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The Koitto building, an eyewitness to Finnish history

If the walls of the Koitto building in Kamppi could speak, there would be no end to their stories. Completed in 1907, the building has been host to the temperance movement, seen struggles between communists and social democrats, and served as a venue for theatres.

Can the wife of a proprietor join a temperance society? Does a teetotal servant violate their pledge by serving alcohol at their master’s command? These were some of the questions discussed at the early meetings of temperance society Koitto.  The society was founded in 1883. In 1907, it constructed a building in Kamppi, on the corner of Simonkatu and Yrjönkatu.

Temperance society Koitto was established in 1883 as the first local branch of the association Kohtuuden ystävät. At the turn of the century, the society began collecting funds for the construction of its own building.

The five-storey stone building of Koitto was designed by Vilho Penttilä. The building’s Art Nouveau style has elements of romantic nationalism, such as its towers and castle-esque bay windows. In addition to serving as the temperance society’s base of operations, the building hosted shops and rental apartments, as well as a restaurant, café, and gym and banquet hall with a stage.

Moderation and teetotalism

Doctor Aksel August Granfelt is considered the founder of temperance society Koitto. Granfelt was secretary of the Finnish Lifelong Learning Foundation, a fennophile, and parliamentary representative, who advocated total abstinence. A group of “virtuous male university students” began to form around Granfelt, and these men were ready to turn their beliefs into actions.

They joined the Kohtuuden ystävät (“Friends of moderation”), an association then in its death throes, and established a local branch in Helsinki. The founding meeting took place on 14 October 1883, with separate societies formed for Finnish and Swedish speakers. The Finnish-speaking society adopted the name Koitto, proposed by student Kaarle Krohn.

A multi-functional association

Initially, Koitto was divided between the teetotalers and a general section for those advocating moderation. In 1899, the general section was disbanded in the society’s annual meeting as total abstinence was, by then, considered to be the only option.

Photo: Helsingin kaupunginmuseo/Rundman E

As the labour movement started to become organised, its members also swelled the ranks of Koitto. In this manner, the society became part of the rising labour movement. The labour movement’s ambitions of instituting prohibition were thus also adopted as Koitto’s objective, a position renounced by Granfelt and others. Koitto separated from its parent association Raittiuden Ystävät in 1915 and joined the newly formed Suomen Sosiaalidemokraattinen Raittiusliitto (“Finnish Social Democratic Temperance Alliance”).

According to the society’s centenary publication, “Koitto was simultaneously a temperance society, worker’s institute, study group, club for women and young people, library and sports club, part of the cooperative movement and savings bank institute, and even functioned, in a way, as a trade union and a political party.”

Groundwork for the city theatre

Upon the Koitto building’s completion, the theatre group Koiton Näyttämö, which was founded in the previous year and turned professional during the early 1920s, began operating in the banquet hall. Koiton Näyttämö later merged with the Kansanteatteri theatre, which then became part of the Helsinki workers’ theatre. The worker’s theatre in turn formed the foundation of the current Helsinki City Theatre.

The first renovations to the building were made in 1929. On that occasion, the banquet hall was made longer and the stage expanded to fit the theatre’s needs. Architect Arvo Elo was in charge of the designs for the repairs. The building’s colours and decorative paintings were also renewed, the work led by sculptor Wäinö Aaltonen.

A leftist power struggle

During the 1920s and 1930s, the building’s history was marked by a struggle between communists and social democrats over control of the property. Koitto was originally established as part of the non-socialist Wrightian labour movement, but its leaders later included social democrats even though the society officially strived to remain outside party politics.

In the 1920s, the house became a hub of underground activities of the banned Communist Party of Finland, and in 1927, the first communist was elected as chair of the society.  Three years later, authorities closed the building down and set the expulsion of communists from Koitto as the condition for its reopening.

During the 1930s, a metal wall decoration was vandalised by the far-right group Lapua Movement, but Wäinö Aaltonen reattached it to the building even firmer than before.

Activities for young teens

During wartime, the society’s operations were naturally low, and the focus of its activities became more aimed at young teens. It is not known whether Koitto took part in the “war effort”, other than by paying visits to the wounded. In 1944, during the Continuation War, the Koitto building suffered severe damage in aerial bombings.

After the war, leftists were allowed to resume official activities, as well as their residence in Koitto. A “coup d’état” took place during the 1948 annual meeting, and control of the Koitto building was placed firmly in the hands of the people’s democrats. At the same time, two thirds of the building’s shares were owned by communist organisations operating on the property.

Koitto separated from the Social Democratic Temperance Alliance and participated in the founding of a new central organisation. The primary activities of Koitto became more aimed toward children and young people. The peak season of youth work was, of course, the baby boomer generation’s adolescence during the 1960s.

Since the 1950s, the building had as its tenants some two dozen organisations and societies closely aligned with the Finnish Communist Party and People’s Democratic League. The building hosted several hobby clubs, notably the choir Koiton Laulu and sports club Helsingin Visa.

Koitto’s own activities began to slowly peter out during the 1960s. The bulk of its operations were camps and clubs aimed at children and young people, and activities for adults were non-existent, with the exception of associations linked to the society such as choirs and the Koiton Näppärät Naiset club for women.

Theatre and dance

For many years, the Koitto building provided premises for a variety of organisations right in the heart of Helsinki. In addition to many organisations, the building has been home to, for example, the KOM Theatre and the Theatre Academy.

Though many in the city later knew the building by its reputation as a dance venue, dancing was originally banned there. For 30 years, the Koitto building hosted Åke Blomqvist’s renowned dance studio.

The colours of the banquet hall were renewed under the direction of architect Johannes von Martens, and it is now called the Aktia-sali, after the Aktia bank.

Today, the building is part of the Forum business complex. As a result of the change in ownership, four of its floors are now occupied by Finland-Swedish associations, and the seventh floor is home to the offices of the Swedish People’s Party of Finland.

The Koitto society itself is nowadays a homeowners’ association for the summer residents of Lammassaari, an area owned by the society in its early days. The word Koitto, engraved on the wall of a stone building face in Helsinki, gives a glimpse of an illustrious past.

See also:

Video of Koitto building

Basic information:

  • Address: Yrjönkatu 8 – Simonkatu 31
  • Architect: Vilho Penttilä
  • Year of construction: 1907
  • Style: Art Nouveau, romantic nationalism
  • City block: Kukko

Published 6.7.2017