About 30 kilometres north of Åbo (Turku in Finnish), on the southwest coast of Finland, lies an unusually grand manor estate tucked into the local landscape and well hidden between long avenues of old trees. Villnäs as it is called in Swedish (Louhisaari in Finnish), is one of the country’s finest and grandest manors and thanks to a particular Finnish national hero it is also one of the most well known.
Villnäs lies near a local bay with access to the Gulf of Finland, a strategic choice in the estate’s early history which dates back to the 15th century and probably meant that the main house was situated next to the water for most of its existence. The estate of Villnäs passed into its first (in the future famous) hands in the middle of the 15th century when Magnus Fleming married Elin Nilsdotter whose family possessed it.
Today’s corps-de-logi of Villnäs stands in a barren renaissance style, it was finished in 1655. The owner and builder was Baron Herman Claesson Fleming af Lieblitz (1619-1673), a man from a prominent family in royal service who was born in Finland and after a great career with many positions of state receded to Sweden’s eastern country-half (Finland) as its Governor-General after the death of King Karl X Gustav. Villnäs then remained in the Fleming family until 1791 when a heavily indebted descendant had to sell.
Villnäs’ corps-de-logi has two wings, one on either side of the cour d’honneur, and there is a sense of strict symmetry and simplicity in the style and layout. A few kilometres away from the manor lies the church, once under patronage of the estate owner, which was erected around the same time as the manor and is seen from the air connected to the main buildings via straight lines.
Above the wooden door to the corps-de-logi is the only break from the otherwise barren renaissance facade; a portal of sandstone where, although most of the text is unreadable, you can see the construction year of 1655 written. The corps-de-logi of three floors (plus a cellar underneath, dating back further than the construction year) is built of bricks and is after hundreds of years of function as a home that has been adapted to suit the inhabitants and times, much of its present condition is restored to the original 17th century state.
In 1795 Baron Carl Erik Mannerheim (1759–1837) bought Villnäs. The Mannerheim family originally came from the Netherlands or Germany to Sweden and Carl Erik became the first member of the family to permanently take up residence in Finland. He first used Villnäs as a permanent home and later as a summer home and Carl Erik held important positions when Finland became Russian and was later raised to comital stature by Emperor Alexander I of Russia.
In 1867 Baron Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim (1867–1951), The Marshal of Finland, was born at Villnäs. He spent his first years living at the estate and later spent many summers there. The Marshal is the reason why Villnäs is today so famous and attracts around 30.000 (or so I was told) visitors per year.
The Mannerheim family held on to Villnäs until 1903 and after that it passed through the hands of various (non-noble) hands until it was donated to the Finnish state in 1961. The donation came from the delegation that raised funds for the mounted Marshal Mannerheim statue that stands in Helsinki, they managed to raise so much money that there were enough left over to purchase Villnäs and give it to the state as a museum.
Between 1962 and 1967 the corps-de-logi and wings of Villnäs were transformed into a permanent museum. The first and third floors of the corps-de-logi were largely returned to their 17th century state. The first floor was previously used by servants and as storage, today it is used to exhibit simple time-typical items, for local archaeological finds and as a lecture space. There is no sign other than an open fireplace of the old kitchen. The third floor which originally held the ceremonial rooms has, because of its later old fashionedness and lesser importance, been well preserved and is now largely decorated with items borrowed from The National Museum of Finland.
The second floor, where the families of Villnäs used to live, displays the styles from the 18th to 19th centuries and is the only of the manor’s floors where one can feel some familiarity. This is also where there are some pieces left from the Mannerheim era and rooms have been re-created into what they were when some family members had their own bedrooms there and so on. The interior decorating styles vary with the times; from rococo to Gustavian and biedermeier. In the dining room one can admire the family’s dinner sets; one for everyday use and one for more special occasions. In the Count’s library the original book cases still remain and a quick glance at the original book collection shows very clearly that Finnish was not often spoken or read in the family. Portraits of members of the Mannerheim family give the rooms the most feel of originality and many of them were donated by the family to The National Museum of Finland some decades ago.
The interior of the two wings is very simple. In one of them there is a billiard’s room (moved from the main house) and a room that displays the various handicraft women devoted themselves to, in the other there are traces of an old kitchen and laundry room plus a museum office and shop.
Villnäs is surrounded by a large English landscape park. There are gravel paths surrounded by tree avenues in different directions and large trees placed here and there in the park and on the backside of the corps-de-logi. There is a beach pavilion or bathing house from 1825 and a playhouse used by the Mannerheim children. Earlier traces of a kitchen garden, walled gardens, apple orchards and other kept gardens are largely gone. In front of the manor there is a wonderful map of the estate for the blind, they can feel the layout and also read where everything is situated.
In the park of Villnäs there is a monument in memory of Marshal Mannerheim, leaving visitors with one of his concluded wisdoms for Finland and other countries:
– A small country’s greatest strength is its unanimity.
To see more of my photos from Villnäs, please visit my Flickr stream.