A meeting place for people, trade, exchanging ideas and facilitating life.

Sofia Helsinki operates right in the heart of Helsinki

The Market Square used to be the most central place to buy while the Senate Square was the place to meet friends and hear the news. These elements are present in what Sofia does.

The buildings of the merchants’ blocks at the Senate Square are among the oldest masonry houses in Helsinki. The oldest buildings in the Rhinoceros block, the Kiseleff house and the Sunn house on the Senate Square side were built already during the 18th century, Merchant Johan Sederholm started the construction of the oldest part of the Kiseleff house, the current northern wing, already in 1771. These were the times when the first newspaper in Finnish language was began and Gustaf III was chosen as the king of Sweden. This year, 2021, has marked the 250th anniversary of the building.

An airy and modern department store

Sofia Helsinki is located in the block between the Market Square and the Senate Square, right in the heart of old Helsinki. The Market Square used to be the most central place to buy while the Senate Square was the place to meet friends and hear the news. These elements are present in what Sofia does.

The buildings of the merchants’ blocks at the Senate Square are among the oldest masonry houses in Helsinki. The oldest buildings in the Rhinceros block, the Kiseleff house and the Sunn house on the Senate Square side were built already during the 18th century, Merchant Johan Sederholm started the construction of the oldest part of the Kiseleff house, the current northern wing, already in 1771. These were the times when the first newspaper in Finnish language was began and Gustaf III was chosen as the king of Sweden. This year, 2021, has marked the 250th anniversary of the building.

Initially, the Kiseleff house was both a residential and business building. In 1806 the house was converted to a sugar refinery, when the factory owner, merchant Bernard Manecke tried his hand at a new industry in Finland. In 1812 merchant Feodor Kiseleff bought the house along with the sugar refinery rights from Manecke’s widow. The new owner continued making sugar in the house, i.e. refining raw sugar imported from South America. This was done by mixing water, lime and blood to the raw sugar.

The sugar factory was allowed to run for a few years under Kiseleff’s ownership, until the officials decided the factory should be moved to a more distant location for reasons of fire safety. Another version about the reason for eviction included the unpleasant odour wafting around the square due to storage of blood. Neighbours’ complaints about the smell did not give cause for action, but when the Senate palace was built along the square and the government started to work nearby, things got moving. In 1819 the sugar factory had to leave.

A new building was built for the factory in the Töölö district, far away from the centre. In the Helsinki of the 19th century sugar production was an important source of income for the working population, because in 1862 the largest factories in Helsinki were sugar and tobacco factories and a brewery. Many other products were of course manufactured in Helsinki by its 20,000 inhabitants, but the production units were smaller.

After the relocation of the sugar factory, Kiseleff ordered a renovation plan for his house from Carl Ludvig Engel. Starting in 1822, the work to restore the house for residential and business use was begun. Two new three-storey wings were built. The Kiseleff family moved to the second floor apartment, while shops filled the first floor. The premises on the Unioninkatu side were used as accommodation to spa guests. When Feodor Kiseleff died in 1847, the ownership of the house was transferred to his estate.

In 1879 merchant G.F. Stockmann bought the Kiseleff house. He moved to live in the second floor with his family and gave the rest of the spaces to his department store, a rapidly growing company with 17 years operation at the time. Stockmann brought and imported all kinds of necessities for the city’s inhabitants both from the country and abroad, both clothes, construction equipment or the newest convenient inventions. The department store had previously operated at the Lampa house on Pohjoisesplanadi, but the Senate Square was a better place for business.

When the new department store was opened in November 1880, the press was enthralled by the big showroom windows and the bright indoor spaces. A special point of interest was the telephone connection from the shop at the first floor to the office and storage on the third floor, because actual telephone communication was not begun in Helsinki until a couple of years later. The most highly conspicuous products at Stockmann’s new shop were iron products, glass, porcelain, woven fabrics, thread and cloths.

During the last decades of the 19th century the amount of inhabitants in Helsinki more than doubled. With Stockmann and other businesses located alongside the Senate Square, the Senate Square blocks became the hub of business in Helsinki. As the amount of visitors increased in the early 20th century, more space was needed. Architect Lars Sonck was hired to plan an interior refit. An eastern yard wing was constructed for the Kiseleff house and a two-storey shop hall was built on the inside yard. This new construction expanded Stockmann from the Kiseleff house to Sofiankatu, and the current premises of Sofia were born.

