Tallinn’s most iconic sauna submits plans to become another boring spa
“They are killing history,” said one 35 year regular of Kalma saun in Kalamaja.
Kalma saun, one of Estonia’s oldest and grandest public saunas, has submitted plans to turn its historic building into accommodation and develop a new modern spa complex next to it.
Located in Kalamaja, a former fishing community a short walk from Tallinn’s old town, Kalma saun was constructed in 1928 with an impressive Art Deco facade and has been popular with locals ever since.
The suburb is characterised by wooden ‘Lender Houses’ built to accommodate the rapid urbanisation of Estonians during the period of national awakening that led to independence. The vast majority of these homes don’t have their own saunas so Kalma saun has served an important community role since its early days.
While Kalamaja has transformed rapidly in recent years into Tallinn’s trendiest new neighbourhood, Kalma saun has remained relatively unchanged inside.
It has large saunas, cold plunge pools, washrooms, and relaxation areas all separated for men and women, as well as private sauna areas that can be rented by groups of anyone. It can get very noisy as both a social hub and a place where vihad, the branches used to beat ourselves in the sauna, are regularly used.
While mostly attracting locals, it also fascinates tourists who are interested in experiencing a key part of Estonian culture and history. It can be a little intimidating for them, however, with little guidance for people not familiar with the sauna tradition.
Kalma saun was even featured in Vogue as part of a photoshoot with Estonian model Eve Rahuorg.
Now, however, there are plans to destroy these historic saunas.
Following the death of its previous owner, Kalma saun was sold to the real estate developers, TTP, which then commissioned Meelis Press Architects to devise plans for a spa hotel, which have been submitted to Tallinn City Council.
They plan to renovate the existing building and construct a new modern building on the same plot behind it. The spa complex would be built inside the modern building, while the original building would form part of the accommodation and include a new cafe. There are two small sauna hot rooms, a small steam room, and a presumably heated pool. There are numerous similar spas in Tallinn, which tend to reflect modern German aufguss culture rather than Estonia’s own traditions.
“How can you fit vihad into such a small room,” commented one regular when the plans first appeared.
Kalle Kaljula, who lives locally and has been a regular at Kalma saun for 35 years, says most regulars are strongly opposed to the plans. When rumours about transforming the building began, he started a Facebook group, Kalma Sauna Kaitseks, for people who wanted to protect its heritage.
“They are killing history to make money,” said Kaljula. “The city should buy this property and lease it to the current operator.”
Dan Renwick, who owns Heldeke, a theatre and bar round the corner, which also has a popular sauna, says that Kalma saun is an iconic part of the community where locals meet up.
“I don’t think many people want another Gucci spa hotel,” he says. “Yet every time there is development it seems that community and culture are the first things to be sacrificed. Like many others here, I will be sad to see it get remodeled in this way.”
On social media, Estonians also expressed concern about the uninspiring architecture of the new development, which is similar to a growing number of new developments.
“Sometimes these kinds of changes can be a good thing — sometimes not,” says Raimond Kaljulaid, a former district mayor of the Põhja-Tallinn area that is home to Kalamaja and Kalma saun, an MP, and now the Social Democrat candidate for Mayor of Tallinn.
“Many people were also sceptical about the new Balti Jaam market near-by. Supposedly the old market had charm. But I’m sure most now feel that the new market is an improvement for the community and the city. On the other hand, I personally was not happy that the old historic train station building at Balti Jaam was turned into a Burger King. I would address this issue more broadly as a political issue. For decades the prevailing logic was that everything possible should be privatised and sold. But that doesn’t always work out so well. I’m sure many people would be happy if some of the plots of land on the seaside of Tallinn would not have been privatised back in the day and could be used as recreational areas instead of endless property developments that eat up most of the space and make it unavailable for the public. And the same goes for things like public bath houses and saunas or cinemas. So I’m reluctant to think about new possible privatisation projects. For instance the city is planning to sell the old historic hospital buildings of the East-Tallinn Hospital on Ravi street. That would be a huge mistake. They could be much better used for social and cultural purposes.”
Kalma saun is an iconic part of Kalamaja and an important part of Estonia’s rich sauna heritage.
However, it was also in need of some improvement. New investment to modernise the facilities in a carefully thought-through way could enhance the sauna house’s role in the local community, and attract a new generation of younger visitors, as well as international visitors in future.
Instead, the new developers are planning to throw out history and traditions in order to pivot the business almost entirely to international visitors and, in the process, disregard the interests of the local community. The new spa area appears to be unimaginative and does not attempt to preserve what makes Kalma saun so special — its atmosphere, its history, and its traditions — and no effort has been made to engage regulars about the plans.
This is cultural vandalism — and a missed opportunity. Although it is aimed at international visitors, it does not even provide a net positive benefit to Estonia in this respect.
Before the pandemic, we regularly spoke to international visitors to Estonia and gathered their feedback. There is enormous interest in learning about and experiencing Estonian sauna culture, yet few opportunities to do so in an authentic way. They are disappointed when the only options recommended to them are boring spas of the kind that can be found in any other city in the world.
An inspiring example is Löyly in Helsinki, which is architecturally stunning as a modern sauna house that respects Finnish sauna heritage while bringing together both locals and visitors. The new plans for Kalma saun do not come close. The best saunas in Estonia have soul, history, and are a bit rough around the edges. That’s what international visitors want to experience. Yet, as Estonian sauna culture is mostly home-based and no ambitious plans have yet been realised to provide a authentic public experience, it can be difficult for outsiders to appreciate this important part of Estonian culture.
The new plans may be able to maximise profit in this location by capturing a portion of the hotel spa market, but that will be at the expense of the community and the city.
We want to hear what more people think so leave your comments below or wherever you saw this link on social media. And we hope that decision makers will fully consider alternative options that preserve what is special about Kalma saun.
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