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21.07.2020

Observatory Hill Park, Helsinki

"Hill Park Observatory was the first municipal park in the early 1900s. The high hill with its beautiful sea view was part of the natural line of viewing platforms in ancient times. Once upon a time, beacons were lit on this and other hills along the coast. The last fire signal was burned on top of the Observatory during the Great Wrath (Isowiha) in the 1700s. The rocky ridge was also part of the fortification line designed by Augustin Ehrensward (1710-1772), including Viapori (Suomenlinna). Between 1748 and 1750, a small fortress called Ulrikasborg ("Fortress of Ulrika") was built on the top of the hill in honour of the Swedish Queen Ulrika Eleonora, who ruled only one full year (1719) until her husband Friedrich abdicated. This is the place where the Ulanlinna area (Ulrikasborg in Swedish) got its name. The fortress was destroyed during the Finnish War (1808-1809) and its stones were used to help rebuild Helsinki after the Great Fire of 1808.

When Johan Albrecht Ehrenström (1762-1847) and Karl Ludwig Engel (1778-1840) began to reorganize Helsinki, they could not help but notice the prominent position of the former hill fortress. In the plan of the city of 1812 they drew the main avenue (Unioninkatu) stretching from the top of the hill to the north. Engel even played with the idea of building an imperial palace on top of the hill. However, after the former capital of Turku was destroyed by fire in 1827, the Royal Academy (now the University of Helsinki) needed a new place, and in the 1830s a new observatory was built on top of the hill. Gradually, the hill became known among locals as the Observatorioberget (Hill Observatory), and the Finnish name Tähtitorninvuori (or Tähtitorninmäki, as it is commonly referred to) was established in the early 1900s.

The Hill Observatory was originally a barren rock, and in the 1860s the movement began to do something about it. The famous Swedish garden architect Knut Forsberg (1827-1875) was invited to propose a solution. At the same time, Forsberg designed Kaisaniemi Park.

According to Forsberg's plan, the slopes of the hill had to be terraced to create an amphitheatre effect overlooking the villas in the south. This part of the project was implemented in 1868 as part of a public building project to provide work during the hungry year. The soil was brought in by horse and cart to cover the bare rock. The construction project was funded by fundraising activities and revenue from the sale of alcohol.

In 1889, the fast-growing town hired Svante Olsson (1856-1941) from Sweden as the first permanent city gardener. Olsson began by completing the design of the Hill Park Observatory. His plans were based on a German model of a city park with winding paths, large and uncluttered lawns, terraced terrain and precisely laid out trees and shrubs. The resulting park was enthusiastically received. This was mentioned in guidebooks and local descriptions for its magnificent performances, and this was often drawn and photographed. It was even described as Svante Olsson's crowning achievement.

When the Royal Academy moved from Turku to Helsinki by order of Tsar Nicholas I (1796-1855), the Department of Astronomy also moved to the new capital. Professor of Astronomy FGW Argelander (1799-1875) found a suitable place for a new observatory on the top of Ulrikasborg.

The observatory was designed by Carl Ludwig Engel together with Professor Argelander and built in 1834. At that time it was a modern building and served as a model for many other observatories in Europe. Fortunately, all books and equipment of the faculty were saved from the Great Turku Fire and safely delivered to Helsinki. In 1890 a double refractor tower (photographic telescope) was built in the observatory garden. The beautiful tower was designed by the architect Gustav Nystrem (1856-1917) and stimulated the creation of a public park around the observatory.

In 2009, the Department of Astronomy moved to the Kumpula campus and merged with the Department of Physics. After a major renovation, the Helsinki Observatory was opened to the public in 2012.

The most impressive monument in the park is the "Shipwreck" by Robert Stigell (1852-1907). The sculpture depicts a shipwrecked family, but since its opening on November 18, 1898 it has also been interpreted politically. Finland suffered from Russian oppression at the time, and the fact that the memorial was located facing the West rather than the sea was symbolically interpreted as a cry for help. The sculpture was the first public monument in Helsinki that was not a monument for a specific person or event. Stigell himself claimed that he was simply interested in studying the sculptural dynamics of the object. He proposed it to the city as a public monument, and the committee decided to place it in Hill Observatory Park, as Stigell himself.

In 1925, Gosta Stenman (1888-1947), an art dealer, gave a beautiful marble sculpture called "Vader" to Vino Aaltonena for the pond in the park. Unfortunately, the work suffered from vandalism and was removed for conservation work. In 1994 it was placed in the library of Richardinkatu. On 21 June 2008, Helsinki Day, a new red granite sculpture was erected at the Thors Marjo Lahtinen Pond (1944-).

The most touching monument in the park is "Hands asking for mercy". memorial to Jewish refugees Raphael Vardi (1928) and Niels Haukeland (1957), which was opened in 2000. During the turmoil of World War II, Finland surrendered eight Jewish refugees to Germans, including children. On 6 November 1942, the refugees were taken to Hoenhern from Helsinki to Tallinn and eventually to the concentration camp in Auschwitz. It is known that only one in eight survived; the rest died in the camp. The memorial was erected near the place where Hohenhorn went.

The monument is rich in Jewish symbolism and is a slab of light granite Ylämaa about two meters long and one meter high with a bronze board resting on the slab. Raised hands begging for mercy are depicted in relief on the plate. On the other side of the plate is a reflective stainless steel plate. The names of the refugees and an explanation of their fate are inscribed in the monument in Finnish, Swedish and Hebrew. The monument is surrounded by a paving stone in the shape of a hand, symbolizing how memories of the victims are kept.

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