The new building was completed in 1912. It was the year when the Titanic sank, Hannes Kolehmainen won three Olympic gold medals in Stockholm, the church at Kallio was consecrated and the first issue of Pravda was printed. Stockmann was still a successful and progressive company, for example producing the electricity needed by the department store themselves with a diesel-driven electric station at the cellar of the building.

The main shop premises of the department store were at the Kiseleff house. The new building at Sofiankatu was the host for building supplies, tools, gardening implements, boat supplies and paints. There was also salesroom for motorbikes and engines as well as for automobiles that were taken into Stockmann’s sales range in 1912, the year the house was completed. The customers were transported from one floor to another with a lift, a very modern appliance. Interior decor was birch, stained white, with brass lamps providing lighting.

The growing department store enlarged the house as well as built new floors from 1919 to 1921. The yard space was covered with a glass roof at this time. However, Stockmann was planning an own, large and modern department store. The City of Helsinki also expressed numerous times its willingness to buy the buildings of the department store. Stockmann decided to sell the buildings to the city, and as a result the department store moved from the Senate Square to its current building in December 1930.

The police enter the building

When Stockmann left, the main police station of Helsinki moved to Sofiankatu. The building served as centre for replying to incoming emergency calls, and police squads were sent from there to settle things. The tasks of the central police department included traffic control, operation as emergency squad and maintaining motorcycle and firearm registers.

The car registration centre serving the increasing number of cars in the city started to operate in the house in 1931. The radio police, established in 1938, also operated from the building. A police studio was built at Sofiankatu, issuing orders via radio to police cars with radios and receiving their reports. The pillar hall of the house was used both for training and stern feedback, should one of the policemen have made mistakes during his shift.

At the Unioninkatu side the block housed, after Stockmann, offices such as the city registrar, board of kindergartens, inheritance tax board and state tax board. Ordinary inhabitants of Helsinki now had different kind of errands to run at the house: tax forms to fetch and return, those wanting to work as kindergarten teachers were interviewed and child custody issues were handled. The Myyntiaitta (Shop Shed) owned by the city offered for sale various items made in approved schools, women’s workshops, workshops of hospitals and poor persons’ welfare, such as clothes, carpenters’ items, toys and carpets.

Child protection issues were also handled in the block. The child protection board was always on the look for families living in the country that could host children from Helsinki for the summer. Some encounters were less pleasant. One custody case escalated in September 1937 badly. A young construction engineer disagreed with the alimony he was required to pay that he arrived at the child custody board, shot at an employee and finally killed himself after a chase at a corridor at the third floor.

After the war, rental housing boards moved into the block to replace the tax officials. They had lots of work to do, because nearly 5,000 families were waiting for a rental apartment in the city. Searching for homes, the board worked 12-hour days, so the lights were on at the block until late in the evening. The block was also used for exhibiting the election lists as well as receiving tax declarations and notifications of moving. Youth workers and craft instructors were trained to provide the young acceptable things to do in the uncertain post-war times.

Athletics and brass instruments

The crime detectives moved to the central police station at Sofiankatu in 1946. After this, murders and frauds were investigated in the premises, but the police operations on the house included other things as well. Helsinkians visited for motor vehicle registrations and various permissions. The winners of police lotteries sometimes had the opportunity for a more happy visit at the house.

In addition to the usual policing, the house also hosted sports. The gym at the attic provided space for wrestling and boxing, the pillar hall served as a venue for gymnastics training. Many a police visited the attic of Sofiankatu when preparing for larger wrestling venues. Police sergeant Kustaa Pihlajamäki won two Olympic gold medals and two European championships in wrestling. Mastery of wrestling holds was very useful for him when handling drunks.

In 1954 the attic was also the first place in Finland to host a judo hall. The athletics room was also used by the Helsinki Police Symphonic Band for their rehearsals. Initially, the band consisted of three musicians, but slowly the number increased. Their debut was in 1947 in the lecture hall of Sofiankatu. Next year, the singer Georg Malmsten started as the conductor of the band, with the result of increasing the fame of the band.

Each year, Malmsten led his group to the opening of the Aleksanterinkatu Christmas decoration. The police band was very conspicuous in the city in other occasions as well, because after rehearsing at Sofiankatu the band would perform at hospitals, athletic competitions and parks. When Malmsten retired from the band in August 1965, he conducted the songs Sinitakkien marssi (Policemen’s march) and Meidän poikamme (Our boys) for the last time at Sofiankatu.

