uurimusi arhitektuurist ja teooriast
investigations on architecture and theory

Olavi Pesti. Kuressaare of a century ago

Kuressaare of the next to last turn of the century was a cosy little county town. The capital of Saaremaa was in 8th place among Estonian towns with its population of 4600 – a little smaller than Rakvere and a little bigger than Võru. A total of 63% of the townspeople were Estonian, 26% German and 9% Russian. Less than a hundred Jews formed the fourth nationality in terms of numbers.

Senior master of the congregation of St. Lawrence of that time Daniel Lemm characterised his home town as follows in an article that was published in the newspaper St. Petersburger Zeitung in 1902: “Its layout resembles a star with four irregular prongs extending from its core in the direction of the four points of the compass. This is most beneficial for the ventilation taking place on the paved streets that are kept clean. Most houses are single-storey, built of stone or wood, and separated from one another by numerous gardens. Thanks to this, a touch of the countryside can be felt in this cosy town.”

With its large gardens and municipal park, Kuressaare was indeed one of Estonia’s greenest towns, but at the same time also one of the towns with proportionally the most stone buildings – about one third of the over five hundred houses in the town were built of stone. This was due to the availability of suitable local building material – the abundance of limestone, and the reforms of Lieutenant Governor of Livonia Balthasar von Campenhausen, who had resided here for an extended period of time a century earlier. His activity in particular had also laid the foundation for the formation of the classicist appearance of the town, and by the time under consideration, Kuressaare was considered the pearl of this style of building among the small towns of Livonia.

Yet officially it was not Kuressaare but rather Arensburg (meaning eagle fortress in German). The town inherited this name as a matter of course from the ancient bishop’s fortress. Its patron saint was John the Evangelist, whose emblem in turn was the eagle. But for Estonians, it was still Kures(s)aare. This lovely place name is associated with Courland and an extinct Finnic people known as kurelased, yet it more likely derived instead from the eagle on the town coat-of-arms that transformed into a crane. A town of this size naturally also had its boroughs. Tori is known to this day. It got its name from a tributary river and evolved as a separate village. The names of many other “villages” have long since been forgotten by now: Veneküla (Russian village), Rapiküla (Fish guts village), Jäneseküla (Rabbit village), Rotiküla (Rat village), Kelmiküla (Crook village) and others.

The heyday of the maritime trade of this small town had disappeared into the past as economic conditions changed. By that time, the vacation economy had risen to first place. Already a third establishment for providing mud baths and mud cure was opened at the edge of the municipal park in 1883 and it was named the New Mud Bathing Establishment. Visitors came to these establishments from all over the Russian Empire and elsewhere, a couple of thousand per summer at the turn of the century. The park square with the buildings surrounding it – the band shell, the amusement park, and the concert and reception hall – and the seashore with its alleys, café and bathing cottages had developed into centres for summer vacationing. A region of wooden houses with a basically eclecticist appearance evolved primarily around the park along with the development of the town as a resort.

Bourgeois, aristocratic Kuressaare had few industrial enterprises. The largest enterprises were Wildenberg’s tannery, which processed raw hides imported from America, Schmidt’s steam mill, and the Kingissepp family locksmiths’ and mechanics workshop at the edge of town in Marienthal. Additionally, there were numerous small enterprises, handicraft workshops and stores (liquor and beer were sold in 11 of them), about ten pensions and inns, and two printing shops. The local jail had space for 70 prisoners (the population of Saaremaa and Muhumaa as a whole was over 60.000 after all!), and the almshouse had space for 32. A total of 31 registered coachmen handled the transportation of town residents and guests. (The latter data dates from 1910). The horse postal station was reorganised in 1902 as the municipal postal station. The conveyance of mail between Pärnu and Kuressaare took place initially twice and later three times per week. Telegraphic connection to the mainland was set up in 1875 already, but the building of the telephone network and the installation of telephones did not begin until 1907. The market was traditionally held in the central square, yet in addition the Hay Market and the Lumber Market operated at the triangular street intersections characteristic of Kuressaare. The lighting of the town’s first gas street lamp at Market Square in November of 1905 was a major event.

