A legendary Helsinki restaurant run by the Kalevala Women’s Association, Kestikartano was inspired by Finland’s national epic, the Kalevala. It had a prime location in the heart of the Finnish capital, with interiors created in the style of a traditional log cabin. Known for its legendary buffet, the restaurant ran between 1946 and 1967.
KESTIKARTANO – THE BEGINNING
The idea for a Kalevala-inspired cafe first emerged in the early 1940s in private discussions between the Kalevala Women’s Association’s chairwoman Elsa Heporauta and Kalevala Jewelry Managing Director Aino-Mari Mecklin. What the two women wanted to create was a social space, aimed particularly at women, that would promote the Kalevala heritage and the spirit of Finnish identity, whilst also showcasing Finland’s culture to international visitors. However, World War II prevented them from bringing their plans to completion. It was not until June 1945 that work on the project began in earnest. Notable post-war architect Aarne Ervi was commissioned for the project. At 1,100 m2 , the premises were unusually large for a cafe. Ervi and Mecklin’s ambitious ideas quickly won the support of the society’s membership and the planned cafe became a restaurant.
The interiors represented the height of design at the time, with the best designers and craftspeople brought onboard to realise the designers’ vision
“THIS WAS AN UNDERTAKING THAT CALLED FOR ENDURANCE AND SOME GOOD OLD-FASHIONED FINNISH STRENGHT SISU”
Post-war shortages meant that starting a new restaurant was a brave, even foolhardy, undertaking. Construction work first began in summer 1946. Qualified workers proved difficult to recruit, and the turnover of site managers and builders was high.
The architect Aarne Ervi’s vision called for top quality timber. He had specified the use of heart pine as he considered it to be more durable and more beautiful than ordinary pine.
Obtaining the right type of linen yarn for the purpose of creating bespoke curtains, table cloths and upholstery also proved challenging. In the end, the interior was created by a number of different companies, as no single business had the requisite resources to complete the entire order in full.
The interiors were a blend of East Karelian architectural influences, baroque flourishes and contemporary design. The Kalevala spirit was richly expressed throughout the colour schemes, materials and decorative elements. The walls and furniture were built of heart pine, while the floors in the first and second floor foyers were covered in Finnish stone. Vivid reds and blues dominated the colour scheme throughout. The interiors represented the height of design at the time, with the best designers and craftspeople brought onboard to realise the designers’ vision. The restaurant’s crockery was by Finnish porcelain and earthenware manufacturer Arabia and the lighting by Paavo Tynell. Maija Taimi was responsible for all furniture, with curtains and wallpaper created by Greta Skogster-Lehtinen. A bronze sculpture by Emil Halonen, depicting Louhi, Kalevala’s Mistress of the North, was acquired for the dining room.
Even after the restaurant opened, rationing continued to be a problem. Many ingredients were difficult to come by. “Ordinary Finnish favourites like the sweet pulla buns and steak and onions were reduced to a twice-a-month special treat, and proper coffee was like gold dust – that definitely called for endurance and some good oldfashioned Finnish sisu.”
The restaurant’s most important mission was to celebrate and promote Finnish food culture
THE EARLY YEARS
A tankard circled by the hands of the Kalevala singers by Aarne Ervi was chosen as the restaurant’s trademark symbol.
Kestikartano’s grand opening took place on Kalevala Day in 1946. Although the challenging construction project was now complete, this did not mark the end of the difficulties facing the restaurant. Despite its growing popularity as a party and event venue, it remained a loss-making enterprise into the early 1950s. Finnish restaurants by no means had it easy after the war. The price of all menu items, and the contents of the dishes themselves, continued to be tightly regulated throughout the war years and beyond, until 1951. During this time, many restaurants struggled to remain profitable. Although the sale of alcoholic beverages represented a significant proportion of the income generated by many establisments, Kestikartano continue to adhere to its policy of abstinence. The restaurant’s most important mission was to celebrate and promote Finnish food culture. Many businesses began to use Kestikartano for their staff lunches, entering into permanent agreements with the restaurant for this purpose.
1952 OLYMPIC GAMES – A GAME CHANGER FOR KESTIKARTANO
The 1952 Summer Olympic Games in Helsinki marked a turning point for Kestikartano. Kestikartano’s outdoor dining area in the park adjacent to the Ateneum Art Museum, opened in June and became an instant popular success.
With the arrival of international tourists to Helsinki in mid-June, things quickly became busy. In the evenings, there were music recitals featuring a wooden organ and kantele, the Finnish national instrument. That summer, Kestikartano’s Finnishness, reflected across the interiors, menus and entertainment, became the trump card that set it apart from the competition.
After the Olympics, Kestikartano continue to go from strength to strength. It ran a busy events calendar, the restaurant was in high demand and it even started to build a reputation aboard. In financial terms, the restaurant’s heyday ran from the late 1950s until it closed in autumn 1967.
FAREWELL TO KESKIKARTANO
Kestikartano’s success story could perhaps have continued to this day had it not been for its commercially highly desirable location. Helsingin Osakepankki, the financial institution that originally built the property in the 1930s, wanted to replace it with something bigger and more modern. On 12 September 1967, the Kalevala Women’s Association received an official demolition notice from Osakepankki and the restaurant was forced to close. On 15 October 1967, Kestikartano’s last day of trading, 800 diners gathered to bid farewell to this well-loved eatery. Later that evening, Kestikartano hosted its last ever wedding celebration. After the restaurant closed, the logs used to build it were numbered and moved into storage. The outdoor restaurant’s structures, crockery and other items were sold by auction, while all the original interiors, including furniture and lighting fixtures, were kept for posterity.