler Blom allowed to serve the dishes to the honoured guests.
When the official banquet ended and the Governor-General and his spouse left, the real festivities began. Officers drank toasts to tsar Nikolai II and broke the crystal chalices, as the fragments were believed to bring good luck.
The Finnish National Theatre was built next to Fennia in 1902. Fennia became a place for after parties for theatre audiences and actors, where they rushed to “discuss” the performances and celebrate successes. It became a meeting place for the elite of the art world for decades.
Celebrating Ida and Aleksi
Fennia also became famous for the numerous social events, such as the 40th artist’s jubilee of actress Ida Ahlberg and the birthday party of artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela.
Ida Ahlberg’s 40th artist’s jubilee in January 1914 became “the most brilliant celebration” ever celebrated in Finland. Students dragged the Finnish theatrical art diva to the restaurant, where a civic dinner and 300 banquet guests were waiting. The whole country participated in the celebration, to which several hundred telegrams, congratulatory card, gifts and flower deliveries were sent.
The Finnish theatrical diva sat at a table next to Juhani Aho. So many praising speeches were made in her honour that she burst into tears. Eino Leino, a great admirer of the actress, reported on the event in public.
Just a year later, on 17 January, Ida Aalberg died of pneumonia in St. Petersburg. On the day of the funeral, the newspapers were published with black borders. The obituaries spoke of a national mourning.
Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s 50th anniversary was held in Fennia in May 1915. Artist Antti Favén depicts birthdays in a painting where Eino Leino, Robert Kajanus, Eero Järnefelt and Eliel Saarinen celebrate with Gallen-Kallela.
Entertainment at the Grand Hotel Fennia
Restaurateur Jonsson had numerous ideas to renew and expand Grand Hotel Fennia’s entertainment programme. When the tango boom conquered Finland in 1914, he offered the magic of tango to Helsinki’s high society.
Danish dancing partners, The Two Hatwanys, who had previously held dance classes in London, Berlin, Copenhagen and Stockholm, among others, began teaching tango at Fennia. The event was extensively marketed in the newspaper, and the campaign became a hit.
Light-hearted variety shows remained in Fennia’s repertoire until the beginning of the Civil War, although their name was changed to cabaret.
During the First World War, Fennia offered, among other things, the opportunity to learn about telegrams in the theatre of war in its winter garden. In 1918, the building served as the headquarters of the Reds for some time.
As an ambitious businessman, Jonsson achieved an influential position in the cultural life of the capital. In 1912, the restaurateur expanded his business to Kaivohuone. He rented the premises from the City of Helsinki and renovated them with the help of architect D.W. Frölander-Ulf.
In 1917, Jonsson ran the Opperakellari (Opera cellar) on the premises of the Svenska Teatern, and by 1918, Hotel Kämp had also become a part of the Jonsson empire.
After Finland became independent in 1917, the building was renovated, and in 1919 Fennia celebrated its tenth anniversary. At the celebration, Grand Hotel Fennia was finally acclaimed to be in the same league with other top Nordic hotels, such as the famous Grand Hotel Stockholm.
On the first day of June 1919, the Prohibition Act came into force. It complicated the life of restaurants, but business was still allowed to continue. Even then Fennia served alcohol in secret and the public got to enjoy the latest cultural trends to the beat of jazz music. Among other things, the band King of Jazz is said to have performed in Fennia in 1921.
The interior of the hotel was thoroughly renovated in 1927–1928. The rooms were equipped with telephones, hot and cold water and soundproofing. The café and lobby were transformed into a hall decorated with green marble. An event space was created next to the winter garden, which was decorated by the artist Henry Eriksson with paintings of Thousand and One Nights.
Jonsson died in early 1931 as an economic crisis shook the country and the world. Despite the difficult times, the hotel continued to operate until the late 1940s.
In 1945, the centre of the yard wing was raised by three storeys while the damage caused by bombing was being repaired. Since 1968, the restaurant has been run by Elanto. A restaurant called Fennia operated in the house in the 1980s. The street-side façade was restored in the same decade.
Today, the property is in cooperation with its neighbour Nikolajeff’s house, Casino Helsinki, which became a valued building in 2004. The casino is owned by Finland’s Slot Machine Association. It is the only casino in the world whose profit goes entirely to charity.
Fennia building now mostly consists of offices and restaurants.
- Address: Mikonkatu 17
- Quarter: Camel
- Style: Viennese-influenced New Baroque
- Architects: Grahn, Hedman & Wasastjerna
First published: 19.5.2017