The History of Villa Elfvik

Get to know the phases of a Art Nouveau villa.

Villa Elfvik is situated on the shore of Laajalahti Bay, on land previously owned by the Bredvik tax-paying farm. Baron Emil Standertskjöld purchased the Bredvik farm from court official (Hovineuvos) Wilmer Dittmar in 1896. Emil was married to Elvira Hallgren, the daughter of a Swedish merchant. Their family also included the daughters Lise and Thelma, both born in the 1890s.

The Art Nouveau-style Villa

The Standertskjölds bought the Bredvik farm to serve as their summer residence. They named it Elfvik after  Elvira. After the purchase, plans for a summer house were ordered from architect Waldemar Aspelin. Emil, however, died in 1900 before Aspelin's plans for Elfvik were realised.

Following the death of her husband, Elvira commissioned new plans for a slightly more modest villa from a different architect by the name of Mauritz Gripenberg. The resulting villa was built in an Art Nouveau style with British country house influences. Such influences are very rarely seen in the Finnish buildings of the era.

Elfvik's main building was completed in 1904, and three years later Elvira and her daughters made it their permanent home. A sauna, carriage house and woodshed, boathouse, stable and servicemen's hut, all from the previous farm-period, were kept in use by the new owners

Back in this period, there was an unobstructed view of the sea from Villa Elfvik. It could be enjoyed from the villa's salon, its upstairs study and the house's garden. The area between the house and the beach was an open, well-kept grass field. Steamboats had access to Villa Elfvik's stone jetty until the early part of the 20th century, after which eutrophication and the continuing post glacial rebound caused the jetty to slowly disappear into its surrounding reeds.

Elvira died in 1955 and Thelma only one year later. Lise and Thelma, having both remained unmarried, jointly bequeathed the Villa Elfvik to The Swedish Literature Society of Finland (Svenska Litteratursällskapet i Finland). Their joint will specifically states that the main Elfvik building should house a rest or retirement home for Swedish-speaking actors or actresses and artists.

The will was executed after Lise passed away in 1974. However, by this time, due to errors made during its construction and serious water damage, the main building at Elfvik had fallen into such disrepair that local authorities could not permit it to house a rest or retirement home. Various fire security considerations also made the idea impossible to implement.

The Finnish State purchased Villa Elfvik in the summer of 1981. Some argued that it should be torn down, but eventually that outcome was avoided when, in 1985, The City of Espoo purchased the villa and its surrounding 2,500 m² land area. Shortly after this, the villa was repaired and renovated in a style which respects its original design. Once the work had been completed, the villa began to house the City of Espoo's environmental education centre. Nature House Villa Elfvik was opened to the public on World Environment Day 1992 (5/6/1992). Nature school activities had already begun during the previous autumn.

Bohemian lifestyles at Elfvik

The Standerskjölds' neighbours have called their villa "a house of artists". Baroness Elvira was once known as the brightest star of Helsinki's Swedish-speaking high society. She had studied to sing both opera and lighter fare in Stockholm, Helsinki and Vienna. In addition, she had acted at the Svenska Teatern and elsewhere.

While studying abroad, Elvira had come into contact with a variety of different dress styles. She always dressed to impress and spent a lot of time picking dresses that best suited her theatrical taste. Below is a picture of Eero Järnefelt's portrait of Elvira Standertskjöld. Elvira Standertskjöld painted by Eero Järnefelt.

Daughter Lise studied in Italy and France and later became a successful painter and art teacher. Thelma, meanwhile, studied in Switzerland and became a sculptor. Though all three women were highly educated, they did not have to work for a living. Instead, they enjoyed life at Elfvik, dedicating it to art, amateur theatre, music and their active social life.

With no father or husbands around, the family did not earn much income. This, sadly, led their shared finances on a slow downward spiral. At the start of the century, Elvira was undoubtedly quite wealthy. During that period, the family employed an overseer (renkivouti), two male servants (renki), three maids (piika), a lady's companion (seuraneiti), a chauffeur and a gardener, and leased land to five tenant farmers. The male staff members lived in a service men's hut which also housed a workshop. Female staff members lived inside the villa itself, in a small room adjoined to its kitchen. This room now serves as the Nature House's vestibule.

As the family's finances worsened, staff members began to be laid off. The ladies also began to sell off parts of their land, which meant less staff was needed. When Lise died, only 30 hectares remained of the 183 that her father had originally bought. With less and less staff, younger sister Thelma had to take on the work previously done by the servants.

The Standertskjölds seemed to care little about the critical decline evident in their surroundings, and by the 1950s the villa's roof was in such disrepair that the family was practically living under the stars. A friend of the family once put together an estimate of how much fixing the roof would cost, but the sisters considered the sum too high and simply continued to use buckets to collect incoming rainwater and to live in different parts of the house during different parts of the year.

Practically everyone remembers Elvira as a very strict woman. Thanks to her, strict discipline was enforced in the house. She paid especial attention to what those living or working in the house wore. The servants had to wear the type of clothing that would have been expected at a 19th century manor house. Until the 1950s, whenever the two daughters had to do their shopping, they would travel to the nearby town in an old horse-drawn carriage. Both wore long, old skirts and large hats, which the town's people found highly peculiar.

Neither Thelma nor Lise ever married, because Elvira would never allow male suitors to visit the house - even after both daughters had reached adulthood. According to one story, Thelma did in fact once bring a suitor to the house, but Elvira threw him out right away. For this reason, once the two sisters themselves had grown up, the sound of small feet would never again be heard inside the villa.