The pearl of the Fennia block is a cultural-historically important former hotel and restaurant building. The hotel that once operated there was made famous by Edvard Jonsson, a Swede who settled down in Finland. Nowadays, the building hosts the Grand Casino Helsinki.

The Fennia building was designed by the renowned architects Grahn, Hedman & Wasastjerna and it represents the Viennese baroque architectural style. The hotel was originally founded by an influential group of cultural leaders and traders, such as Josef Volontis, a restaurant keeper in the Esplanadi park, and brewer Paul Sinebrychoff. The Fennia Hotel was opened in 1899, but its financial success only began after a change of owner ten years later. In 1909, the Swedish restaurant keeper Karl Edvard Jonsson (1857–1931) took over the reins and launched the golden age of the hotel. He renovated the hotel and grandiloquently renamed it the Grand Hotel Fennia.

As the prince of restaurants in Finland

Jonsson was a well-known name in the hotel and restaurant business even before taking over Fennia. There is little information about the first steps of his career in Sweden but on Finnish soil Jonsson’s entrepreneurial skills stood out years before the triumph of Fennia. Before moving to Helsinki, Jonsson had a Turisthotellet which was the centre of night life and amusements in Savonlinna. With wit and a reformed array of events Jonsson led his restaurant to success.

According to a legend, the tables of the Turisthotellet were practically overflowing with extraordinary delicacies such as bear steaks during the festive happenings at the hotel. The citizens were fascinated by the luxurious atmosphere of the hotel, and its income soared accordingly.

Flamboyant debut

As expected, the debut of restaurant keeper Jonsson as the new owner of Fennia in 1909 was flamboyant. The new glamorous name was just the first step: the architecture of the building underwent drastic renovations and the interior design acquired a new look as well. The old kitchen was transformed into a winter garden. Designed by Jarl Eklund, the winter garden had a pyramid-shaped glass roof and a fountain underneath it. At its grandest, the water in the fountain rose up to eight metres.

The luxurious winter garden, which later was further expanded, quickly became a popular meeting place for Helsinki socialites.

Breath-taking glamour

The official opening of the Grand Hotel Fennia was held at the end of January 1909, and the guests were astonished by the luxury of the hotel. The centre of the hotel was embellished with that magical fountain that glimmered in every colour of the rainbow. A total of 157 waiters were hired for the occasion and they nimbly moved from table to table dressed in dark green tailcoats as the famous Simon Steinberg and his orchestra took care of the music for the evening.

In spite of the glamorous beginning many citizens had a somewhat sceptical stance on Jonsson’s project and feared that history would repeat itself:  several businesses operating in the building during ten years beforehand had been quickly driven into bankruptcy.   But Fennia managed to change this course and restore the good reputation of the building.

As the set for Sylvi

Jonsson was very clever with publicity. One of the most famous projects that Jonsson participated in was the filming of a movie based on the play Sylvi by Minna Canth. The filming took place on the roof of Fennia in July 1911.

The income from the rent of the premises was not significant because the owner did not charge the production company very much. The substantial publicity that the project gained, on the other hand, generated financial income for Jonsson as well.

As an ambitious entrepreneur Jonsson gained an influential position in the cultural circles of the capital city. In 1912, the restaurant keeper expanded his business to Kaivohuone. He leased the premises from the city of Helsinki and renovated them with the help of architect D.W. Frölander-Ulf.

In 1917, Jonsson operated Oopperakellari (the Opera Cellar) in the premises of the Svenska Teatern (the Swedish Theatre) and by 1918 the Kämp Hotel, too, belonged to the Jonsson empire.

Entertainment at Grand Hotel Fennia

The restaurant keeper had plenty of ideas about reforming and expanding the array of entertainment.

As the tango boom hit Finland in 1914, Jonsson offered the socialites of Helsinki lessons in the magic of tango.   Danish dance couple The Two Hatwanys, who had previously held dancing lessons in such locations as London, Berlin, Copenhagen and Stockholm began teaching tango in Fennia.  The event was extensively promoted in the papers and it became a hit.

In 1902, the building for the Finnish National Theatre rose up next to Fennia. Thus, Fennia became the meeting place for the theatre audience and actors, who rushed there after the shows to discuss the plays and celebrate successes.

In addition, the hotel became famous for its numerous high society events such as the 40th anniversary of the artistic career of actress Ida Aalberg and the birthday celebrations of painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela.

The buoyant variety shows remained in Fennia’s repertoire until the beginning of the civil war, except that their name was changed to cabarets. During the war, Fennia offered the possibility to acquaint oneself with telegrams from the battle fields in its winter garden, among other things. In 1918, the building operated for a short time as the headquarters of the Red Guards.

Renovations in independent Finland

As Finland acquired its independence in 1917 the building was renovated, and in 1919 Fennia celebrated its 10th anniversary. In the midst of celebrations the Grand Hotel Fennia was praised as finally competing in the same league with other Nordic top hotels, such as the famous Grand Hotel Stockholm.

On the 1 June 1919, Finland enacted the prohibition of alcohol.  It complicated the operations of the restaurant but, nevertheless, business was able to continue. In Fennia, too, alcohol was served secretly as people enjoyed the latest currents of culture in the form of jazz. It has been told, that among other jazz groups, the King of Jazz performed in Fennia in 1921.

Despite the hard times, the hotel continued its operations until the end of the 1940s. Jonsson died at the beginning of 1931 as the country and the whole world was ravished by the financial crisis.

Not just a restaurant keeper

In addition to the hotel and restaurant business, Jonsson devoted himself to agriculture, animal husbandry and forestry. He owned large areas in the Satakunta region and the luxurious Gustavelund mansion in Tuusula.

It is believed that the products from the farms were used in the restaurant keeper’s own kitchens.

The hotel business came to its final end in the 1940s when the hotel was renovated into business premises. There was, however, a restaurant called Fennia in the building until as late as the 1980s.

Nowadays, the building hosts the Grand Casino Helsinki, which moved into its high-prestige home in 2004. The casino is owned by Finland’s Slot Machine Association (RAY).  It is the only casino in the world that gives all its profit to charity.

See also:

Video of the Fennia building

 

Published

17.12.2014
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