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26.07.2020

Senate Square, Helsinki

Senate Square (Swedish: Senatstorget) is a square in the centre of the historic central square of Helsinki and Helsinki. It is surrounded by numerous valuable buildings such as Helsinki Cathedral, Government Palace and the main building of Helsinki University. In the centre of the square there is a statue of Alexander II. The Senate Square with its cathedrals is the most famous symbol of Helsinki and one of the most popular tourist destinations in the city. At the edges of the square there are Aleksanterinkatu, Unioninkatu, Snellmaninkatu and at the northern edge in front of the steps of the cathedral Halltuskatu.

Senate Square was established in the first half of the 19th century by the designers of the Helsinki Monumental Centre, urban planner Johan Albrecht Ehrenström and architect Carl Ludwig Engel on the site of the previously modest Great Square with its buildings.

The Senate Square and its surroundings form the old centre of Helsinki. In its area are the oldest buildings in the city centre, such as the Cederholm House, built in 1757.

The Old Great Square 

The centre of Helsinki has been located in the Senate Square area ever since the city was moved to its present location in 1640. During Swedish rule, in the southeast corner of today's Senate Square was the Main Market Square of the city, bordered by the city's public buildings, Town Hall, regular school and main guard. On its southern edge was the main street Suurkatu (now Aleksanterinkatu), along which the houses of the richest bourgeoisie were located. On the other side of the square on the west side was the city church, surrounded by a cemetery.

In total, three churches were located in Senate Square. The first was the brick church of Kristijna, which was built in the late 1640s, but was destroyed along with the rest of the city of that time by a fire on August 5, 1654. At the same time, the original town hall was also burned down. After the destruction of the stone church, a wooden church of the Holy Spirit was built on this site. The city was again destroyed during the Great Hatred when Swedish troops retreated from Helsinki in May 1713 and burned down the city. After peace the church of Ulrik Eleanor was built, which was consecrated in 1727.

At the beginning of the 19th century the Great Square was as it had been acquired in the last century after the Great Wrath that destroyed the city on earth. Although the town consisted almost entirely of wooden houses, the main public buildings and the houses of the richest bourgeoisie were already in stone. History ruled two stone buildings: a town hall (1804) on the northern edge and a trivial school (1759) on the eastern edge. At the western edge of the square there was a small main security building, behind which the cemetery square began. The cemetery church of Ulrika Eleonora was a wooden church with an attic roof, named after the Swedish queen. The church yard was filled in the late 1780s, but the old family graves were still buried in the early 19th century. Along the main street south of the square there were a number of stone trading houses, such as Cederholm House and Bock House.

Johan Albrecht Ehrenstrom and Design of Senate Square. 

When Helsinki became the capital of the Grand Duchy of Finland in 1812, it became a representative administrative city. The task was entrusted to Johan Albrecht Ehrenstrem, a butler from Helsinki, and the German architect Carl Ludwig Engel. Ehrenstrem was the director of the Helsinki Reconstruction Committee and developed a new square plan for the city according to the ideals of neoclassicism, while Engel designed the most important buildings.

The central element of new Helsinki, designed by Ehrenstrem, was the monumental Senate Square, which was placed on the site of the old Great Square. The Market Square, which had previously been practiced on the Great Market Square, was moved to Market Square, and Senate Square became a purely representative space. In designing the new square, Ehrenström drew inspiration from neoclassical European squares, especially from Gustav Adolf Square in Stockholm. According to these role models, Ehrenström emphasized symmetry, so that the northern edge of the square was to be symmetrical in scale, and the buildings to be placed on the eastern and western sides of the square were also to have symmetrical facades.

Ehrenstrem's original sketch in Senate Square was different from the version that had finally come true. He kept the old town hall in the northeast corner of the square, although it had been renovated, and placed it as a symmetrical analogue in the northwest corner of the square post office. These buildings were connected by a long and low main guard, and behind them on a rock north of the square stood the main church of the Lutheran church. Ehrenstrom housed the Senate House on the eastern edge of the square and the Governor's Palace on the western edge. The old bourgeois houses on the southern edge were allowed to stay, but their facades had to be modernised to accommodate the neoclassical environment of the square.

Carl Ludwig Engel, Senate Square and Construction

The construction of Senate Square meant the destruction of the old city centre. The old public buildings, including the Church of Ulriah Eleanor, were demolished in 1827 after the completion of the new church building (now the Old Church), and the Great Square and the cemetery were leveled as the foundation of the new square. The cemetery cemeteries were not removed, so the graves of the inhabitants of Helsinki from the 17th and 18th centuries are still under the Market Square and Aleksanterinkatu. The bones appeared in the 21st century due to construction works. Although Ehrenström preserved the Town Hall in its original plan, its preservation was quickly perceived as problematic and was destroyed in the late 1830s, i.e. as soon as the city administration was able to move into new premises.

Engel's first work in Senate Square was to convert the House of Bock, one of the old bourgeois houses on its southern outskirts, into a temporary governor-general's palace from 1816 to 1819. Other bourgeois houses were also modernised according to Engel's plans. In 1819 a long and low main guard building was built on the northern edge of the square. However, the first real effort for Engel was to design a Senate building, built between 1818 and 1820. This was the first of three monumental buildings designed along the market square and was to determine the final architectural appearance of the entire square. Engel was pleased with the result and later called the Senate House his masterpiece.

In 1828, the university was ordered to move from Turku to Helsinki. The western edge of Senate Square was originally reserved for the Governor-General's Palace, but since the Bock House, intended as a temporary palace, was considered sufficient for the Governor-General, it was decided to reserve the western edge of the square for the University. The main building of the university was completed in 1832, and according to the rules of symmetry of Ehrenstrom, its facade was identical to that of the Senate House. In 1840, the university library was completed in the north block of the main building.

The last of the completed buildings in Senate Square was the main Lutheran church, located on a rock to the north of it. Engel designed the church for a decade and honed its style to make it as elegant and simplified as possible. However, the appearance of the church has changed dramatically over two decades of construction work, which began in 1830. By order of the Emperor and to Engel's disappointment, a monumental staircase was built in front of the church, descending to Senate Square, from which the main security building was demolished. This violated the original plan of Ehrenstrom and Engel that the market should be covered with a closed building mass in all directions. After Engel's death in 1840, the construction of the church was headed by Ernst Bernhard Lawmann, who made further changes to his drawings. The church was consecrated in 1852, when the initial stage of construction of Senate Square could be considered completed.

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