Major revamp of historic Patarei Sea Fortress is gaining momentum

Patarei Sea Fortress.
Patarei Sea Fortress. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

A significant redevelopment of the historic Patarei complex in Tallinn is gathering momentum, with plans to demolish the interior of the prison, restore the tsarist-era naval fortress building, and construct recreational facilities. It is one of the largest restoration initiatives of a historic building ever undertaken in Estonia.

The Patarei Sea Fortress, also known as the Patarei Prison, is comprised of the 280-meter-long Gorge main fortress building (referring to the rear part of the fortress building situated at the shoreline) and two radial 125-meter-long Lunette wings that intersect. The total area of the complex, including the adjacent land, is 55,000 square meters.

"The fortress itself is the best-preserved in the region," said Artur Ümar, heritage expert and project manager at US Real Estate. "Many believe that the complex is worthy of global attention, with its 3,800 pieces of heritage significance, compared to a 100 or so in other important Tallinn structures."

Heritage agency expert Artur Ümar. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

The imposing size of this 19th-century fortification is really impressive. "Even a tractor could be driven on the second floor; partition ceilings are 1.2 meters thick at their thinnest spots," Ümar pointed to a cavity drilled through the floor. "The partition walls that had been recently demolished weighed about 10 tons. A tractor was carrying the stones, but we could hear nothing of walls falling a floor beneath."

"The wall of the room at the tip of the Lunette structure, which was drilled through, was eight meters thick! The floor of the attic is 1.8 meters — in some houses could be a whole separate level — and it is here all stone. It is an absolutely incredible building. And not a crack inside," Ümar described the fortress.

The fortress has two courtyards. Historically, the Gorge courtyard served as the fort's parade courtyard, where soldiers would do their drills, while in the triangular Lunette courtyard officers would take a walk with their ladies. The communications building between them was added later during the Republic of Estonia in 1934.

Patarei Sea Fortress original design drawing. Source: Estonian History Museum

History of the fortress

1714 Peter the Great decided to build a military port in Tallinn and personally initiated the construction. Among the other buildings, the west-end Patarei earthwork was erected at that time.

1820 Alexander I decided to build stone fortifications in Tallinn and the Patarei Sea Fortress was a key part of the defense plan, being several times larger than the other structures.

1827 - 1840 However, the beginning of the Patarei complex can be considered as 1827 when Russia's tsar Nikolai I approved the final design project for fortifying Tallinn's naval port. At this time the Gorge building and the two wings of Lunette were completed. It is however not clear why the Lunette courtyard was built one floor higher than the Gorge courtyard.

1856 Russia lost the Crimean War and it was decided that the naval fortress was no longer needed, so it was turned into barracks. The guns were removed and the gunports were converted into large windows.

1919 The fort replaced Tallinn's previous jails in Toompea Castle and the Fat Margaret artillery tower, which had been damaged in fires. The casemates, or battle halls, were transformed into cells and the windows were barred.

1934 A communication building was built between the courtyard of Gorge and the courtyard of Lunette to create more prison space. The gunmetal cellars that had stood there before were demolished.

2002 A fully compliant prison was completed and the historical sea prison became empty. The Estonian Academy of Fine Arts wanted to move into the fortress, but the plan fell through because the state had no money for restoration.

2008 A detailed plan was made to create a human-friendly urban space and cover the courtyard with a glass roof. The new Kalaranna promenade was completed and the already dilapidated buildings around it were demolished.

2019 An auction was held and it was won by the only bidder, Urmas Sõõrumaa's company Nikolai I.

2020 Architecture firm Hayashi – Grossschmidt Arhitektuur's (HGA) design "Taevakaar" won the competition to redesign the courtyards, glass roofs and outdoor areas of the Patarei fortress.

2021 Demolition of the prison addition started.

How to combine contemporary vision with history

In a few years from now the naval fortress will contain restaurants, boutiques and offices. Tenant competitions are still ongoing. The courtyards will be used for events and conferences also during the winter, as both courtyards will have a nearly hectare-sized glass roof.

According to Ümar, the absence of columns to support the roof in the center of the square is one of the primary reasons why this particular design won the architectural competition. The nearly 600-ton glass roof will be supported by the building's frame only. Ümar believes that the fortress should be able to hold the additional weight.

