“Estonian culture starts and ends in the sauna,” explains Mairo Notton in New York as he prepares for the city’s 49th Estonian Cultural Days.
Originally from Harjumaa, Mairo moved to New York in 2000 but brought his love for sauna culture with him and is now ready to open up his own unique Estonian sauna experience to the American public.
“My initial idea came years ago when I saw decommissioned ambulances here,” he says. “I noticed that the shape and ergonomics were already a good starting point for building a sauna.”
Then he found something even more appropriate: A New York fire rescue truck that had been retired from duty in Massachusetts.
After buying the truck, Mairo stripped out the insides, added insulation and ventilation, then installed Spanish Cedar boards from Central America before building the lava (sauna ‘staging’). The Spanish Cedar provides a similar aroma to juniper.
For the sauna stove however, Mairo decided that it needed to have a “true Estonian heart” so he explored manufacturers back in Estonia and chose a beautifully designed wood-fired stove made in Tartu by HUUM, which was then shipped to the US.
The Red Hot Sauna is currently based in Long Island City, Queens, and so far has mostly been used for ‘test’ events and the occasional pop-up sauna to introduce Estonian culture.
This weekend though, Mairo’s sauna will be in the spotlight at the New York Cultural Days where the public will be invited to learn more about Estonian sauna culture and try his sauna for themselves.
In future, the Red Hot Sauna can be booked for private events and Mairo also hopes to have it available at sporting events and festivals. For now, bookings can be made through its social media pages.
“The HUUM stove has no harsh radiating heat and releases leil (sauna steam) in a good, mellow manner,” reflects Mairo. “There’s lot of rock surface to experiment throwing water on and each place has its own heat character.”
Showcasing Estonian culture
A programme of events for the 49th New York Cultural Days is available here. Mairo will also be speaking at the New York Estonian House this Saturday 6 April as part of a special discussion about Estonian sauna culture and its relevance to modern Estonian life.
Throughout Estonian history, the sauna has fulfilled a variety of functional purposes, including as a place to live when necessary. Estonians would traditionally build their sauna before their main home. Mairo has also designed the Red Hot Sauna to be used as overnight accommodation because the staging can be quickly rearranged into a fireside bed.
If you would like to try the Red Hot Sauna for yourself though then visit the Fifth Hammer Brewing company in Long Island City on Thursday 4 April between 3 and 6pm, which is where you’ll find it parked up and heated up nearby. Bring your own towel and bear in mind that space might be limited.
Discussion "Saun: Blending Ancient Traditions with Modern Culture"
Join us for an exploration of Estonia's ancient sauna culture and its continued relevance in modern Estonian life…
New York’s Estonian Cultural Days were first held in 1970 as a way for the exiled community to showcase their culture.
It’s thanks to the support of exiled Estonians that the Estonian Consulate in New York, along with the Estonian Legation in London, continued to operate independently throughout the period in which Estonia’s territory was occupied by the Soviet Union. During this time, Estonian diplomats remained in their posts and continued their work to promote Estonia and its culture, despite there being no government back home to represent. This ensured the legal continuation of the Republic of Estonia from its founding in 1918 to the present day. Most notably, an Estonian diplomat named Ernst Jaakson remained in his post in New York from 1932 until the end of the Soviet occupation in 1991 when a legitimate Estonian government was able to promote him to the role of Ambassador.
This turbulent 20th century history is still just a relatively brief moment in time though compared to the longer story of the Estonian people and their culture. It’s unclear exactly when this story started, but thanks to people like Mairo, it’s not going to end any time soon.
About ‘Estonian Saunas’
Thanks for reading. The Estonian Saunas blog is run by Anni and Adam, explorers and exporters of Estonian saunas.
Anni is a green building specialist who grew up here in Estonia immersed in sauna culture, while Adam is a väliseestlane (‘foreign Estonian’) whose family were exiled to the UK during Soviet times but he has now returned and is still trying to understand the sauna — and everything else about his Estonian heritage.
Together, we love finding weird and wonderful saunas all over Estonia and telling the world about them. Check out our plan to make 100 Estonian saunas more famous around the world.
We also offer two saunas in Tallinn that you can visit. Both are based on the best of Estonian design and technology, although in very different ways. The first is our smoke sauna, Rangi saun, which combines an ancient sauna heating technique with a contemporary Estonian design. The second is our WiFi-controlled e-sauna, Tondi Saun, which is part of our apartment that you can book through Airbnb.
In addition to reading our blog, you can follow Estonian Saunas on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube or Twitter. There’s also a Facebook group for fans of Estonian saunas where you can share advice and stories.
Finally, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org