We Visited Estonian’s First Skyscraper Hotel That Was Built by Finns 45 Years Ago – 18th Floor Reveals a Heartfelt Connection
When you wake in that twin bed as the rays of the morning sun pass the Gothic tower of St. Olaf’s Church to the 18th floor of Sokos Hotel Viru and through the big windows into the room, now brightly lit, your eyes lock on a wall emblazoned with big letters: “Star Wars,” “The Bold and the Beautiful,” “Knight Rider” – all famous from the television in Estonia in the ’80s and ’90s; famous because of the Finnish TV, known as “Suomi TV.”
It’s a warm Monday morning in mid-June above the red rooftops of the Old Town in the center of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. We have inhabited room 1808, one of the eleven luxurious rooms celebrating the centenary of Finland’s independence. This one is titled as “I saw it on MTV3 (the commercial broadcaster).” The painted picture on the wall features an apocalyptic Earth tucked into an old TV set. It’s the painting of a poster of an Estonian documentary, Disco and Atomic War (2009).
The light-hearted documentary tells the story of growing up in Soviet-Estonia, banned from contact with the West. But with the help of Finnish TV, children draw spaceships in the schoolyard with chalk, teenagers talk to their watches like David Hasselhoff in the Knight Rider and mothers are glued into the chair by the puzzled stares of The Bold and the Beautiful. Some of the scenes of the documentary are featured in the pictures hanging above the bed to emphasize the thematic experience. As an exclamation mark, a TV antenna points toward the Gulf of Finland between one of the windows. Similar antennas were used to capture the signal from the Finnish TV stations.
On the windowsill, half of the yesterday’s wine still sits in Iittala’s Senta wine glass. The organic, elegant Mendoza Malbec that we got as a bargain from the Kaubamaja (department store) has become undrinkable, but I decide to grab a smaller Iittala glass and fill it to the top with a fine craft beer celebrating the 45th anniversary of Hotel Viru. Ahhh! A beautiful, bitter, fruity, lager – indeed!
Details like the timeless, Finnish design of Iittala glassware included in the room truly honor the centenary of Finland’s independence, and it’s the distinct, strong taste of the anniversary beer that makes me think of the colorful history of one of the most famous landmarks and better hosts in the city of Tallinn.
[alert type=white ]With the help of Finnish TV, children draw spaceships in the schoolyard with chalk, teenagers talk to their watches like David Hasselhoff in the ‘Knight Rider’ and mothers are glued into the chair by the puzzled stares of ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’. [/alert]
Hotel Viru was built by a Savonlinna-based (southeast of Finland) construction company, Repo Oy, between 1969 and 1971. A Soviet travel agency, Intourist, wanted to build a grand hotel to Tallinn in order to enjoy a share of the money involved in international tourism. The Soviets were impressed with Repo’s earlier work, namely a hospital in Kainuu (Center Finland) and so, after a consentient “Harasho!” they received the order to build the hotel that would be a unique building of the time.
For Finland, the contract was a lottery win. Hundreds of unemployed construction workers were shipped to Tallinn. In its peak, 400 Finnish builders were employed in the construction of the hotel.
Then, on a dark night in December 1969, the tenth floor burst into flames, and the fire spread through the elevator shafts to the ground. But due to the Soviet noose around the neck of the printing press, reports about accidents were unacceptable, so the incident was kept under wraps. In 1971, Repo Oy went bankrupt, (some blame the fire) when the hotel was 95 percent ready.
The Finnish government had to step in with a budget of three million markkas (504,600 euros) to finish the construction. The hotel opened on May Day, 1972. It became the first skyscraper in the history of Estonia. It also set a high standard for the construction of a Soviet hotel. Hotel Viru was built from start to finish in only 36 months with a budget of about 40 million Finnish markkas, equivalent to about 6.7 million euros today. “If we would have built Viru by ourselves, it would have taken 20 years,” said Olaf Sööt, CEO of Intourist at the time.
In 1965, the boat connection between Finland and Estonia opened, thanks to the former Finnish president, Urho Kekkonen, who insisted on increasing the number of tourists between Finland and Soviet-Estonia. Kekkonen had visited Tartu, the second largest city of Estonia, and its intellectual center, Tartu University, in March 1964, where he held a speech in Estonian to the amazement of the students and the intelligentsia, reminding the listeners to cherish their home country and to value their mother tongue. A daredevil speech, considering the times! After that, he went skiing at the Kääriku Sports Centre, and after a lap of 17 kilometers in a beautiful springy winter weather, he jumped into – where else? – the sauna.
[alert type=white ]In 1965, the boat connection between Finland and Estonia opened, thanks to the former Finnish president, Urho Kekkonen, who insisted on increasing the number of tourists between Finland and Soviet-Estonia.[/alert]
On Sunday, the 18th floor appears quiet but in truth, it’s fully booked, reflecting the rising number of visitors. In 2016, Finns traveled to Estonia about 2.7 million times, according to the Statistics of Finland.
