You’re looking at a birds-eye view of the historic district in the port city of Rauma, on the southeastern coast of Finland. Named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1991, Old Rauma consists of about 600 wooden buildings, a particularly high concentration of 18th– and 19th-century Finnish vernacular architecture. I was there on Friday for an expert tour given by Tanja Vahtikari. The photo was taken from the tower of Rauma’s 15th-century Church of the Holy Cross.
I know Tanja through the network of urban historians at the Universities of Helsinki, Tampere, and Turku. Tanja is about to complete her PhD dissertation on UNESCO World Heritage sites, and she is using Rauma as a case study. As we spent the day meandering through the old town, with Tanja pointing out sites of interest on each block, we had a meandering conversation about historic districts, heritage policy, and 21st-century compromises.
Most of the 600 buildings in Old Rauma are privately owned and occupied. While it is certainly a tourist destination, Old Rauma is also a high-functioning residential neighborhood. According to Tanja, the historic district has cultivated an identity as a living heritage site. So, for example, there is no attempt to make Old Rauma a pedestrian zone; residents are free to drive and park throughout the district. And, in contrast with the old wooden town of Porvoo, whose businesses—restaurants and knick-knack shops—serve mainly tourists, Old Rauma boasts hair salons, a hardware store, and other amenities needed by locals.
I was impressed with the resources the City of Rauma provides to assist residents in negotiating the tricky business of living in an historic home. There is a preservation restriction on each of Old Rauma’s wooden buildings, which means that all exterior and any major interior alterations are subject to an approval process. The city employs a preservation architect devoted exclusively to Old Rauma, who works out of Tammela, a building renovation center with extensive services for residents. Homeowners can stop by Tammela to consult informally with the architect on projects big and small. There is a salvage operation where you can get a period-appropriate stove door and other architectural details at reasonable rates. There are demonstration rooms where you can learn how the walls of Rauma houses were constructed:
Or how to restore your doors:
Tammela also makes paint the old way, and will sell it to you for cheap:
You can even rent this workshop, with tons of power tools, for a mere 2 Euro a day:
So that you can make sure those 19th-century windows continue to look like this:
The result? There are plenty of instances in Old Rauma when the present intrudes on the past: the occasional 1920s or 1950s building mixed in with the older architecture, some decidedly contemporary commerce peeking out from 19th-century windows (I spotted both Subway and Benetton), and the hectic buzz of 2010 work and play. But preservation permeates Old Rauma nonetheless, and you get the sense that residents actively contend with the past on a daily basis. Moreover, thanks to resources like Tammela, Old Rauma is not a neighborhood exclusively for the upper class, as are many historic districts I’ve seen at home in the US—there are middle and even working class folks living here too.
Historic preservation junkies might want to check out Tammela’s Renovation Guide, and here’s a great post by former Finland Fulbrighter Kenneth Kolson that explores the issues above in greater detail. I for one spent the entire bus ride home thinking about DIY projects for my 1914 duplex in Boston—that’s Old Rauma rubbing off on me.