Lunette courtyard. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Most of the communication building will be demolished, leaving only the facade. "This structure is not a sea fortress; it is a prison. We agree with the heritage authorities that this is the least valuable portion of the complex," Ümar explained.

The courtyards will be leveled and a large passageway will connect them to the communication structure. This will restore the visual dialogue between the two courtyards. Before the communication building obstructed the view, the officers could see the Gorge courtyard from the Lunette courtyard one floor above.

Gorge courtyard. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Original cannons from the time period of the Patarei Sea Fortress, but not from the fortress itself, were obtained from the Estonian History Museum; new bases will be constructed for their display in the complex.

Tsarist-era cannons waiting to go on display. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Outside of the sea wall, a water channel with fountains will serve as a reminder of the former waterway. Planned between the Gorge building and Tallinn Bay is a promenade with stairs and café terraces, which will be interrupted by a channel that cuts into the shore and can be crossed via a bridge. There one will be able to see the granite block lining of the fortress lying underground and how the sea once crashed against the fortress wall.

In the eastern part of the Gorge building, the new International Museum for The Victims of Communism will occupy 5,000 square meters. It is the only place where the cells of Patarei Prison, the prisoners' exercise yards, the barbed wire on the wall and other gloomy things Estonians often associate with Patarei will remain. Construction of the museum section will start at the end of 2023.

The entrance to the future International Museum for The Victims of Communism. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Historical nuances of a sea defense construction undertaking

A massive chimney system lies behind the vaults of the naval fortress' casemates, or battle halls. Furnaces were still employed in the structure until the 1970s. How much wood was used to heat this building and how warm it could get, is hard to say.

However, the chimney structures are now handy because they can hide ventilation, wiring and other modern connections. They will be used to connect equipment that is kept in the attic.

Patarei Sea Fortress. The bows behind which lurk the traps. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

"The heritage preservation was particularly happy with this solution," Ümar explained. "Basically, the building will remain exactly as it is today, both inside and out."

One of the biggest challenges in the design was the capillary water action coming from the ground into the building walls. Many different materials were tested that could be used: "Because the sheer volumes are so big, we can't go wrong here with any of the materials we use, it would cost so much. We need to put the right thing on these walls. We have large material testing areas; the walls are full of sensors," Ümar said, adding that several universities are cooperating to solve this challenge.

More studies than usual have been historically carried out for the design of the sea defenses, which included, for example, studies of wind, snow and water movement throughout the entire complex.

"I think this is going to be one of the most complex gutter systems in Estonia. Throughout the two years of designing, I think it took the entire year to solve it; we argued and argued about those design plans," Ümar said laughingly.

"I have worked on many historic buildings: rarely are there any drawings preserved, but here we have plenty. It has been great to redesign this building!" he said.

Ümar recalled a surprise incident involving the bellows in the wall, which were used to blow out smoke from the battle halls' cannons. The openings marked on the interior and exterior walls did not match the drawings, and Ümar wondered with the architects how this could be possible. Finally, the openings were broken down, revealing that they had been constructed diagonally through the wall. Thus, the angle of the wall absorbs the force of the cannonball when it is launched into the hole, resulting in significantly less damage.

Rifle ports in the wall are smaller than the cannon ports. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

A stroll around the fortress exposes other remnants from two centuries ago, including large iron concretions in the ceilings of the bunkers. When the adversary attacked, they could be utilized to move and tow the cannons. Otherwise, the cannon stood on a large, wall-mounted base. The cannon was also secured to the metal rings in the walls with ropes, some of which still exist in some places. At the bottom of the stairs, there are additional exceptionally large hooks and hatches, which were used to lift the cannons between floors.

Such hooks were used to move cannons by means of ropes. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Wide openings at the windows of the battle halls are an additional characteristic of this fascinating naval fortress. Ümar could tell you that in the prison days, they were called "ski tracks." When the enemy shot a hole in the wall with a cannon, logs were pushed into the grooves and stones were piled up in between. By the time the attackers reached the fortress from the ship, the new wall was already ahead and they had to return to the ship to fire again. Meanwhile, however, they could would be attacked through small rifle openings.

If a former prisoner could explain what ski trails were during the Soviet era, it would be obvious that he had been imprisoned in Patarei.

So-called ski trails in the battle room. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

The facades, rooftops, and museum of the Patarei are slated to be completed in 2026.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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