an American fish in & out of Estonian waters

Tallinn’s Rotermann Quarter


The. Next. Big. Thing. For the last dozen or so years, Rotermann has been marketed as The. Next. Big. Thing. Rotermann was supposed to become THE place to live, THE place to shop, THE place to hang out. Fortunately, there is some good news for the developers who are still trying to sell you those LAST FEW APARTMENTS. At long last, Rotermann is now A place to live, A place to shop, A place to hang out.

As A place to hang out, Rotermann finally hit its stride this summer – especially along Stalkeri käik (Stalker’s Walk) which is now crowded with cafes and bars. This narrow passageway – which resembles a limestone canyon – runs between several of the buildings that make up this pre-Soviet factory complex. The Walk received its new name to honor Andrei Tarkovsky’s surreal 1979 cinematic masterpiece Stalker because it served as one of the film’s Zona stand-ins. While Rotermann has always boasted a fantastic downtown location strategically positioned between the Old Town, the ferry harbor, and Viru Square, the neighborhood is proof that location alone – even when it comes with its own underground parking lot – is sometimes not enough. You still need a reason to go there.

Other than visiting Tallinn’s 1980 vintage Central Post Office Building – designed perhaps to keep foreign guests staying at the new Viru Hotel from looking out at the eye-sore that once was Rotermann, my first ventures into this neighborhood’s dark heart took place in 1992. Perhaps attracted by low rents, Rotermann became the home of Tallinn’s first Chinese restaurant. The name of this unremarkable place has long since vanished from my memory – as has the Soviet-era building which housed it. What I do remember is that the restaurant started out with great promise as it featured Tallinn’s first real Chinese cooks. Sadly, at some point, the Chinese staff lost their visas and an Estonian crew took over with questionable results. One winter evening meal, I remember that every meat dish was served with cucumbers – and only cucumbers – as that was the only green vegetable that the Estonian cooks had bought at the market that day. Needless to say, the restaurant went out of business soon afterwards.

Fortunately, these days there are far more places to choose from – especially along Stalker’s Walk – giving you that all important reason to visit Rotermann and hang out there. Top of everyone’s list should be the wonderful café and bakery named Røst which makes the best baked goods in town. Beyond Scandi-inspired Røst, Rotermann is home to so many new and different eateries these days that they can even host their own cross between a food festival and restaurant week. As for me, my dining choices tend to range from the kosher café named Ruby (closed Saturdays) to Kaks Kokka (Two Cooks) along the factory’s outer edge. Some other places along the Walk like Flamm – serving up Alsatian flammkuchen or tomato-less pizzas – are also worth visiting if only to get a look at their amazing interiors. And if you want to grab a beer, the Scottish BrewDog has opened up a new place along the Walk as has TapTap, a Danish-inspired craft beer shop and bar which also sells hot dogs. In other words, there are plenty of reasons to go grab something to eat or drink in Rotermann these days.

As far as being A place to shop, Rotermann has gone through various ups and downs over the past decade. There are some shopping options that I miss and others that I don’t. I miss the failed farmer’s market which gathered in the main square one summer. Personally, I think that they were just too far ahead of the curve and so keep wondering if it might make sense to bring them back next summer – perhaps with some street food stalls added into the mix. After all, the neighborhood now has the extra foot traffic that would make such market work – especially with everyone headed to and from the Helsinki and Stockholm ferries – people who no longer walk around Rotermann but through it. As for what I don’t miss, I would include Rotermann’s original indoor shopping mall which soon went belly up and whose traces have almost entirely disappeared. Tallinn – especially downtown Tallinn – has far too many malls as it is. Even the former 1980 Central Post Office building has now been re-purposed as a mall. These days, Rotermann’s current mix of higher-end chain stores seem to be a good match for this pedestrianized zone. While most of these stores are devoted to clothes and other things which don’t really excite me, there are a few shops that I visit from time to time, including the Saaremaa Butchers when I need some good meat. And I’m always happy to walk through the Tallinn Design House to see what might be new in the world of Estonian design.

As far as being A place to live, Rotermann has also had its struggles. While more and more apartments do keep getting built and sold, Rotermann felt like a ghost town for the longest time. Walking around the neighborhood at night after going to see a movie at Coca-Cola Plaza (opened on Rotermann’s outer edge in 2001), I always had problems spotting an apartment with its lights on. In fact, it seemed as if most of the apartments were purchased as investments – London-style – and then just allowed to sit vacant. Only this year, does it feel that the neighborhood has finally come alive at night – and not only with those Tallinn teenagers who used to hang out in its shadows drinking and performing other youthful transgressions. One of the solutions to Rotermann’s people problem seems to have come from the new Airbnb economy. While some European capitals are accusing the sharing economy of ruining their inner cities, these social media platforms seem to have given Rotermann a new life. In fact, focusing on short-term rather than long-term residents has become the answer to Rotermann’s residency problem. In addition to the Airbnb-type flats, various companies now offer furnished apartments for rent and there is even a new hostel to bring in the young and the hip. When you add up all of these overnight options to an expanded Hotel Metropol (now with its own spa) at one corner of the neighborhood and an event-driven Nordic Hotel Forum at the other, the end result is that Rotermann finally feels lived in when you walk through it at night. And so, Rotermann’s ideal central city location is finally paying off – even if not in the way that was originally planned.

