Merikasarmi Naval Barracks
This residential building, later named Smolna, was originally designed for the commander of the Finnish troupes, about the same time as the Kaarti barracks nearby. The main facade facing Esplanadi Boulevard has a dominating central avant-corps.
The decoration is closely linked to that of the Kaarti barracks, with motifs composed of helmets, shields and spears, linking it to the military. But whereas the barracks had no columns or pilasters, the Smolna has six semi-detached Ionian columns framing the three central window openings, indicating its higher hierarchy in the townscape.
The entrance facing the Esplanadi park opens to the main staircase leading up to the main floor, the so-called belle-étage, and the rooms for entertainment. These included the ballroom in the north-western corner and adjoining smaller salons, separately for masculine and feminine socialising. The living quarters for the commander were also situated upstairs, intertwined with the festive rooms for entertaining.
The Smolna building has had exceptionally many and varied uses, reflecting different phases and episodes of Finnish history. The original use ended already in 1828, when it was needed to serve as a temporary building for the university, which was moved from Turku to Helsinki after the devastating fire of 1827. As the university’s main building was inaugurated in 1832, Smolna was once again converted into a residence, this time to house the highest state officer, the general-governor of Finland. This use continued until 1917, when Finland declared itself independent and the office of the general-governer ceased to exist.
During the dramatic months of the civil war in 1918, Smolna was first taken over by the socialist Reds and used as their headquarters. These few months gave the building its name, Smolna, relating it to the Soviet paragon. During the restless years of 1918 and 1919, Smolna served as the residence of the German general von der Golz leading the German troops aiding the Whites, and after that as the residence of the first State Regent of independent Finland, Carl Gustaf Mannerheim.
Once the young nation gradually evolved into a presidential democracy, Smolna was first used as the foreign ministry as well as the residence of the foreign minister. During the first part of the 20th century the official use varied, but gradually the grand second floor rooms were more and more often used as originally intended – for festive state affairs. Between 1964–66 the building was thoroughly renovated to become the Government Banquet Hall but the name Smolna still sticks to it.
text: Kati Winterhalter