Baltic Hotels Revive Baronial Roots
By BENJAMIN SMITH
Special to the Wall Street Journal Europe, October 26, 2001
RIGA, Latvia — Luxury hotels once again have a place in the increasingly prosperous Baltic States, and they are taking their style from a group of nobles known for living well — the German barons who ruled the area for seven centuries before losing their power with World War I.
The “Tsar’s loyal Germans,” as they have been called, held onto their cultural traditions even as they served St. Petersburg. With the fall of the Russian empire, however, they were all but forgotten. They pop up from time to time in Tolstoy novels, but these days the best known of them is probably Baron von Muenchhausen.
“What we try to do is capture the essence of where we are,” says Paul Oberschneider, a U.S.-born real estate developer who built German-revival hotels in Tallinn and Riga. In the Baltics, he says, “as far as there is a tradition of a high level of luxury, it is associated with” the Baltic Germans.
Mr. Oberschneider should know: His own father was born on the family estate in present-day Estonia, and made his way to the American Midwest only after World War II. With the Baltics under Soviet rule, he told his children “Do not ever go back there,” his son recalls. But after the fall of Communism, the younger Mr. Oberschneider made his way to Tallinn, the Estonian capital, which the Germans called Reval. In 1998, he opened a hotel there with a medieval German flavor, called the Schlossle. More recently, he’s devoted his attention to Riga’s Grand Palace Hotel.
The ground floor bar in his Grand Palace Hotel bears out its roots: It’s a lush, comfortable place, a warm retreat from the long Baltic winters. The bar is outfitted with heavy armchairs and thick wooden tables. Baroque sculptures decorate the mantle. Dim light comes from elaborate fixtures made of deer antlers.
The rest of the hotel focuses on the Baltic Germans’ eclectic taste, a kitschy blend of styles and periods. One restaurant occupies an Italianate courtyard, while the walls are adorned with a mix from old Riga maps to Matisse reproductions. “They’d go on grand tours and buy these things and bring them back for their own city palaces,” Mr. Oberschneider says.
The Grand Palace is Riga’s purest taste of the comfortable Baltic German lifestyle. Virtually all of the city’s German population left in the late 1930s when Hitler called the Baltic Germans “home” to the Reich. But Riga’s architecture, from the bulky medieval Dome Cathedral to the fantastical Jugendstil facades of many turn-of-the-century buildings mark it as a German city. The city center boasts a lavishly rebuilt medieval guildhall, the Blackheads’ House. A German merchant’s house is converted to a museum of Baltic German life, called Metzendorff’s House.
In the Baltic cities, Germanic style blends in smoothly. In the flat countryside, however, Baltic German estates have always stood in abrupt contrast with the humble dwellings of local peasants and farmers. Several thousand such estates still dot the region, although the Soviets converted them into everything from schools to tractor-repair stations.
Slowly, however, a few of these country palaces are regaining their lost life. Newly wealthy Balts are converting them to country houses. The state has saved a few as museums. And a handful are attempting a revival as luxury guesthouses.
The most successful of these is Estonia’s Pädaste Manor, on the tiny Baltic island of Muhu. Half an hour by ferry from the mainland, the island is part of a gnarly, windswept archipelago better known for thatch-roofed cottages and simple, whitewashed Lutheran churches than for any attempt at luxury.
The manor, which occupies the southeastern corner of the 200-square-kilometer island, could never have blended into the scenery. A set of five low-lying stone buildings and one grand, white Tudor-style mansion, it was occupied by the Von Buxhoeveden family starting in the 16th century. After Estonian Communists murdered the house’s last inhabitants during the chaos of World War I, it served as a social hall and, in Soviet times, as a retirement home before being abandoned in 1984.
The manor was reclaimed in 1996 by a young islander who had grown up playing on its dilapidated grounds before leaving to make his fortune in Canada. Imre Sooäär and a partner spent half a decade lovingly restoring the spot, which has quietly become a favorite haunt of diplomats posted to nearby Tallinn and the new young Estonian political and economic elite.
The restoration of the hotel began with the side buildings, which are built in roughhewn red and black stones. The windows are framed with white dolomite. Rooms are heated by clay stoves, and the interiors are furnished with rich red carpets and heavy wood armoires. A former smithy is now a restaurant, and the old dairy is now a sauna. The owners’ own favorite spot is the deck attached to the sauna, a perfect place to relax on warm, bright summer nights.
The hotel takes pains to connect itself to the tradition of the place. German maps of the island, known in German as “Moon,” underline the history of the spot. Mr. Sooäär, like Mr. Oberschneider, has picked up the Baltic German taste for farflung shopping trips, bringing in wood furniture from as far away as Indonesia.
Pädaste has become a quiet phenomenon. By this April, the small resort’s nine rooms were booked for practically every weekend in the short, sweet Baltic summer. Pädaste doesn’t advertise — its reputation has spread by word of mouth, and through the lavish parties it hosts on the traditional Estonian midsummer festival. Standing on the balcony of the manor house, looking out across his estate toward the sea, Mr. Sooäär acknowledges his debt to Baltic German taste, in the choice setting the original owners picked for Pädaste. “They owned the whole island — they could have put it anywhere,” he says. “Even then they knew this place was special.”
Copyright © 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.