During the second half of the 19th century and in the early 20th century, Stockholm was expanding quickly and the society as a whole was changing due to the continuous modernisation and industrialisation.
Many new buildings and even entirely new neighbourhoods were built during this era to accommodate the growing population and the needs of both existing and new residents of the Swedish capital. There are many interesting places from around the turn of the twentieth century that we could discuss and I will certainly introduce you to more of them in the future. This time, though, we are going to look at three of the most important monumental churches that were built around the time.
Starting in chronological order, the St. John’s Church (Sankt Johannes Kyrka) is not only the oldest one of the churches on my list, but it is also the one that was being planned longest. Its predecessor, the wooden church built at Brunkebergsåsen between Sveavägen and Birger Jarlsgatan in the Norrmalm district, was opened already in 1651.
This simple, temporary place of worship was meant to be replaced by a monumental stone church soon after. Even though the wooden church was not actually completed before 1731 the first mass was served there sixty years earlier. In the meantime, the little yellow church was accompanied by a belfry which today still stands across the cemetery from the church.
King Gustav III, eventually, issued a permission to build a stone church to replace the old wooden one in the 1770s, some hundred years after the original idea first appeared. The architect Jean Eric Rehn won the architectural competition and his plans were meant to be carried out after the king himself laid the foundation stone in a big hurry before his planned international journey in 1783.
It soon turned out that the ceremony that accompanied the beginning of the works was somewhat premature. Only months after the construction had started, Gustav III halted the works as after having seen monumental churches in continental Europe he considered Rehn’s design too old-fashioned. After some failed attempts to restart the construction works, the project was abandoned.
The idea of building a stone church in the area was back on the table in the early 1880s. A winning proposal was selected in a competition once again despite the costs of the proposed design being estimated at almost double the budget given by the organisers.
The St. John’s Church, unusually oriented from north to south due to the character of the land, was eventually completed in 1890. The final costs? 800 000 SEK which was four times the budget specified in the architectural competition. However, the church has been beloved by most from the very beginning and ever since.
Only seven years after the St. John’s Church was completed, the foundation stone of the next church on our list was laid by King Oscar II. This time it was in Östermalm, likely the most exclusive district in Stockholm. Oscar’s Church (Oscars kyrka), named after the king himself, was meant to commemorate the king’s 25th anniversary on the Swedish throne.
Since the aforementioned St. John’s Church was considered one of the most beautiful churches in Stockholm, many, including the architect, assumed that Oscar’s Church was going to be built out of red bricks, too. However, the authorities from the parish decided that more noble natural materials should be used for the construction of this particular building.
Eventually, it was decided that the church was going to be made of Swedish marble and grey-white limestone. The inspiration for the choice of materials came from many of the palaces that were being built along Strandvägen, near the church, at the time.
The construction works were accompanied by major problems since the very beginning. Not only the workers were not satisfied with their working conditions but the stone quarries turned out to have insufficient capacity for the project, too. The strike of the workers was resolved but to make things just a little bit worse again, one of the walls at the construction site collapsed.
All of the problems were overcome at the end but not without consequences. First of all, the works were delayed but that is not unusual for big projects today and it has not been in the past either. Another issue, however, resulted from the stone quarries capacity problems I mentioned earlier. Due to the insufficient material supplies, you can notice that the stones used in the upper part of Oscar’s Church are slightly smaller than the ones at the bottom.
The church was completed in 1903 and has been reconstructed three times since. Some of the biggest attractions visible in the church today include the most significant collection of stained glass windows and one of the biggest organs in Sweden and were added to Oscar’s Church during these restorations.
Interestingly, the church named after the wife of King Oscar II, Sophia of Nassau (Sofia), was designed by the same architect as Oscar’s Church. The construction of the Sofia Church (Sofia kyrka), drawn by Gustav Hermasson, began the same year Oscar’s Church was completed. In 1903, it was once again King Oscar II himself who laid the foundation of the new church. During the ceremony, the king put a copper box including a bible, a hymn book, coin and a few newspapers into the base of the church.
In contrast with the noble Oscar’s Church in Östermalm, the Sofia Church was going to be built in one of the poorest areas of the city dominated by slums made of small wooden houses where entire families lived in a single room. Therefore, this church can be seen as a symbol of the beginning of better times for the borough and, most importantly, its residents.
The Sofia Church was inaugurated in 1906 which was also the year of the royal couple’s golden wedding. Neither the king nor the queen could attend the ceremony, though, due to their health issues. The church was completed as the highest sitting church in the city sitting at 124 metres above sea level. Not that the exact number is important but this prominent location is what makes the church visible from many parts of the city.
Originally, the critics did not welcome the church warmheartedly as some of them described it as cluttered, overloaded and a creation of poor taste. Nevertheless, it became a symbol of the area and an impulse for the needed change. Thanks to several individuals including the first vicar, Ernst Klefbeck, who helped spread knowledge and hope among people, the living conditions in the neighbourhood improved slowly.
Today, the Sofia Church is surrounded by the White Mountains’ Cultural Preserve. The preserve was established in 1956 with the idea of protecting the historical value of the neighbourhood. Thanks to that, we can still observe the original wooden houses and entire streets built centuries ago when there was no church on the top of the hill to give everyone hope for better tomorrows.
These were the brief stories of three of the major churches built in Stockholm around the turn of the 20th century. In my opinion, all of them are worth seeing if only from the architectural perspective. Moreover, through these stories, you can see that the origins of such monumental buildings were not always straightforward. If you liked the stories, stay tuned for more as we have a lot more content coming for you in the next few days. Do not forget to check out our Instagram account, too, for more beautiful images from Stockholm and other major cities.