While I wouldn’t want to live in tree-less Rotermann myself, I’m very happy to pay the place frequent short-term visits.  Besides my regular pilgrimages to Røst, I also like to marvel at the strange architectural mash-up and mixture of old and new that is Rotermann. To understand how an attractive black stone-egg fountain ended up next to several patches of super-tacky AstroTurf which you can look at while sitting on an uncomfortable white plastic traffic barrier doubling as a bench, you need to do a bit of digging into Rotermann’s varied architectural history. A good place to start is at the Estonian Museum of Architecture, housed in a beautiful limestone building designed by Ernst Boustadt in 1908. After all, the old salt warehouse was once an integral part of the Rotermann factory complex until it was orphaned by the expansion of Ahtri (Stern/Back Street).

The Rotermann story begins back in 1829 when an entrepreneur from the small town of Paide named Christian Abraham Rotermann opened his first store on Viru Square specializing in construction materials. Twenty years later, the store would grow to become a major multi-faceted department store. Although he was headquartered on Viru Square, the first Tallinn Rotermann also opened other small businesses around town. Rotermann’s son – Christian Bartholdt – was the one decided to consolidate everything downtown and so, this was how the Rotermann business empire began to accrete like coral around this central reef. This new industrial neighborhood – located right in the very heart of Tallinn – soon became known as Rotermanni Kvartal (Rotermann’s Quarter).

Before the start of World War I, Rotermann contained a state-of-the-art bakery, a grain elevator, a flour mill, a salt warehouse, and various other workshops. You can see what is left of the factory gate on Mere puiestee (Sea Avenue). And to the right at no. 4, you’ll see a beautiful Art Nouveau building – the only one made of red brick on the factory’s grounds – which served as the Rotermann family residence. From there, they would keep a careful eye on everything and everyone that went in and out of their factory gates. Management back then was very much “hands on.”

By the time of Estonia’s 1918 Independence, a third generation Rotermann was already in charge – Christian Ernst August who lead the factory through both a potential bust (a major 1930 fire) and many booms (including the addition of a saw mill to make furniture, an alcohol distillery, a linen mill, a glass and porcelain works, as well as an automobile dealership among other things). World War II – followed by its 50-year Soviet occupation – brought Roterman to a screeching halt as everything was nationalized and so came under state control. Under Soviet rule, the entire factory complex began to fall into disrepair as very little new investment was made. The few Soviet buildings that were built have since fallen down or been torn down. In fact, the Soviet authorities even floated an aborted plan to tear down much of the factory complex to build a pedestrian promenade from the Viru Hotel to the sea. Rotermann’s neglect continued for the first ten years of Estonia’s new independence until the district was declared a national heritage site in 2001 for its unique pre-war industrial architecture.

And it is this very architecture which makes Rotermann truly worth the visit. If you compare the look and feel of pre-Soviet Rotermann to the mostly post-Soviet Telliskivi, you will soon see that these older buildings really are much more interesting and that even factories can be beautiful – especially if the right designers bring them back to life. While Telliskivi never really escapes its post-Soviet industrial shackles (its only interesting buildings are the pre-Soviet ones such as the limestone F-Hoone), Rotermann has transcended its Baltic-German industrial roots to become something quite new and different. Rotermann also benefits from the fact that its buildings are more closely packed together which creates a much more urban-feeling space while Telliskivi’s Soviet buildings are separated by wide-open (and largely empty) spaces,. Yes, both factory complexes have their own post-industrial appeal – Telliskivi serving as a magnet for twenty-somethings while Rotermann’s more upscale approach seems to attract the thirty-something crowd – or those who have made it and have larger disposable incomes.

Over the years, Rotermann has fused money with design to become a kind of national laboratory where at least seven major Estonian architectural firms have experimented with how to bring old limestone buildings back to life. Some of these modern add-ons or fantastic constructions work (such as Koko’s three metal and glass boxes built atop Rotermann’s old saw mill) while others just don’t.  Truth be told, the use of so many different architectural firms has been a kind of double-edged design sword as the neighborhood doesn’t have a single feel. You can see all these clashing styles and contrasts by you just walking around. Some design choices will leave you scratching your head while others will make you say “wow” – such as Koko’s refurbished grain elevator which won the National Heritage Board’s annual award for being Estonia’s best renovated building. Taken as whole, however, Rotermann still proves that there are ways in which old and new can successfully coexist – or even become greater than the sum of their two parts. I also love the fact that most of the buildings now have new signs with their old names so that you can trace their architectural roots and original functions such as Elevatori hoone (Grain Elevator), Jahuveski (Flour Mill), Uus jahuladu (New Flour Storage), and Jõujaam (Power Station) to name just a few of them.

These days, the neighborhood’s main developer appears intent on re-branding the old Rotermann Quarter as the new Rotermann City. Or, you could just keep calling it Rotermann for short as almost everyone else seems to do.  Whatever you do, you may want to keep coming back to Rotermann to see how the neighborhood continues to evolve as additional investment brings new designs. The old bread factory is currently being resurrected by Koko and is sure to become state-of-the-art once again. And then there are those half dozen dilapidated limestone factory buildings – plus a couple outdoor parking lots – that are still waiting for their makeovers and whatever their transition to a new life will bring. While Rotermann has been dreaming of its future for the past decade, maybe at long last, that future is finally here.


Image: A modern Finnish salt cellar (designer unknown).

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