Helsinki’s Old Student House is inextricably linked with the city’s history. For more than 140 years, people have gathered here to celebrate and have a good time.
More than 140 years of restaurant excellence
From the 1840s onwards, University of Helsinki students would gather at Hallituskatu 3, the residence of Mr Pihlflyckt, an eminent local surgeon. The facilities were cramped and expensive, however, prompting people to moot the idea of a dedicated student union.
As the reign of Alexander II of Russia favoured reform, the university’s politically engaged lecturers, including J. V. Snellman, Fredrik Cygnaeus and C. G. Estlander, felt able to promote the idea of a purpose-built student house publicly. The idea was most likely prompted by the ideals of education, sobriety and shared purpose, which were popular at the time.
In 1868, the student union lodged a set of drawings created by Axel Hampus Dalström with the local register office, which in turn forwarded them to St Petersburg for approval by the emperor himself. Preliminary preparations came underway in August 1868 but it was not until the following winter that the students managed to purchase the timber needed for the foundations.
The Student House, partly funded through charitable donations, was officially opened on 26 November 1870. The programme for the event included a march by Mendelssohn, a rendition of Finland’s national anthem, extracts from Haydn’s Creation, a speech by chairman Otto Donner and recitals of poems by Topelius and Lönnrot. The ball organised to mark the occasion went on until 4 am. According to an invoice by Mr Kleineh, a local restaurateur, the partygoers consumed 463 bottles of beer, 25 bottles of cognac, 13 bottles of port, numerous bottles of wine and a total of 75 jugs, at 2.617 litres each, of punch. Someone had even imported grapes and cigars from St Petersburg. The party ended up costing the student union an additional 5,000 Finnish marks not budgeted for. This meant that, for the next four semesters, each student union member was forced to pay an additional membership fee of 15 marks to balance the books.
In 1873, the motto Spei suae patria dedit (The land of the fathers gave to its youth) was carved into the building’s facade. The following year, R. W. Ekman’s painting Väinämöisen soitto was hung in the building, and Walter Runeberg gifted his sculptures titled Psyche ja Jupiterin kotka and Apollo ja Marsyas to the student union. Alexander Alexandrovitsh, who would later become Alexander III of Russia, visited the building in 1876. Finland’s upper classes gathered there in 1878 and later in the same year Walter Runeberg’s frieze, titled Kleobis ja Biton, was finally installed in the building. The final decorative elements, Robert Stigell’s sculptures depicting Ilmarinen and Väinämöinen, were installed in the display cases adjacent to the main entrance in 1888.
The lower floor was home to the Student House Basement and the legendary “orkus”, where some of the university societies met. The ground floor was home to a heated foyer, a couple of smaller entrance halls, the ballroom, billiard room and three meeting rooms. On the first floor was a library, the present day music venue, more entrance halls and a balcony overlooking the front of the building.
In 1901, Akseli Gallen-Kallela painted his majestic Kullervo Rides to War on the music hall wall. A couple of years later, the building was equipped with furniture provided by Count Louis Sparre and architect Walter Thomé. Expanses of stained pine, dark oak and buffalo leather were contrasted with delicate upholstered sofas and chairs in keeping with contemporary fashions.
For the students, the new building was a place where they could meet, socialise and party. The restaurant served a highly popular sandwich buffet that prompted some bad behaviour among the students, which was duly reported in the Ylioppilaslehti student newspaper. Gradually, the number of students increased so dramatically, that the issue of a New Student House was raised. The New Student House was opened in 1910 and ever since that day, Hampus Dalström’s design has been known as the Old Student House.
The building has undergone a number of renovations and changes over the years but, fundamentally, it has remained as it ever was. In 1929, the Suomalainen kirjakauppa bookstore opened up next door, complete with a huge ornamental cupola and enormous display windows. Over the following decade the cafe walls were decorated with sharp little drawings featuring the resident ”navel gazers” at the cafe and the university. In the 1960s, the basement was converted into a restaurant.
Things changed abruptly on 8 April 1978 at 1.07 am when Helsinki Fire Brigade were alerted to a blaze at the Old Student House. Firefighters were successful at saving the artworks before the roof collapsed, although some had to be cut out of their frames. The charred roof beams and the smoke blackened walls had students wondering whether they would ever be able to gather there ever again. The initial estimate valued the damage at around 15 million marks. Very soon, a unanimous decision was made to proceed with the repair. Designed by architects Vilhelm Helander and Juha Leiviskä, the repairs and restoration works were completed swiftly and the building was back in use by the end of 1979.
Today, the Old Student House continues to serve as a meeting place for students and Helsinki residents. The restaurants and Great Student Hall continue to be used for parties and events. Vanha, as the building is affectionately known, continues to flourish.
Text by Jari Eerola, Archivist, University of Helsinki Student Union (abridged)