As the population of Helsinki grew in the early 1900s, low-rise wooden buildings began to be replaced by higher stone buildings used as homes and business premises. One of the most beautiful buildings to come out of this era was the Kaleva palace designed by architect Armas Lindgren. The building was completed in 1913 in the heart of Helsinki, at the intersection of Kaivokatu and Heikinkatu (now Mannerheimintie).
The building was commissioned by Kaleva life insurance company, which moved its head office to the new building after construction was completed. A year later, in 1914, Hotel Seurahuone began operating in the building. It is notable, even miraculous, that the building’s appearance and purpose have remained the same for a hundred years. The building’s history reveals that this was not always a certainty.
A renaissance palace that came close to being destroyed
The Kaleva palace has always been an important meeting place. As Finnish towns developed, inns and public houses began to be complemented by Society Houses that provided high-end hotel and restaurant services. The first of these was opened in Turku in 1812. Helsinki’s Society House opened its doors in 1833 near the Senate Square under the name Hotel Seurahuone, and subsequently moved to the Kaleva palace in 1914. The newly constructed building boasted the latest hotel technology, modern conveniences and attractive spatial solutions. There were plans to expand the hotel, but these were scrapped after a recession in 1929.
The story of the building begins in 1874, the year that marked the establishment of Kaleva, Finland’s oldest life insurance company, as well as the birth of architect Armas Lindgren. As one of the most respected and internationally renowned Finnish architects of his time, Lindgren had already designed a number of notable buildings in the Helsinki region before being offered the task of designing the Kaleva palace.
The Kaleva palace is a significant milestone in the history of Finnish construction technology. It was the first building in Finland to use reinforced concrete piling. With a heating system that could be separately adjusted for each room, the building represented a new era in the Finnish hotel business.
Many find the Kaleva palace to be Lindgren’s greatest achievement, and it was widely considered an outstanding accomplishment in architectural design as soon as it was completed. The design process took nearly four years, including much of the building’s interior decoration. One of the best-known features of the building is sculptor Gunnar Finne’s shield sculpture above the main entrance, with the engraving “Vakuudessa vahva turva”, or “Solid Security through Insurance”. The shield sculpture is just one of many features of the building made from granite shipped in from Kökar island that gives it the air of a renaissance palace. Lindgren later went on to become Professor of Architecture in addition to his active design work, teaching many notable students including Alvar Aalto.
The most significant crisis in the history of the building took place in the early 1970s. The maintenance costs had risen so much that there were even plans to demolish the building, but changes in ownership and renovations ultimately saved it from that fate. After the Finnish banking crisis of the 1990s, the asset management company Arsenal operated in the former premises of the insurance company. Sponda purchased the property from Arsenal in 1997.
“This property is an important strategic asset in a very prominent location,” says Sponda’s Account Manager Markus Mikkola.
Today, the building’s main tenants are Nordea and Restel, which recently opened Brasserie Le Havre in place of the former Restaurant Seurahuone. There will be more festivities next year as Hotel Seurahuone celebrates the 100th anniversary of its operations in Kaleva palace.