Torni History

The Story of Our Helsinki Hotel

Paul's Journal, June 3, 2002


For decades the Hotel Torni (Yrjönkatu 26; tel. 131 131; fax 131 1361) has been the centre of cultural as well as political life in Helsinki. Its central location and luxurious setting have made it a hotel for the important foreign visitors, a meeting place for cultural personalities, and a place for culinary experiences. Hotel TorniFor the best view over Helsinki, visit the Ateljee Bar on the top floor. There is also a de luxe Restaurant Torni, the oldest Irish pub in Helsinki O'Malley's, and the art deco American Bar, with walls painted full of cartoon-like fantasies of Helsinki.

Hotel Torni was established during the Prohibition (which, in fact, was broken in all possible ways) in 1928, when there was a need for restaurants and hotels in the fast-growing capital. It was designed by the firm Jung & Jung. The ambitious idea was to build a metropolitan skyscraper in the middle of the low buildings of Helsinki. A huge fight started as soon as the plan was established, involving governor Bruno Jalander, the city of Helsinki, city court, administrative court, the Supreme Court, the Supreme Administrative Court, the national Government, and several newspapers.

The idea of a 14-story building in Helsinki was a new and radical one - one must remember that the population was only 220,000 at the time. The city administrative court and the town council were strictly against the building. Torni was perceived as an eye sore - "a disgrace to the city leaders and the owners of the surrounding buildings."

With the political support of governor Jalander, however, construction was begun in the spring of 1929. But the issue turned into a tragedy. The fall of the same year Helsinki zoning board decided that building was not allowed to begin before the appeal period was over.

After tough and complicated politics, and heavy fines, Torni finally got the required permission and Helsinki her first skyscraper with modern neon lights on top of the 14 stories. Torni was officially opened on March 19, 1931. It was a luxurious hotel: Torni was Finland's first fully electrified building - no wood nor gas lighting or heating were used - with a state-of-the-art telephone exchange and ceramic tiled bathrooms. Paul Kocher from Switzerland was invited as the first manager of the hotel.

In Finland, as in so many other cities, the early 1930's were politically troubled times. Also, economically this was the most difficult time in the Finnish history: there was high unemployment, wages were low, and the poor needed relief. In a situation like this, Torni was a symbol of something new, radical, modern, better, and American. In 1932 the hotel was a pioneer in getting radio equipment.

In the 1930's Torni stabilized its position - not least because of the repealing of the Prohibition in 1932 - and started to attract not only businessmen, but also important personalities such as marshal Mannerheim, president P. E. Svinhufvud, and young writers of the Tulenkantajat (Torch Bearers) group. Foreign visitors included, for example, the Russian singer Fjodor Shaljapin, Herbert Hoover (The President of the U.S.A.), prince Bertil of Sweden, and the American aviator Charles Lindbergh (who was the first to cross the Atlantic alone by plane). However, the most notable visitor was an African-American girl who danced in her banana skirt and drove Europe crazy: the legendary Josephine Baker.

In the tight political conditions of the 1930's Torni was also a centre for spying and arms dealing (see also "James Bond" in Helsinki).

When the Winter War (see Second World War) broke out, Torni fortified its windows and doors with boards and sand sacks. Cellars were fortified with logs, and deep in the middle of the building a bomb shelter was built. During the war foreign reporters stayed at Torni. It turned to an important centre for espionage and information.

The Continuation War (1941-44) made it impossible for the hotel to function. Food was scarce, everything was rationed, and cream, for example, was prohibited. The army took all the hotel's men and cars; linen sheets had to be replaced with paper ones; not only coffee was substituted. Luckily enough, though, the building escaped the bombings.

After the war new winds of change were blowing. The notorious Russian control commissioner Andrey Zhdanov (and his delegation) stayed at Torni until the fall 1947. Torni, which had until then been some kind of symbol of modern Helsinki now became the symbol of foreign presence and power. Torni was looked upon with fear and apprehension; children were told that Russians would get them if they did something bad. Even the building was hated. Finnish policemen stood in guard outside the hotel day and night; inside the Russian soldiers kept guard. After the control commission left, an inventory was made at the hotel: the furniture had to be replaced, as well as the phone systems.

Diplomats, politicians (e.g. the Soviet Prime Minister Aleksei Kosygin), and many cultural personalities have since then visited Torni again. One dramatic fact of Torni's post-war history is that Lee Harvey Oswald, the suspected murderer of president John F. Kennedy, stayed there on his trips to Soviet Union.

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