Since Saaremaa belonged to the Province of Livonia, Kuressaare’s connection to Riga was stronger than its connection with Tallinn, the centre of Estonia. The connection of the islanders to the “great wide world” improved significantly as of 1875 when their own Osilia shipping company started running the modern steamship Konstantin regularly on the Riga line. The approximately 9-hour sea journey could be undertaken twice a week during the summer season; irregular service ordinarily lasted from September through to the end of November. Riga, though, was at that time the most rapidly developing metropolis in Russia in the fields of economics and technology, and it was bursting with European spirit. The completion of the port at Roomassaare in 1894 improved shipping service even more. The icebreaker type steamship General Surovtsev built in Riga arrived at its home port in Kuivastu in August of 1902, for the first time ensuring year-round shipping traffic across the Suur väin (Great Straits).

In addition to elementary schools, the Kuressaare Boys’ Grammar School (founded in 1865), the school of navigation (founded in 1891), the higher girls’ school and the Town School provided education. Typically of the times, the language of instruction was Russian in all these schools. The Salon Club and the Bürgermusse, and the Ressource Club for the nobility provided the primarily German-speaking population cultural and social entertainment. Estonians found such entertainment in the Lyra choral and orchestral society and the Saaremaa Temperance Society, which (re)united with each other in 1907 as the Kuressaare Estonian Society. Lutherans found edification in the Church of St. Lawrence, and Orthodox Christians did the same in the Church of St. Nicholas. The newspapers Saarlane (Islander) (the oldest Estonian language newspaper for one county!) and Arensburger Wochenblatt appeared regularly.

According to the new municipal law that went into effect in 1877, the town was governed by a municipal council instead of the previous municipal authorities. The municipal council appointed the municipal government. Since elections took place on the basis of financial quotas, Estonians did not yet come to power in the town, even though they already managed to do so in several towns in continental Estonia. The mayor in 1898–1906 was Konrad von Sengbusch from Hiiumaa, owner of Karja estate who had previously served in Saaremaa as a magistrate of the lowest court, which performed police functions and solved little criminal cases.

The direct task of the municipal government was managing the municipal economy, the administration of municipal properties and capital, the maintenance and upkeep of the town’s public spaces, supplying the town with foodstuffs, the protection of the health of the population, and the maintenance of municipal schools, charities and other generally beneficial institutions. Horned animals were one of the more serious problems in terms of the general upkeep and orderliness of the town. Namely, practically every homeowner in Kuressaare owned a cow. They ordinarily went independently to the Loode or Roomassaare pastures. Those cows on their way to pasture later in the mornings and early birds heading for the mud baths crossed paths on the streets. The cows walked back home just at the time of the orchestra concert in the evening. The new regulation for driving cattle to pasture enacted in 1895 by the municipal government improved the situation somewhat. While the previous custom was for drovers to gather the cattle together into one place and then to head for the pasture, the new regulation required them to head for the pasture directly from the gates of their homes.

The ever-increasing number of vacationers every year led to other problems as well. The ever-increasing demands of the vacationers had to be reckoned with. Issues concerning the general order and upkeep of the park were often on the agenda. The municipal government passed a 10-point regulation in 1901 intended to ensure improved order in the municipal park. It prescribed that the park and alleys were intended for vacationers, for which reason workers in work clothes and those with tools were forbidden to pass through the park. Standing, sitting and playing on the lawns, picking flowers, and wrecking benches and chairs were all prohibited activities. Dogs could be walked only on a leash. Parents were obligated to keep an eye on their children to make certain that they did not disturb concert-goers wishing to listen to music, and so on.

One of the largest “development projects” of the era was the reconstruction of the bishop’s stronghold, which had stood half-empty for a long time, to accommodate work rooms and reception rooms for the Saaremaa Knighthood. Work began on this project in 1903. The two upper storeys of the Defence Tower and the sculpted frames of the windows opening onto the inner courtyard were restored first of all. Altogether fantastic ideas on the scale of Saaremaa, though, were proposed but were not carried out until a hundred years later. Newspapers wrote seriously about the need of Kihelkonna for the establishment of an ice-free, deep-water port, the creation of a permanent connection over the Suur väin (Great Straits), and even about the possibility of the construction of a railroad from Kihelkonna to Keila via Kessulaid and Lihula!

