Manor houses as the embodiment of the Baltic German culture

The Baltic nobility managed to erect over 2000 manor houses in Estonia; the first grand manor complexes appeared as early as the 17th century. The heart of a typical manor house in Estonia is as follows: an alley of trees leading to a lawn circled by a road, the mansion situated straight across the lawn, a barn and stables lining the square symmetrically and other auxiliary buildings a bit further off (distillery, ice house, servants’ quarters, etc.). The landlords wished to create a contemporary environment, taking as their model the western and northern European art centres, their trends and tastes. According to changing fashions and opportunities, the manor houses were repeatedly rebuilt; the number of auxiliary buildings grew along with increasing prosperity; wooden buildings were replaced by those of stone; parks added to the idyllic setting. It is precisely the synthesis of earlier and new styles that provides the manor house architecture in Estonia with such a striking peculiarity. Starting in the late 18th century, baroque manor houses acquired grand classicist porticos; in the mid-19th century, the nobility, fascinated by English romanticism, introduced new styles in Estonia: there are examples of stylised Hanseatic Gothic, Tudor style and buildings inspired by Italian palazzos.

For centuries, the manor house and peasant cultures existed in close proximity; the emotions of peasants towards the mansion were clearly contradictory. The mansion was the oppressor and the master, but to have a job there for a year or two was at the same time quite tempting. The mansion could be a place for corporal punishment and humiliation, yet it was also an inspiration for peasants to set up and design their own gardens, flowerbeds or orchards; most carpenters learned their trade at the manors.

The Baltic German manorial culture has been compared to Atlantis: its splendour vanished in the turmoil of the early 20th century revolutions, wars and reforms; most landlords left for Germany. Many mansions were abandoned and fell into decay; the parks became overgrown, and the alleys were chopped up for firewood. When restoration work in Palmse, one of the most beautiful manor complexes started in the 1970s, it was regarded as a peculiar interest of a group of enthusiasts. A breakthrough in the attitude towards manor house architecture occurred a few dozen years ago — it was the postmodernist perception of history that acknowledged Baltic German art and culture as part of Estonian history. Manor house complexes were taken under state protection, and today there is nobody who would not consider manor house architecture as part of our national treasure.

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