Finland is a small, young and Lutheran country, so there is comparably little splendour in the buildings that belong to its government. But it is the highest honour and dream of many Finns to one day be invited to the Presidential Palace for the traditional Independence party, where the president shakes the hands of hundreds of carefully selected guests. For the 100th birthday of the country, there was now a rare chance to get into the President’s Palace (albeit without the hand shaking) when it opened its doors to the public for a few days a couple of weeks ago. And of course many jumped at the opportunity, average queuing time was around 2 hours. We managed it in 1 hour 50 minutes on Saturday, just before the palace closed its doors again.
The Presidential Palace is one of the official residences of the Finnish president, and has a prime location in the middle of the city centre, overlooking the Market Square. The house was built in 1816 as a merchant’s villa on the site of an old salt storehouse. It was quickly turned into the residence of the Governor-General of Finland, and soon after Nicholas I decided that it should become the official Helsinki residence of the Tsar of Russia, and it was named the Imperial Palace. Rebuilding and refurbishing was carried out by the famous architect Engel (who built much of Helsinki’s nicer parts) in neoclassical style.
In the beginning, the house was empty for most of the time, only used on occasional visits of members of the Imperial family. In WWI and after, the palace was used for a variety of things, such as a Military Hospital and headquarters of the Executive Committee of the Helsinki Workers and Soldiers Soviet, before being prepared for the arrival of the chosen King of Finland. The King-to-be, however, was German and, given the political situation at the time, decided it was best to renounce the Finnish throne. In 1919, the palace was finally appointed residence of the President of Finland. Today, the president lives in a quieter neighbourhood of Helsinki, and the palace is mainly used for state visits and other representative functions.
I’m not an expert on architecture nor art, so I’m afraid I can’t say much about the interior and its value. To me it looked like a strange mix though: The entrance seemed to have been a newer addition, with the ugliest ceiling I had seen in a long time – it looked almost like a linoleum flooring stuck to the ceiling, and had a difficult to describe colour that darkened the entire room. Beyond it lay the kind of rooms you would expect from a palace – although when compared to the stately homes that can be found in the UK everything was newer, felt more impersonal, not like someone’s home. I’m also pretty sure the marble walls weren’t marble, but just painted to look like it. There were expensive looking chandeliers everywhere, but not much else furnishing the rooms. A few paintings here and there, and some chairs and small sofas, but all in all it looked a bit empty. It certainly is the most protestant looking palace I have ever seen.
One thing I found quite charming was the gallery of First Ladies (and one First Gentleman) in the upstairs of the atrium. I didn’t notice portraits of the actual presidents anywhere (but then again, I can be horribly blind when it comes to paintings), which made it even more peculiar. I’m afraid my pictures aren’t up to my usual standard, because there were lots of other people and I didn’t have much time to wait for them to get out the way, but they do give a little insight into what it looks like inside the palace =).