Last time, I told you the story of a very popular place in Stockholm. The House of Nobility (Riddarhuset) is a palace beloved by locals and a must-see for history and architecture-loving tourists. It is not unusual for it to be regarded as the most beautiful palace in the Swedish capital. Of course, these views are subjective and the competition in Stockholm and especially in the Old Town (Gamla Stan) is very tough.
In this post, we are once again going to look at one of the very popular and most iconic buildings in the city. Even though it was hard to imagine for many that this building would stand in a place other than the Old Town that is exactly the case. It is quite likely that you have seen this place in pictures but now is the time to discover the story behind the mighty Stockholm City Hall (Stockholms Stadshus).
Many elements of the seemingly historical building remind us of the monumental royal palaces and churches built in the 16th and 17th centuries, but how old is the City Hall, really? Why was it build? Why not in the Old Town? And was it even supposed to be a city hall in the first place? Keep reading and you will find the answers to all these questions.
In the 19th century, Stockholm as the capital of the nation had some troubles separating the city itself and its politics from those of the state as a whole. The responsibilities of different governing bodies were not clearly established and many authorities had conflicting interests and were under pressure from those above them. To solve this ever-increasing problem, the City Council was established in 1863 as the only decision-making body governing the city of Stockholm.
The Council’s members were elected by the public. However, the system had its flaws since the beginning. To obtain a voting right, one had to reside in Stockholm and pay local taxes there too. So far, everything sounds reasonable. The problem was, though, that the more someone paid in taxes the more votes they were given. Obviously, this favoured the upper class hugely but eventually, the rule was abolished in 1909.
At the time, the City Council resided in the beautiful historic building of the Stock Exchange on the oldest square in town, Stortorget. As I have mentioned in some of the earlier posts, the population of Stockholm was increasing rapidly during the latter half of the 19th century and early in the twentieth. So was the number of administrative workers who were supervising this unprecedented growth. Therefore, the capacity of the old Stock Exchange was not enough and plans to construct a new city hall were discussed essentially since the Council itself was founded.
Several approaches and solutions to the problem were discussed. In short, barely anyone could imagine the City Hall to be moved outside the Old Town as traditionally all important institutions resided on the ‘island between the bridges’ as it used to be called. Some even suggested the demolition of the Bonde Palace (Bondeska Palatset), next to the House of Nobility, which is a breath-taking historic building. Other locations such as Slussen and Hötorget were suggested but no concrete plans have ever been developed.
Courts in the city had similar issues and finding new facilities where they could operate was considered an even higher priority for the city. Therefore, it was decided to purchase Eldkvarn, the easternmost part of Kungsholmen closest to the Old Town where a gristmill used to stand until it burnt down in 1878. This location was suggested by architects working on plans for new buildings where the law courts would reside.
A two-round architectural competition was announced to find the best proposal for the building. Architect Ragnar Östberg won the competition with the more daring of the two proposals he submitted to the competition. Even though it seemed that the winner was clear, an extra round of the competition was announced as another popular proposal was significantly cheaper to execute. That was when Östberg modified his design to use brick instead of granite. This meant that the estimated costs were lowered enough for the Council to accept the design in June 1906.
At this point, Östberg’s plans have already been revised six times. Then, a big surprise came. The architect was told to repurpose the plans because the authorities decided to move the courts to Fruktkorgen a little further on Kungsholmen. It took a lot of work before the final decision to move forward with the plans was made in 1911. The construction started right next year.
Some of the inspiration for the City Hall came from the historic Three Crowns Palace (Tre Kronor). Not only was the same brick-laying technique used but bricks from the actual palace were used as prototypes for the brickworks. The bricks were made in Lina Brickworks near Södertälje south of Stockholm. Seven million machine-made bricks were ordered for the walls that would be plastered and an additional million hand-made so-called monk’s bricks for the façade. As you can see in the pictures or if you go to see the City Hall for yourself, the bricks were laid alternatively so that longer and shorter sides of the bricks are visible from the outside in unpredictable patterns.
Other materials were used in large quantities, too. Especially dominant are marble and granite. As you can probably imagine, all building materials had to be carried and lifted by hand. Historical sources say that an experienced worker was capable of lifting up to 14 bricks up the scaffoldings at once while a rookie would only manage five.
It is safe to say that budgets are extremely rarely kept when it comes to constructions of this magnitude. Well, Stockholm City Hall was not an exception. The original proposal was estimated to cost 3.35 million SEK once granite was exchanged for brick. During the construction, in 1916, the estimate was raised to 7.5 million. The total costs calculated at the inauguration were 18 million Swedish kronor – over five times more than the initial estimates suggested.
There is an important aspect that needs to be mentioned which partially explains the great final costs. Since the construction started in 1912, a large part of the works was carried out during the World War I which made most of the materials that had to be imported extremely expensive as the supplies were limited at the time.
To help solve the situation, a Swedish journalist suggested allowing people to purchase their own part of the City Hall. The idea was that people could buy copper plates that were to be used for the roof, for 25 SEK each. Every one of the plates was numbered and the numbers were recorded together with the owners’ names in the Copper Book. The idea was very popular among Stockholmers and even King Gustav V supported it by buying the first plate.
This and other events made the public involved in the process. Many people supported the construction by giving donations; including a 10-year-old girl who donated her entire life savings of 100 SEK under the condition that she would be told exactly which part of the building was built using her money.
Many parts of the building were changed during the works, often thanks to the architect’s sudden flashes of inspiration. The iconic, 106 metres tall tower, is not an exception. Actually, it might be the part of the building that has been reworked the most times. On the other hand, some of the aspects of the building were carried out exactly as planned. For example, you can notice that the City Hall has many different faces depending on which side of the building you are observing. This intentional lack of symmetry was meant to give the building exclusivity and festive appearance that underlines its uniqueness and importance.
Stockholm City Hall was finally inaugurated on the day which some have described as the most Swedish day of them all. It was Midsummer, 23 June 1923, which was also the day of the 400th anniversary of Gustav Vasa’s heroic entrance to the city when he freed it from the occupation of the Danish King Christian II.
Apart from the beautiful architecture of the building, you can admire the spaces that surround it. The Civic Courtyard gives you a Mediterranean feeling thanks to the pillars that separate it from Stadshusparken from which you have beautiful views of Riddarholmen and other parts of the city. Especially during certain times of the day when the light falls on the pillars in the right angle, the Civic Courtyard is a delightful place to see.
The only thing there is left for you to do is to go and see the beautiful Stockholm City Hall for yourself. You can always stop by at Trevl for more stories behind places worth seeing and get Trevl for Android to find more places to visit on the go. Check out our Instagram account, too, for some extra inspiration on how to spend your time dedicated to exploring the world around you.
Wickman, Mats, 1993. The Stockholm CITY HALL.
Cornell, Elias, 1992. Stockholms Stadshus.