Monday, 20 April 2009

What to see: The Presidential Palace, Helsinki

Facing Helsinki’s harbour is a string of notable buildings, many of them in the empire style. To the far right is the Presidential Palace, which was originally a private mansion, built by Pehr Granstedt (1746-1828) for the merchant Johan Henrik Heidenstrauch in 1816-1820. Granstedt was a fortifications officer-turned-amateur architect and his drawings were changed and corrected first by Giacomo Quarenghi and then by Carl Ludvig Engel.
At the same time an imperial palace was being planned in Helsinki, which was first meant to be situated where the Cathedral now is. Other options were also proposed, but in the end the state purchased Heidenstrauch's mansion in 1837 and turned it into an imperial palace, the official residence of the Emperor or Russia as Grand Duke of Finland.
The job of transforming the mansion into a palace worthy of the Emperor was given to Carl Ludvig Engel, who had already been the architect of most of Helsinki’s beautiful empire centre. Engel demolished the timber storehouses located at the back of the palace and replaced them with an entire new wing.
The work on the new imperial palace was completed in 1845, five years after Engel’s death. It was however only in 1851 that a member of the imperial family, namely the future Emperor Alexander II, came to stay at the Palace. As Emperor-Grand Duke he came to Helsinki three times (in 1856, 1863 and 1876) and stayed at the Palace every time. The last Emperor to stay at the palace was Alexander III, who came with his family in 1885. In 1915 his son, Nikolay II, made his only visit to Helsinki as Emperor, but chose to stay in his railway carriage rather than at his Finnish palace.
With the 1906 introduction of a unicameral parliament in stead of an assembly of the four estates a new throne room was needed and another wing was added at the back side in 1904-1907, designed by the architect Jac. Ahrenberg.
During the final years of the First World War the Palace served as a military hospital. After the fall of the monarchy it became briefly the seat of the executive committee of the Russian Soldiers' and Workers' Soviet, but it was damaged by German bombs in April 1918. Following the election of Prince Friedrich Karl of Hesse-Cassel as King of newly independent Finland the Palace was restored by the architect Gustaf Strengell and the interior designer Harry Röneholm in anticipation of the King's arrival.
In the end the King never came and it was decided that the Palace should be the official residence of the President of the Republic of Finland and some alterations to the building were carried out in 1919-1922. The last but one president actually to live in the Presidential Palace was Juho Kusti Paasikivi, who served as president 1946-1956. His successor, Urho Kekkonen, was disturbed by the heavy traffic outside the Palace and after half a year he chose to live at the villa Tamminiemi (Ekudden in Swedish), which had been donated to the state for the President’s use in 1940.
Kekkonen also had his office at Tamminiemi and only came to the Presidential Palace once a week to receive visitors. When Kekkonen resigned due to illness in 1982 he was allowed to stay at Tamminiemi for the rest of his life and his successor Mauno Koivisto therefore moved into a flat in the Palace while a new presidential villa was being built.
The current President, Tarja Halonen, and her husband live at this new villa, Mäntyniemi (Talludden), which was built between 1989 and 1993 by the architects Reima and Raili Pietilä. President Halonen does however have her office at the Palace, which is also where she hosts a grand gala reception on Independence Day (6 December) each year. Visiting heads of state will also appear with President Halonen on the Palace’s balcony, as when she received Russia’s President on a state visit earlier today.
The Palace’s grandest room is the Hall of Mirrors, a grand conception with Corinthian columns carrying a gallery which goes all the way around the hall. Guided tours of the Palace used to be arranged, but today it is no longer open to visitors. A virtual tour of the Palace is on the other hand available at the President's official website:

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