Thursday, January 14, 2016

The story of Milavida

A few week ago, I posted (here) about the Salvatore Ferragamo exhibition we saw at the Milavida mansion that has recently been completely renovated and turned into Museum Milavida, the latest attraction of Tampere in central Finland. The mansion was built in the late 19th century in grand Continental style for Peter von Nottbeck, the director of the local cotton mill Finlayson. As private residences of this calibre with architectural features such as Italian marble, Prussian ironwork, exquisite wood carving and plaster ornamentation, etc, were always extremely rare in our humble country I wanted to take you a bit further back to where the story begins to the times of the early European industrial cosmopolites and to Scotland and St Petersburg.

In the early 19th century, James Finlayson from Glasgow was working in St Petersburg starting a textile factory for the Emperor of Russia. He also visited the Grand Duchy of Finland that was an autonomous part of the Russian Empire, was inspired by the potential of the Tammerkoski rapids in Tampere, and sought for and was granted permission to build a factory there. In 1820, he founded Finlayson intending to manufacture spinning machines for textile industry. The business failed because there was no market for such products in an agrarian society and he soon changed over to using the machines himself starting a cotton mill.

That didn’t go very well either. In 1836 in his mid-sixties, Finlayson wanted to retire and return to Scotland selling the company to three cosmopolites residing in St Petersburg. One of them was the Baltic German Carl Samuel Nottbeck, Peter’s grandfather. Carl Samuel sent his son Wilhelm (later von Nottbeck as both Carl Samuel’s sons were raised to nobility in 1855) to Tampere where he worked for the company, had seven sons and finally took over as director of the mill.

Coat of arms of the von Nottbecks.
In the Nottbeck era, Finlayson started to flourish, growing from a factory of some 50 workers to a business of some 3000 employees, most of whom were women. Wilhelm, although too aristocratic to socialise with the locals, was known for his concern for the welfare of his workers and their families. A number of important social reforms – that were only much later regarded as the responsibility of society – were introduced under his management, such as founding, for example, a school, an infirmary, an orphanage, a fire brigade, a savings bank, a sickness fund, a pension fund, a library, a rest home, and even a church and police for the Finlayson community.

As owners of the largest industrial company in the country, the Nottbecks were influential nationwide but substantial in the development of Tampere. It is amazing that this small town only having a few thousand inhabitants in those days became the fifth location in Europe ever to see electric light, only after Paris, Strasbourg, Milan and London. Wilhelm’s oldest son Carl had been working for Edison in the late 1870s when the invention was made and managed to convince his farther to install electric light in the Finlayson weaving hall as early as in March 1882.

After Wilhelm’s death in 1890, his son Peter, the builder of the Milavida mansion, became the director. When the mansion was being built on a hilltop overlooking the Näsi lake Peter and Olga von Nottbeck already had two daughters and they were expecting twins. However, Olga died at childbirth in Baden-Baden in 1898. Peter brought her to the family graveyard at Lielahti outside Tampere. After settling some difficulties with the Milavida building project he travelled to his family in France. In the spring of 1899, he suddenly died in Paris from appendicitis. The newly completed mansion now belonged to the four orphaned infants who lived there under their uncle Carl’s guardianship with a household of servants until 1902 and later at the villa at Lielahti owned by Wilhelm Fredrik, another of their uncles.

In 1905, Milavida was sold to the town of Tampere to be turned into a regional museum. Since those times, the mansion has been known as Näsilinna (which translates ‘Castle of Näsi’ after the lake it is overlooking). During the civil war in 1918, the mansion served as a hospital. As it was situated on a strategic hilltop, fighting also occurred on the location causing the loss of many lives as well as great damage to the building. Some blood stains from those times are still visible on the marble stairway leading to the first floor (have a look at the second photo of this post). In 1920, the museum reopened but was permanently closed in 1998 leaving the outdated mansion for storage use only for many years.

In 2013, an extensive renovation finally started. The ground floor that was originally built for receiving and entertaining guests was restored to its 1890s grandeur now housing Café Milavida and Restaurant von Nottbeck. 

The first floor where the bedrooms were now constitutes Museum Milavida dedicated to showing changing design-related exhibitions, as well as unveiling the international lifestyle and family history of the von Nottbecks of Finlayson and their importance in shaping the history of the region. Even today, as the third largest town in Finland after Helsinki and its ‘suburb’ Espoo, Tampere with its 225,000 inhabitants remains the largest inland town in the Nordic countries much thanks to its early industrialisation.

As for the von Nottbecks, Wilhelm Fredrik died in Helsinki in 1928. The rest of the family had already moved abroad years ago. A few of the remaining family members returned to Finland for a period during World War II. Peter’s daughter Andrée, who was married to her cousin Walter and died in Geneva in 1990, was believed to have been the last survivor of the Tampere Nottbecks.

Walter and Andrée (later de Nottbeck) who didn’t have any children never forgot their Finnish roots. The foundation carrying their name that was started in 1970 to support environmental research still exists funding microbiological research in the Baltic Sea through an agreement with the University of Helsinki. In 2014, the total sum used amounted to more than half a million euros.

Curiously, when studying the Nottbeck family history for her book, Kyllikki Helenius uncovered Andrées’s burial urn on a shelf in a funeral parlour in Helsinki where it had been forgotten for years as there hadn’t been anyone to take her ashes to the family graveyard. However, descendants of Wilhelm Fredrik’s son Heinz (later Henry) were recently found in Canada under the name of de Nottbeck. They were aware of their family’s Tampere-related background but didn’t have any idea of its significance.

As for Finlayson, there have been ups and downs, mergers and acquisition, lay-offs and reductions. The number of employees has thinned down to some 100, a mere fraction of that of the greatest times. Nevertheless, Finlayson still continues as one of our best-known domestic brands in home textiles even though the products are for the most part being manufactured elsewhere in Europe. The historical red-brick factory area in downtown Tampere has also survived. The buildings have been restored, now containing different kinds of businesses as well as activities for pleasure, such as restaurants, museums and a cinema.

We visited Milavida in mid-November when the Christmas tree had already been taken to the vestibule but was not decorated yet. Even if we didn’t have any time for the exhibitions I am sure we will return to the café whenever we are in Tampere or are driving through. Entering the ground floor hall will immediately transport you to Central Europe, which is reason enough for a stop-over. But mind you, during the winter season the museum and café are only open from Friday to Sunday and throughout the year closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.

If you reached this point, congratulations! This is such a fascinating story some of it had to be brought to a wider audience. Believe me, there would have been much more.


  1. What an incredible place! Fascinating and beautiful! xx

    1. Of course this is nothing compared to the castles, palaces and mansions in your part of the world but pretty amazing by our standards. We never had an upper class with enormous wealth around here.

  2. A fabulous post, I feel as if I was actually there. So much to see and a fascinating history. I loved the wrought iron staircase. Barbara

    1. I am happy you enjoyed it. I just had to make it even though it took me a few nights. The iron railing is my favourite detail, too.

  3. A wonderful post which I found so interesting, what a shame the family had so many sorrowful moments. Thank goodness that this has been restored so the memory can live on. I too admired the lovely wrought iron staircase. Sarah x

    1. Thank you, Sarah. Isn't it wonderful that this extraordinary family history was rediscovered!