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Story of Maarjamäe palace

A summer manor with colorful past

For centuries, the place we now know as Maarjamäe was one of the many places in Tallinn where people flocked to enjoy the summer season. Back then, this place was called Strietberg (or Streitberg, lit. Strife Hill). Probably the first small summer manor was established there by councillor and member of the Brotherhood of Blackheads Christian von Geldern, in the late 17th century.
Carl Friedrich Christian Buddeus. The sugar factory on Strietberg. Italian pencil, watercoloured. 1830s. Photograph: Estonian History Museum

In 1811, a merchant called Johan Gottlieb Clementz bought a plot of land at Strietberg. Under his instructions, a sugar factory was built there. Since then, locals have called the place Suhkrumägi (Sugar Hill). It is known that there were eleven other stone buildings there in 1820 in addition to the factory building, as well as a wooden dwelling, several sheds, a smithy, a lime kiln, an arched ice cellar and a pool with canals, which were used to direct water into the factory. The area was bordered by a limestone wall, which was over 4 m high. Several stone buildings, the ice cellar and some of the perimeter wall have been preserved.

In 1861, councillor and founder of a storeyard Christian Abraham Rotermann bought the sugar factory. He built the first steam mill in Tallinn on this plot, and had the buildings repurposed as a starch and spirit factory. The factory was destroyed in a fire that started on 19 March 1869, and Rotermann stopped operations at Strietberg.

By the 1820s, Tallinn had become a famous beach resort. Count Anatoli Orlov-Davydov (1837–1905) who resided in St. Petersburg, a great metropolis of the Russian Empire, bought the Strietberg plot with its buildings from Rotermann’s heirs on 29 January 1873. Anatoli Orlov-Davydov named the place Marienberg, probably in honour of his wife, Maria. The Estonian version of the name — Maarjamäe — became popular in the late 1930s. In the wake of the 1917 revolution, the Orlov-Davydov family emigrated from Russia and the summer manor was leased.

Photo:  Palace in the beginning of 20. century.

The grandest of all rooms intended for festive occasions was the so-called summer hall, which was situated on the ground floor, its walls decorated with dark wood panels and a coffered ceiling.

In the early 20th century, there was direct access from the summer hall to the garden.

Pirita tee ehitamine, millega tehti algust 1926. aastal, kaotas Marienbergi trepistiku ja mere vahelise otseühenduse.

Promenading on Pirita tee in 1930s

On 5 January 1933, the most elegant restaurant-hotel in town was opened at Maarjamäe Palace, the Riviera-Palais. At the time, the restaurant was advertised as a scenic destination for grand receptions, parties with a literary and musical programme, Midsummer’s Eve bonfires and fireworks. Visitors were enticed with warm fireplaces and an illuminated glass dance floor.
The Riviera-Palais was closed in 1937 when the summer manor was purchased by the government, which established the Military Aviation School of the Republic of Estonia in the former summer manor.

Advertisement from the publication “Eesti kuurordid ja suvituskohad : album-juht = Kur- und Badeorte Estlands” (Estonian resorts and holiday destinations: album – guide). 1934

The Military Aviation School of the Republic of Estonia welcomed its first students on 1 November 1937. The task of the aviation school was to train military pilots, reconnaissance pilots and aircraft technicians. During the reconstruction works, the veranda and the balcony on the front side of the palace were demolished, and the appearance of the façade was greatly altered. The aviation school stopped operating at Maarjamäe when the Republic of Estonia became occupied.

Aviation School. Facade of Maarjamäe Castle after reconstruction.

In 1940, Maarjamäe was taken into the hands of the Soviet Army. When the army left the buildings, the palace was built full to the brim with apartments and communal kitchens. On the ground floor, there was a small grocery shop, which used the former fireplace hall as its stock room. This large territory that was once neat and tidy, became derelict and started to go to ruins.

The first stage of the palace complex was renovated by restorers from the Wroclav department of the Polish company PKZ in 1983–1988. The external appearance of the buildings with the grand staircase was restored in accordance with old photographs and drawings, but the interior was rebuilt with the museum’s needs in mind. An annex was also built, featuring a cinema hall spanning two storeys, decorated by Ants Mölder’s bronze sculptures Tööline (Worker) and Kolhoositar (Kolkhoz Woman), as well as some additional exhibition premises.

For the former summer hall of the palace, the Ministry of Culture at the time commissioned a mural that was suitable for the Zeitgeist, Rahvaste sõprus (Friendship of Nations, tempera, 1987), by Evald Okas. With a gallery, the palace was connected with a Classicist auxiliary building dating from the first half of the 19th century, and which now housed work rooms. At the end of 1987, a permanent exhibition was opened in the palace, which was now named the History and Revolution Museum of the Estonian SSR, featuring Estonian history from the mid-19th century to the modern era. That was the last permanent exhibition opened in Estonia where it was still compulsory to obey the direct orders from the ideologists of the Estonian Communist Party’s Central Committee of the time.

After the Republic of Estonia regained independence, the entire former permanent exhibition was immediatley updated. The auxiliary buildings on the slopes of Maarjamäe were renovated to become museum depositories; there is still general cleaning and landscaping to be done in the entire area. In 2008, the permanent exhibition on the first floor was updated, and the grand exhibition “Will to be free. 90 Years of the Republic of Estonia” dedicated to the 90th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia was opened.

Maarjamäe Palace in summer 2017. Photographer: Tõnu Tunnel

On the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia, the Estonian History Museum’s Maarjamäe Palace was opened as a history discovery centre. The historical palace was renovated, the Estonian Film Museum is located in the park. There are pleasant recreation areas and exciting outdoor exhibitions. The exhibition “My Free Country” unfolds over 100 years, making it possible to discuss both the past and the future. Children can build their own country in the enjoyable Children’s Republic.

Watch an animation of the Maarjamäe history discovery centre: