Tallinn Town Hall

Elvira Liiver Holmström

Tallinn Town Hall

Raekoja plats 1 10146 Tallinn Estonia


The most important buildings in towns associated with the hanseatic trading traditions were the warehouses and market halls. In the course of the develpoment of the community these became the administrative and representative centres of the town.  Town halls were usually situated near central squares.  The importance of town halls was also expressed through their architectural attributes: military castle-like looks with machicolations, crenelles etc and a tower with a bell as a sign of pride and sovreignity of the urban parish.  The splendour of the building both outside and inside gave evidence of the  economic possibilities of the town and the ambitions of its citizens.

Tallinn`s rise as a trading centre due to its position on the East-West trade route started already during the Viking era.  As a result of the crusade aiming at Estonia the local merchant centre was conquerred in 1219 by Valdemar II, King of Denmark. In 1238 the town was granted its rights and privileges by Valdemar. It has been supposed that Valdemar II also set the boundaries of the town after the conquest. On the 15th of May in 1248 King Eric Ploughpenny granted the Luuml;beck town law to Tallinn. In connection with that the council (consules civitatis) elected from among grand merchants was first mentioned.  This became the most important basis for the further development of the town`s autonomy and remained the town`s legal order for more than six centuries. In the course of the 13th century the jurisdiction of the town became independent from royal officials. In 1284 Tallinn was admitted to the Hanseatic League which in its own term opened new possibilities for a fast growth and wealth.  

As a memorial to these adventurous and prosperous times the Tallinn Town Hall still stands at the central square (forum 1313) now called the Town Hall Square. It is the best preserved and most remarkable architectural monument in town, capital city of Estonia.  It is a late-gothic style building with elements of fortification architecture, a gracious and monumental edifice in local building material - limestone.  The archade with its arches and pillars was used for trading in the earlier days.

Although the earliest surviving written records of the town hall come from  1322 (consistorio) it is probable that the town hall was founded still earlier, in the 13th century.  Thanks to the archeological evidence, field excavations and comparative analysis of mortars it became possible to see the old foundations and walls inside the present sructure dating back to the earliest building period.  Compared to the present size (36,9 x 14,7 m) the initial town hall was smaller (18,2 x 10,6 m) and it was situated in the optical centre of the south side of the market place where the building conditions were the most favourable. It was a single-storey fortified type of a building with the ground floor raised higher on top of a semi-basement.  The arcade did not exist yet. Seven  original windows  of the oldest type have also been found.

The second building stage took place in th first part of the 14th century.  A 9,6 m long annex  with one room in the basement and one on the ground floor was added to the existing building on the east side. With this the so called diele-dornse layout was created where the front room served as diele and the council chamber as dornse.  In 1333 the two room basement warehouse (cellario civitatis) was mentioned. In 1338 also the forerunner of the later arcade (laube, louen) was mentioned for the first time. With the addition of the laube a small lobby was created in front of the main entrance.  The building acquired its present length in 1370s.  A new name for the town hall was introduced - theatrum.  In 1372 the name ratus, raethus - town hall came into use.

Economic activities in Tallinn culminated in the 15th century.  The political situation had stabilised due to which  building activities could be developed on a larger scale than ever before.  The exhaustive reconstruction of 1402 - 1404 changed the building beyond recognition both inside and outside.  Now it became a two-storeyed house with a gable roof   and a slender minaret like watch tower on top of it.

The main floor became wider supporting itself on the arcade underneath. The biggest and most striking rooms on that floor were the ante-hall (vorhus)- the Citizens` Hall- and the Council Chamber (dornsche, radte stube). A kitchen (koken) with a big mantled hearth, chancery (kemerie) and treasury (trese kamer) were adjoined to the Council Chamber.
As a result of this reconstruction the ancient town centre acquired one of the finest specimen of Tallinn Late Gothic architecture.

At the beginning of the 17th century the building was extensively renovated.
The Citizens` Hall  was partitioned off into smaller rooms and a new entrance hall with a staircase leading into the Citizens` Hall was built and a late-renaissance helmet was provided to the tower.

In the 18th and 19th centuries the arcade was closed and the originally rectangular windows were rebuilt into Gothic lancet windows.

On the 9th of March 1944 an air raid by soviet bombers took place. As a result about     12 % of the old town buildings were destroyed.  The Town Hall was also hit. Fortunately the burning tower did not fall on the roof but to the square. That saved the building. But Tallinn was lucky compared to its competitor Narva in East Estonia - a pearl of baroque- which lost 90% of its buildings...

All through its existance the town hall had served as the residence of the town government.  After the war the rooms on the ground floor were given into the disposal of the city museum.  The rooms upstairs were  used by executive committee of the town.
At that time it was dangerous to work following your heart.  The smallest ideological slip could bring along deportations to Siberia.  It was then the establishment started to bd"sovietize" the town hall, a symbol of the former Hanseatic city.  The 17th century lunette paintings on biblical scenes about justice and trial were removed immediately and replaced by portraits of Lenin, Stalin and other communist party officials. The weather vane in the form of a warrior -Old Thomas- representing the courageous fight of  Tallinn citizens against enemy had a narrow escape. The brave museum workers managed to stop plans to installe a red star instead of it on top of the spire just like in Kremlin in Moscow.
Knowing all this it is admirable that despite the hard and repressive ideology already in 1947 the first heritage list was compiled in Estonia.  Among other buildings Tallinn Town Hall was also included on it.
On the 15th of June 1950 the Scientific Restauration Workshop was established. This brought together a number of leading specialists educated in the pre-war period and also workers with good professional skills.  One of the major projects undertaken then was the restauration of the town hall spire. The task was completed in 1952.  In the course of 1959 repairs while chipping off the the thin layer of original plaster traces of numerous bulding and rebuilding stages appeared.  It became clear that it was possible to restore the town hall in its authentic 15th century appearance.  From then on the conservators have been persistant: restauration of the east gable, opening of the archade in 1960, conservation work of the Council Chamber  in 1961-67 and placing back  the 17th century lunette paintings  removed in the 1950s and restoring the original shape of the windows.  In this context it is important to mention that in 1966 the Old Town Protection Zone and its Statutes were agreed on, the first of its kind in the Soviet Union.  This laid down the preconditions for protecting the whole old town in its entirety.  The most effective work however took place in 1970 - 1975 as a result of which the town hall came closest to its original form.
Relative poverty of Tallinn in those days when wealthier cities had a spree of reconstruction has turned out to be our wealth now. Our old town has preserved its medieval gothic looks, a sense of beauty hewn into local limestone. The country and its citizens have highly valued the town and have tried to retain and maintain the work of previous generations as part of the common memory.

In 1996 a second replacement of the helmet started.  The most recent projects have been on the facade, tower and arcade and this year it is the attic. During this work the Town Hall, one of the most thoroughly bd"investigated" buildings could surprise the historians and conservators again. When cleaning the vaults 736 old documents including letters from the 15th and 16th centuries and 166 items of different  materials were found and delivered to the town archives.

On the 4th of October 1997 the Tallinn Town Hall was included on the World Heritage list.  This is a great honour and also praise for all the conservation work done.  The event is remembered by a special tablet on the wall of the Town Hall.

In 2004 the Tallinn Town Hall is celebrating its 600th anniversary.  The building which has survived different rules and rulers continues to express the best the town and its citizens represent.


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