After some time, we return to the Helgeandsholmen island in Stockholm which is the home of the Swedish Parliament. What we look at in this post, though, is not the island itself but what connects it to the rest of the city. The Norrbro bridge connects the island to the Old Town (Gamla Stan) on its southern side and to the Norrmalm district on the northern side. The bridge, like many other places in central Stockholm, has a long and interesting history which is what we discover in the following paragraphs.
Since the Swedish capital, nicknamed the ‘floating city’ or ‘Venice of the North’, is essentially located on the water, bridges have always been a crucial part of the city’s infrastructure. Perhaps, then, it is surprising that in the latter half of the 18th century still only 2 out of 17 bridges connecting the city were made, at least partially, of stone. Wooden bridges, that were in majority in Stockholm, were vulnerable to natural forces and fire. Consequently, they were often damaged and the maintenance costs were too high.
The first bridge in Stockholm built completely out of stone was the Riddarholmsbron bridge completed in 1789. It was not, however, the bridge you can cross today as the original one was demolished in the 1860s when the railway infrastructure was being developed in the city.
When it comes to bridges connecting the Old Town or almost directly the Royal Palace with Helgeandsholmen and consequently Norrmalm, there used to be two of them. The Vedgårdsbron bridge which stood on the southern side of Helgeandsholmen and the Slaktarehusbron bridge on the northern side connecting the island to the modern part of the city.
Bridges at either side of the Helgeandsholmen island were made of wood and a proposal for their replacement by a stone bridge first appeared in 1654. The author of this proposal was Jean de la Vallée, who you might remember as one of the architects who designed the House of Nobility (Riddarhuset). His plans were not realised due to the difficult terrain between the Royal Palace and the nearby island.
Soon after, Nicodemus Tessin the Younger, responsible for parts of the Bank House at Järntorget, came up with another proposal. His design, unlike de la Vallée’s, suggested a bridge perpendicular to the Royal Palace. However, things have changed dramatically after the Tre Kronor Palace burnt down in 1697. This gave Tessin, who was assigned to design a new palace, much more creative space. Therefore, he enhanced his original plan by, among other things, adding another bridge parallel to the one proposed earlier that would stretch from Mynttorget to Drottninggatan; exactly as Riksbron bridge does in the present day.
Interestingly, back at the beginning of the 18th century, the difference between the distances from Helgeandsholmen to Norrmalm and to the Old Town was much less significant than it is today. To illustrate this, Tessin’s proposal consisted of a bridge with five arches on the northern side and four arches on the southern side. I come back to the length of the current bridge later in the post.
More proposals for the bridge appeared during the 17th century. For example, the then city architect Johan Eberhard Carlberg submitted three proposals during the decades in the office but none of them was accepted. Eventually, a decision to move forward with the construction was made in 1756. Soon after the construction started, though, a higher priority was given to the creation of Gustav Adolf’s square (Gustav Adolfs torg) and the new Opera House and the works on the bridge were essentially halted.
However, after a flood in spring of 1780 damaged the completed parts of the new bridge as well as the existing wooden one, the construction of a new bridge became acute. Therefore, in 1781, a design created by Carl Fredrik Adelcrantz was promptly accepted and the construction works got off the ground once again a few years later.
Since there were no stone bridges in Stockholm at the time, there were also no people with enough knowledge and skills in the area. For this reason, the architects looked for help abroad, especially in France where they found the inspiration for the design of the bridge as well as necessary information regarding its construction.
The northern part of the bridge was finished in 1796 and thereafter the works on the southern part started. This part was ready for traffic in 1805 but the entire project which included bridges on both sides of the Helgeandsholmen island as well as the part between them was not inaugurated before 1 November 1807.
Shortly after the construction of each bridge was completed, the wooden bridge on the respective side of the island was demolished and therefore only the new Norrbro bridge made of sandstone was left standing. The new bridge was 190 metres long and 19 metres wide. To illustrate the difference between the northern and southern parts of the bridge that I mentioned earlier, the northern part consists of three arches which are approximately 16 metres long and the southern part has only one 19-metre arch. Another curiosity connected to the Norrbro bridge is the fact that the arches creating its northern part are not of equal length.
Perhaps proving the point that both the architects and the workers involved in the construction of the bridge were inexperienced in the field, the height of the arches on the completed bridge differed from the one specified in the plans. That is not the strangest thing, though. The interesting part is that to this day no one knows the reason behind it. Several theories exist that propose possible explanations but none of them provides any certainty.
Today, this bridge not only remains the only bridge in Stockholm made completely out of stone but it is also the first place in the city where sidewalks especially designed for pedestrians were built. These roughly 3,5-metre wide sidewalks were coated by flagstones while the road between them was covered by paving stones which clearly distinguished the two.
I hope you liked the story of the oldest remaining stone bridge in Stockholm as we are going to come back to bridges that connect the city centre of the Swedish capital in later posts. Moreover, we have a plenty of other interesting topics ready for you and new posts coming three times a week.
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