Savoy – a living restaurant legend
In 1937 the population of the 25-year-old Republic of Finland is 3.8 million. President Kyösti Kallio leads the remote northern country whose most important export is sawn timber. The prohibition act forbidding the consumption of alcoholic beverages is rescinded, and once again it is allowed to have fun and enjoy life. The likes of Shirley Temple, Cary Cooper and Clark Gable flicker across the screens of Helsinki’s cinemas. In Finland it is even rumoured that Greta Garbo might have vacationed in the Åland Islands.
In 1936 A. Ahlström Oy erects the Industrial Palace, a commercial and office building designed by Valter Jung, at the corner of the South Esplanade and Kasarmikatu. Also designed by the brothers Bertel and Valter Jung is the Hotel Tower (1931), whose construction requires a special permit owing to its exceptional height.
A. Ahlström’s Director Harry Gullichsen commissions Alvar Aalto to design the interiors for the restaurant and function rooms on the Industrial Palace’s 7th and 8th floors.
Savoy opens its doors 3 June 1937
On 3 June 1937 an article titled “Restaurant cosiness above Helsinki’s rooftops” appears in the Helsingin Sanomat.
“Today the new top-class Restaurant Savoy was opened in A. Ahlström Osakeyhtiö’s handsome new building at the corner of the South Esplanade and Kasarmikatu; all indications are that it will form a popular dining and meeting place for city residents and tourists alike.”
Nothing is left to chance in the interiors of the new Restaurant Savoy. Behind the classical and restrained appearance of the dining room are the Architects Alvar and Aino Aalto; Artek Oy implements the interiors’ construction. The architects’ intent is to create an intimate restaurant above Helsinki. The walls’ and ceilings’ birch veneers, Aino Aalto’s club chairs, and Alvar Aalto’s clean-lined lighting fixtures contribute to the intimacy of the Savoy’s dining room. Keravan Puuseppätehdas supplies most of the restaurant’s furnishings and the textile artist Dora Jung designs the first tablecloths. The balconies’ flower and planting groups designed by Architect Paul Olson are also praised immediately at the opening.
Special features at the Savoy in 1937 include four express lifts as well as an air filtration device that keeps the dining room free of cigar smoke.
The Savoy’s first restaurateurs were Gustav Rasmussen and Runar Björklund, a top athlete also known as “Pixen”. Rasmussen, born in Sweden in 1894, gave his staff precise instructions even before the restaurant opened. To be able to explain the contents of dishes to customers, waiters and waitresses had to be familiar with the menus. Loyal customers’ wishes were to be respected and breadcrumbs could not be seen on tables. Punches and liquors were always to be served in cold glasses.
Gustav Rasmussen was considered a professional; his career details mention stints as a head waiter’s work at the Hasselbacken in Stockholm and in several European cities. During the Savoy’s first year Chef Pettersson was in charge of the kitchen.
In 1937, Finnish nationalism was in the air; at that time it was realised that Finnish cuisine should be featured more prominently. The Savoy’s first dishes were French-inspired, but pride in domestic ingredients grew with time. In 1937 the menus included dishes such as boiled halibut with hollandaise sauce, smoked salmon with spinach as well as a roasted ptarmigan that was served with a mushroom and pepper sauce. Tarts and strawberries, as well as fruits, were served as desserts.
The secret of the Savoy’s dining room is its timelessness. For decades, the uncluttered, clean-lined and functional style has remained in vogue without becoming museum-like. The proportions of the spaces and furnishings, as well as the authenticity of the elements, create an interior that becomes ennobled with age.
The Restaurant Savoy’s best known and most demanding customer was Marshall Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim (1867-1951). Mannerheim lived a short walk away from the Savoy at his home in Kaivopuisto and often enjoyed lunch or dinner at the table always reserved for him in the Savoy’s dining room. Mannerheim was known to be a true cosmopolite, a connoisseur of good food and drink. According to the Savoy’s staff the Marshall’s butter always had to be hard and it was always to be served from an earthenware pot. Nothing was to be recommended to the Marshall; he would always make his decisions independently.
Marshall Mannerheim is also associated with the Savoy’s well-known vorschmack legend. Mannerheim became acquainted with the meat stew flavoured with anchovies and onions at the Warsaw officer’s club. There are many different opinions regarding the origin of vorschmack; the dish may originally be from Poland or Russia.
Legend tells that Mannerheim first took the food recipe to the Kämp Hotel, but because the Kämp’s chef was not interested in vorschmack, the Marshall brought the recipe across the Esplanade Park to the Savoy.
The Marshall’s memory continues to be cherished at the Savoy. Mannerheim’s corner table is still in its place and Marskin Ryyppy (“The Marshall’s Drink”) is still mixed with vodka, akvavit, gin and vermouth according to an exact recipe.
The Savoy Vase
The Restaurant Savoy’s best-known interior design detail is the Savoy Vase – whose first models were created in 1936 – designed by Alvar and Aino Aalto. Originally the vase was designed for a planning competition organised by the Karhula-Iittala glassworks; an Eskimo woman’s traditional clothing inspired the designers. While the undulating vase was being designed, its working title was Eskimåkvinnans skinnbyxa (“The Eskimo Woman’s Leather Breeches”).
Because the first vases were manufactured using wooden moulds, their surfaces were slightly more textured than the current smoother versions. After the glass had hardened the wooden mould was burned away from around the vase.
The Restaurant Savoy acquired the rights to the Savoy vase, nowadays known as the Aalto Vase.
Behind the Restaurant Savoy’s interiors are Hugo Alvar Henrik Aalto and his wife Aino Aalto (nee Mandelin). Alvar Aalto was born in the Ostrobothnian town of Kuortane on 3 February 1898. His father was Johan Henrik Aalto, a Finnish-speaking land surveyor and his mother was Selly (Selma) Matilda Aalto (nee Hackstedt), a Swedish-speaking postmistress.
The Aalto family moved from Kuortane to Jyväskylä when Alvar was 5 years old. Alvar Aalto enrolled as a student in the Jyväskylä Lyceum in 1916. Immediately after graduation he began studying architecture at the Helsinki University of Technology, where he graduated as an architect in 1921.
In 1923 Alvar Aalto established an architects’ office in Jyväskylä. Aalto hired an assistant, Aino Mandelin (1894-1949), who also became his first wife. During the office’s first year the couple had a daughter. Among the Aalto office’s first works were the drawings for the Jyväskylä Workers’ Club.
Aalto’s family lived in Turku and Helsinki. In the late 1940s, Alvar Aalto also taught in the USA, where he was a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
Alvar Aalto’s best known works are the Turun Sanomat Building (1930), the Paimio Sanatorium (1933), the Vyborg Library (1935), Villa Mairea, Church of the Three Crosses at Vuoksenniska (1957), Enso-Gutzeit Headquarters (1962) and Finlandia Hall (1971).
The designer, architect and academician Alvar Aalto died in Helsinki on 11 May 1976.