Quick Facts

  • The Old Swedish National Archives building was completed in 1890
  • Swedish National Archives was established in 1618
  • The building is among the most well-preserved from the era
  • At the time of the construction it was the tallest building in Stockholm

A place where the time has stopped nearly 130 years ago. A place showing us what being high-tech meant in the late 1800s. A place which, despite its monumentality and grandiose style, was soon deemed to be left in the past. That is the Old National Archives (Gamla riksarkivet) building on Riddarholmen in the most historical part of Stockholm which we look at in this post.

Old Swedish National Archives in Stockholm

Although I have already mentioned the 19th century, let’s first take a step back and find out why the building was needed in the first place. As early as 1618 the Swedish National Archives was established. Just like in many other historical contexts related to Sweden and its historical institutions, the man who was to a large extent responsible was Lord High Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna.

While it is true that official documents have been treated very carefully in Sweden ever since the Middle Ages, it was Oxenstierna who came up with and signed a collection of rules defining the order of the country’s archives.

Later in the century, the archives moved into new premises at the Tre Kronor Palace. I can imagine the facilities may have been extraordinary but as it later turned out, it was probably not the best choice. Many important and invaluable documents from the history of Sweden, as well as other countries, were lost during the fire of 1697.

Old National Archives of Sweden in Stockholm

Soon after these events, the remaining documents were moved to Örebro, west of Stockholm, where it was reportedly safer to store them. However, the transport on the water was a pretty bad idea it seems. Many artefacts were damaged during the transport and the contents of some documents were lost entirely.

As so often both before and after the construction of the Old National Archives, it was the case that the planning of a new building was a long and sometimes painful process. Eventually, it was architect Axel Fredrik Nyström’s proposal to build a new monumental structure on Riddarholmen that was going to be realised. Interestingly, his father proposed a plan for the building in the same location already some thirty years earlier.

Facade of the Old Swedish National Archive in Stockholm

Another thing that many construction projects from the era have in common is their grandiose vision. The original plan proposed by Nyström depicted a building about three times as large as the one that would be built, and it also required demolishing a couple of nearby historic sites, the Stenbock Palace (Stenbockska palatset) and the Hessenstein Palace (Hessensteinska palatset).

Two important factors influenced the design of the building. First, as this was to become a home of a state institution, there was the need to impress and to show the prosperity of the country. Secondly, the process was guided by the constant fear of fire that could forever delete the invaluable artefacts stored in the archives from existence.

Back facade of the Old National Archives in Stockholm

To address the first issue, the building was designed as the tallest Stockholm had ever seen. Furthermore, it features a unique design and rich décor, both in the interior and on the exterior of the building. In the areas originally available to the public that is. The archives themselves were much simpler and primarily functional.

The shelves in these archives, as well as those in the large reading halls, were the only elements made of wood that could be found in the building which brings us to the second concern. Apart from the shelves, all parts of the structure were built using fire-resistant materials including stone, brick, and iron.

One of the novel ideas implemented at the National Archives building was the cast iron skeleton which was meant to protect the construction of the building from fire. It was only later found that the use of this construction could have fatal consequences for the entire structure as iron quickly expands at high temperatures and it would, therefore, likely not take very long for the entire building to collapse in the event of fire.

Old National Archives of Sweden from Riddarholmen

All of these plans were executed between 1887 and 1890 when the new building stood ready. However, the institution, which had resided in the nearby Stenbock Palace since 1865 moved into the new facilities only the year following the completion.

Unlike in the original plan, according to which the archives were meant to face Birger Jarl’s Square (Birger Jarls Torg) and the Riddarholm Church (Riddarholmskyrkan), the front façade was oriented toward the House of Nobility (Riddarhuset). This is, therefore, where you would find the monumental entrance and a plenty of large windows spanning several floors.

These windows were, in a way, a compensation for rejecting electricity that was viewed as dangerous in terms of fire at the time of construction. This way, with the largest windows stretching over three floors, there was meant to be enough light for the readers as well as the employees at the archives so that no artificial light that could cause fire would be needed.

Stenbock Palace in Stockholm

Stenbock Palace (Stenbockska palatset) as seen from Birger Jarl’s Square.

This situation did not last long, though, as already in 1906 electricity was installed in the reading halls and the offices.

By some, the Swedish National Archives building is considered to be one of the most well-preserved buildings from the 1800s in this particular style not only in Sweden but in all of Europe. I noted early in the post that, for better or for worse, the building was left in the past essentially since the very beginning of its existence.

It was mainly because it soon became apparent that the archives on Riddarholmen would not last. Already about thirteen years after the completion, there was nearly no empty space on the shelves, although the capacity was planned to suffice for half a century.

Because of that, no major improvements have been made in the building as it was assumed that the institution would fairly soon move to another location.

One addition to the original interior is worth mentioning, though. During the 1940s, in spite of the threat never being quite imminent, Swedes were taking measures to prepare for war if it arrived from the continent. The book slide installed in the National Archives was one such measure.

The simple metal slide was installed by the central staircase and was ready to be used to quickly evacuate important documents from the archive on the top floor in case the war broke out.

Eventually, though, the institution moved out in the ‘60s and now resides at Marieberg on Kungsholmen. For a few decades, the old monumental structure was used as a depot but after 1995 it stood mostly empty.

Birger Jarl's Square in Stockholm

View from Birger Jarl’s Square (Birger Jarls Torg) on Riddarholmen.

A sensible reconstruction took place only a few years ago with the goal to give the building a new life. Today it seems that the goal was fulfilled as several institutions are actively using the premises and it is also possible to rent parts of the listed historic site for different sorts of events.

The neighbourhood of the Old National Archives has changed over the past century and what once was an impressive main entrance is now only a somewhat distant memory as the traffic has taken over almost all the space in front of the building. Seen from another angle, we can say that having the entrance from the yard accessible from Birger Jarl’s Square brings the building closer to how it was meant to be according to its creator.

Hopefully, you will see the Old Swedish National Archives building as yet another reason to visit the Riddaholmen island, which is a wonderful place to visit for every architecture lover. Did you know that testing yourself is one of the best ways to remember new information? and find out how well you know Stockholm!

SFV. Gamla riksarkivet på Riddarholmen. [sfv.se].
Kristiansen, Sven, 1996. I Riksens Archivum. [sfv.se].
SFV. Renovering av Gamla riksarkivet 2009–2011. [sfv.se].
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