On a rainy Tuesday night, a peculiar atmosphere lingers in Helsinki: taxi drivers drowse in their cars in front of the Central Railway Station, guards keep a keen eye on the loitering youth and, leaning against the wind, a few lonely city dwellers hurry towards home. A gust of rain splashes against the asphalt occasionally.
I disturb a taxi driver’s nap with a slight tap on the window, jump into his car, and start whizzing towards Hotel Katajanokka.
The tram rails shine on the straight, wet streets and lights reflect in long lines against the asphalt as the taxi speeds past the University buildings and the looming and white Cathedral. In about ten minutes a sturdy and high red tile wall rises in front of the car; inside a building I believe is my destination. This is the perfect night to spend in a former prison, now Hotel Katajanokka.
As a building, Katajanokka couldn’t be much more historic: the whole esteemed Helsinki neighbourhood, now known as Katajanokka, formed around this prison. The first building to function as a prison, with a roof made of bark, was erected on the peninsula in 1749 when Finland was governed from Sweden. Before this, the peninsula had been almost uninhabited.
In 1800, the old wooden house was extended into a two-storey brick building. Unfortunately, the location was ill chosen, and the building deteriorated quickly. Then, in 1809, Finland was transferred to the hands of Russian czars: Nicholas I abolished dead penalty, and a bigger prison and pre-detention centre were needed. This white building dates from 1837 and you can still see it on your visit. The building had only twelve cells and a new extension was soon needed. The cross-shaped model came from America, and this stoic, red brick building from 1888 forms now the best part of the hotel. Prison Katajanokka and the district surrounding it have since become an integral part of the history of Helsinki and Finland, and the area is worthwhile visiting on your trip to Helsinki.
With time, approximately 40% of all Finland’s prisoners walked through Katajanokka’s doors, and in a day 30 prisoners might have been brought in to wait for their sentence, and 30 others would walk out. In its busiest, about 10 000 prisoners were passing the prison’s gates yearly.
Among these anonymous numbers, there are several colourful and even tragic celebrities. One of them is Auervaara, the “Finnish Casanova”. Auervaara was a serial woman charmer in the 1940s and 1950s, although he was not happy just getting the women’s love, but took their money too. More tragic is the story of Martta Koskinen. Koskinen was sentenced to death as a spy in 1943 and became the last woman to suffer death sentence in Finland.
But some of the prison stories are comic, too. You can read about robberies gone wrong under the influence of banana liquor, you can read about pretentious aliases, such as the vice-count Peter William Axel Oscar Oxenstierna’s, who used to bamboozle first in Sweden, but later become a popular Finnish singer with a few hit songs under his belt. As the last example, there was also a man called Hohental, who after his classic prison break (after he had sawn the bars of his windows he climbed to freedom with ladders thrown by his friends from the other side of the wall) ended up as a masseur in the court of England!
A lot of stories can be found inside the walls, and it has taken some effort to find the right balance to transform a prison into a hotel: you wouldn’t want to freak out the guests with too much ghastliness of prison life, but on the other hand, this ghastliness is part of its lure.
But back to my own prison break: After the taxi ride, I hurry up a few steps to the front door and step inside a brightly lit lobby: at the moment, I am not giving a thought to the thousands of others who also stepped in here and not by their own choice. The welcome is warm and surprisingly normal taken into account the history of this place. But what else could it have been? Had I expected a pile of towels thrown into my arms and a big ring of clanking keys to unlock my door? A demand to hand over my shoelaces? A hollow sound of bars echoing in the cement floor corridor when the door is banged shut behind me?
But neither the warm welcome or the stripy carpet completely soften the echoes of history. Tired from my travels in Ireland, as I walk towards my room on the fourth floor, I do manage to notice the straight lines of the corridors, the ironwork of the staircases reminding of numerous foreign prison films. But then a warm shower, cosy bed and I fall into the innocent sleep of a weary traveller.
Next morning, I wake up to grey Helsinki. For a moment, I wonder what was it like for Risto Ryti, our II World War president, who waited for his sentence here in Katajanokka after the war’s outcome. What was it like for the female prisoners, separated from the men into their little wing? What was it like for the guards, arriving to work daily and then walk out, back to their normal lives?
But soon my stomach starts to grumble from all this thinking and I decide to march down to the cellar where breakfast is served. I find a long dimly lit corridor, little rooms aligning it and a buffet room bustling with breakfasters. Sturdy cutlery goes with the prison theme, as well as the silvery metal plates and mugs. The buffet options vary from fruits and yoghurts to porridge, pancakes (Finnish style oven made pancakes!) to different types of eggs and smoothies.
Even though breakfasts normally are the highlight of my hotel stays, in Katajanokka it is the isolation cell found at the end of the corridor. It is great that a part – and such a grim part – of the prison’s history has been left practically untouched. But perhaps this is part of the hotel’s marketing strategy: a lot of bachelor parties come here before stepping into an eternal imprisonment, marriage.
It must be a difficult job to find a right balance when transforming a prison into a hotel, but in Katajanokka, they have made it seem simple. Even the tiny liquorice found in my room reminds me of bars, and I’m sure this is not by a mistake. Also, in the lobby’s little shop you can buy souvenirs, but these I skip, as I am sure that I will remember my visit without any physical reminders.
P.S. I wish to thank Hotel Katajanokka for the opportunity to stay in the historic prison hotel. Hotel Katajanokka is part of my series exploring Europe’s historic hotels. The collaboration does not affect the content of my writing, as I choose only culturally or historically significant hotels for the series. By this, I wish to ensure inspiring and atmospheric moments not only for myself but for my readers on their travels. Historic hotels are an integral part of the history of European travel, and with the series, I wish to support this part of our travel history.
I mainly used Nokka – Kiven sisällä (Johnny Kniga) by Harri Nykänen and Jouni Tervo for the factual part of this blog post.