The detached “insular country” also did not remain an entirely passive observer of what was taking place in world politics. The Boer War that raged in South Africa and ended in 1902 aroused keen interest. At just about that time, a new street that was built on a former field of the Suuremõisa estate was given the name Transvaali. To this day, it is one of Estonia’s most unusual street names. Due to the Russian-Japanese War, recruits and conscripts constantly had to be sent off festively. In the autumn of 1904 alone, 232 men were taken from Kuressaare as soldiers. The revolutionary events of 1905 culminated in Kuressaare with a mass meeting that took place at the initiative of Estonian societies on 7 December in the Bürgermusse meeting hall.

Leib and Beila-Rebecka (Beila-Riva, maiden name Mendelowitsch) Schmuilowsky moved from the world-class city of Riga to this little provincial town. This presumably took place during the latter half of 1900. They were married in Riga on 28 May 1900 according to the old calendar. Their first child Itze-Leib Schmuilowsky – later known as the world famous architect Louis Kahn – was born in Kuressaare already on 20 February 1901. Leib, Mendel’s son, Schmuilowsky, who later took the name Leopold Kahn, had become acquainted with B. Mendelowitsch (Bertha Mendelsohn) at a time when he was retiring from the Russian army, where he had served as a finance official. There is also information concerning his activity as a glass painter.

The size of Kuressaare’s Jewish community was steadily declining at the turn of the century: while they numbered 111 in the census of 1881, they numbered only 35 in 1913. The total population of the town had grown during the same period by 1.5 times. Why did the Schmuilowsky family move to Kuressaare in particular?

The main reason was apparently that a number of their relatives lived here. The family of artisan Mendel Mendelowitsch (born in 1850 in Salanty – died in 1916 in Riga) and his wife Rocha Lea (nicknamed Lina, born in 1849 in Leisner, died in 1934 in Riga) moved from Riga to Kuressaare around 1880. Of the 8 children they were known to have had, daughters Hasse (born about 1881) and Sora-Gita (Sara, 1890), and sons Abram (1882), Benjamin (1888) and Isak (1890) – Louis Kahn’s aunts and uncles – were born here. Abraham Mendelowitsch’s tinsmith’s workshop at Tolli Street 16 is known since 1901. The St. Petersburg Hotel was located in this lovely wooden house. It was put on sale in 1899 and shortly a number of artisans set up their activities there. Of the colleagues of A. Mendelowitsch, the tailors Th. Krull and A. Jürgensohn, and the shoemaker A. Wellig are known to have operated here.

The address Kohtu Street 4 is listed as the residence of tinsmith Mendel Mendelowitsch in 1913. This little wooden house that was located right in the centre of town has not survived. A. and B. Mendelowitsch opened a butcher’s shop at Lossi Street 1 (the present day county government building) in 1914. Hasse was a weaver. Her older sister Haja-Mira was a seamstress. Part of the family moved back to Riga around the turn of the century. Others left Saaremaa probably at the time of World War I.

According to family tradition, Louis Kahn’s sister Schorre (Saara, born on 14 June 1902 according to the old calendar) and brother Oscher (Oscar, born on 16 June 1904 according to the old calendar) were also born in Kuressaare. Pärnu is listed as the place of birth of all the family children in the register of births. This was apparently due to the fact that there was no Jewish community in little Kuressaare and births were registered in a larger neighbouring town.

Louis Kahn has recalled that his father worked as a “clerk of the residents of Kuressaare fortress”. It is possible that he did secretary work in the farmers’ bank located in the cellar of the fortress, considering his previous experiences in the sphere of finance. It might have been a good idea to also listen to the experiences of glass painter Leib Schmuilowsky in the course of the renovations of the fortress, but the installation of new windows was left to a somewhat later time. In any case, work as an office employee and a glass painter in Kuressaare did not provide sufficient income, and in 1904, Leib decided to go seek his fortune in the big, wide world, settling in the metropolis of Philadelphia. His wife with three children followed him to the USA in 1906.

Translated by Peeter Tammisto.

Olavi Pesti was born in Tallinn in 1950. In 1969 he graduated from Tallinn 10th Secondary School and in 1974 from the University of Tartu in the field of history. Since 1974 he has been working in the Saaremaa Museum, since 1976 as Research Director. He has been engaged with problems of cultural history and protection of national history. He has compiled and edited a dozen books.