The whole 18th floor celebrates Finland’s centenary. “There are countless of themes that connect Finland and Estonia. But we had to make a choice. The long hallway of the 18th floor provides an opportunity to create a row of rooms with a similar theme. And the view from the windows is great!” said Malle Kolnes, the content marketing manager at Sokos Hotels Tallinn Sales Service.
There is a room dedicated to the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, most famous for designing the Helsinki Railway Station (1904, built 1910-14). It’s less known, however, that in 1913 Saarinen had designed a plan for Great-Tallinn, a design where a city hall resembling the railway station of Helsinki would have risen at the place where Hotel Viru stands today. But the initiative was folded because of the lack of money, and then the First World War broke out.
There are rooms dedicated to the Finnish hockey Lions, fashion across the both continents, nature photo of the year exhibition, design classics, pop music, Finnish humor through the comics of Fingerpori (you can find the Fingerpori comic album in the drawer instead of the Bible), gay artist Tom of Finland, Estophile Tapio Mäkeläinen and the Finnish Embassy in Tallinn – a 40-square meter suite decorated with furniture of the embassy. A perfect place to practice diplomacy without a tie in a sauna.
The high-speed elevator takes us to the second floor in seconds. We are greeted with the warm smell of Karelian pirogues and coffee sitting in a lush buffet breakfast in a large room crowded with the hotel’s inhabitants: families, young and old, wearing T-shirts, shorts and skirts. The waiters and waitresses hurriedly fill the pots and pans as the guests devour the food with both hands. Empty plates are picked fast, and occasionally you hear the metallic sound of dropped tableware that would surely enough send distorted signals up to the 23rd floor of the building.
Since the beginning, the Soviet spy agengy, the KGB, controlled the hotel while all foreign tourists were required to book their stay in Hotel Viru. The Soviet agents run the operation from the top secret 23rd floor where the elevator didn’t stop. Rooms, flower pots and even saunas were bugged. “There’s nothing here,” says a sign on the door of the KGB’s room turned a museum, paying homage to the common answer given to anyone who dared to ask about the upstairs operation.
The KGB held their post until 1991, a year before the Soviet Union collapsed. The room was discovered a few years later and left as it was. It wasn’t until 2011 when it was opened to visitors. The time was finally right to show the life under the KGB’s oppression. Amongst the wires, telephones, newspapers and strategic maps for the bugs, Soviet cigarette butts still lay in the ashtray, and a few years back, when I visited the place, it still smelled like a barn.
Today, the hotel is owned by the biggest hotel chain in Finland, Sokos Hotels. Three of its seven CEOs have been Finns, who all, in turn, have left their mark on the history. During the reign of Yrjö Vanhanen (1994-2003), for example, he put a stop to the Soviet concept that every task requires a different employee to complete. Sometimes an employee could be found, hired to do nothing. On a routine check in the ’90s, Vanhanen pushed a door in the hotel’s cellar. He found a man in the room, with no record of working with any specific task. The man, however, had been receiving a small paycheck, so he had kept coming back to the cellar and closing the door behind him.
Today, Original Sokos Hotel Viru rises tall and proud. All 423 rooms have been renovated. Last year, Viru and its sister, design hotel Solo Sokos Hotel Estoria – which was opened three years ago – attracted 237,000 guests. On our visit, we saw the desk of Estoria on the opposite side of Hotel Viru’s lobby. We were told that inside its 93 rooms, the visitor is sent time traveling through the Estonian history from the space meal of astronauts to the invention of Skype. These are stories to be told in another time.
When we start our stroll to the boat, Hotel Viru rises in the background, reminding us of its omnipresence. We pass the apartment buildings rising near the harbor. There are satellite antennas hanging from the balconies directed to the gulf, replaced by the gadgets of the ’80s when it was not weird to see widgets made of thermometer and steel wire desperately seeking the signal of Suomi TV. “Because of the Finnish TV, my generation in their 30s and 40s can speak Finnish. We understand the Finnish culture better and during those times, many bonds were created between Finland and Estonia,” I remember Malle Kolnes saying earlier during our interview.
In the tax-free shop on the Eckerö Line ferry, I am pondering between two potential wines at the very last minute of the closing time. “Ota tämä. (Take this.)” An Estonian staff member advises me in fluent Finnish. “Mun suussa parempi. (Tastes better in my mouth.)”
As I later pop open the cork following his recommendation, ready to curse if he had just wanted me to pick up something before the shop would close, the heavenly, creamy Torlasco Barbera starts waltzing on my tongue in the spectrum of its silky notes.
Sources: Aikamatka hotelli Viruun, Yle