Helsinki grew at a fast pace, so more officials and policemen were recruited. The house at Sofiankatu and other premises at the block began to be outdated for the requirements of the city. In the late 1960’s even demolishing the house was considered. Policemen were featured in newspapers, discontent with their cramped premises. They were once photographed with the melting snow leaking inside through the roof, wetting the papers and blowing fuses.

The 350 policemen of the central department were working there with no adequate changing rooms, showers or other conveniences. The police force, working around the clock, had no spaces to rest. The high command of the police forces, located on the fifth floor, were vocally in favour of constructing a new house for the police. The construction was planned for decades, but the project progressed only slowly.

During the 1970’s the police moved their operations away from Sofiankatu. Inhabitants of the city visited the house for the Beware of the burglar exhibition, with locks, door chains and other ways to avoid burglary being exhibited. The amount of burglaries was so high that the exhibition was kept going for years. It took long to plan and design a new police station at Pasila district, but it was finally completed in 1982. After five decades the police moved away from Sofiankatu and the premises were available for new purposes.

Back to commercial use

In 1978 the city had formed a workgroup, tasked with finding ways to make the city centre more lively. In 1981 the architect Ann-Marie Leppo wrote in newspaper Helsingin Sanomat how the area between the Market Square and the Senate Square used to be full of apartments, shops and life, but during the decades the area had been saturated by offices. When the offices were closed in the evenings and weekends, the block was deserted. The police had converted the old Stockmann shop hall premises to meet their own requirements, erecting chipboard cubicles. They would have to go and the hall would be returned to its former glory. The hall was seen as a good candidate for a shopping bazaar, with small shops next to each other.

Shops and services would bring the crowds to the area. When the plans were published, enthusiasm was running high: as many as 400 entrepreneurs were requesting more information about the opportunity to operate in the new premises. A total of 167 entrepreneurs officially filed their applications. Newspapers how new life is brought to the centre of Helsinki. The block would regain its status as a meeting place for Helsinkians, similar to the first decades of the 20th century.

The shopping mall was completed in November 1984, and it was launched under the name “Senaatti-Center”. TV celebrity Markku Veijalainen was the host of the opening ceremonies, and the Police Symphonic Band, performing in their previous house, played the opening fanfares for the shopping centre. The house was filled to the maximum by interested Helsinkians. A total of 25 shops started their shops in the two-storey, light green bazaar space, with 18 shops having access directly from the street. The shops offered a range of products, from furs and jewellery to rattan furniture, children’s clothes to romantic bedroom decor and nearly everything else that the inhabitants of 1980’s Helsinki and tourists wanted to have.

The Helsinki city planning board moved to the building, on the Sofiankatu side, and started to call the pillar hall with its glass roof the Sonck hall. There, Helsinkians could in the 1980’s get to know the opportunities of urban planning and construction, such as plans of living streets and improvements to suburbs. The oldest athletics club of Finland, Helsingin Atleettiklubi, was given a new place to train: the old police gym at the attic of the house. On the street level of Sofiankatu, the staff canteen of the police station was replaced by gourmet restaurant Amadeus, specializing on game dishes. Movie theatre Amanda began its shows in the cellar below the restaurant. The old storage room hosted high-quality modern movies and classics of entertainment.

The combination of Finnish and English in the name “Senaatti-Center” gave impetus to discussion already at the opening. Mayor Raimo Ilaskivi told in his opening speech that the contraption of a name gave him the creeps. At the end of the 1980’s the name was altered to Senaatin Tori (Market of the Senate). By then, the number of shops had already been halved from the original. The shopping paradise turned out to be less than paradise to some merchants, as the new Forum shopping mall on the other side of the city centre proved to be irresistible to a number of customers. The times became even worse when recession hit Finland in the beginning of the 1990’s.

From the stories of the past to the present

Helsinki City Planning Department was located at Sofiankatu until 1993. During Christmas 1994 Helsinki City Museum moved into the house, with the Sonck hall as the exhibition hall. Sofiankatu became one of the best known locations of Helsinki City Museum. The house was annually visited by nearly 50,000 guests. The door hinges of the old building did not have the time rust: now guests were museum visitors.

The movie theatre in the cellar operated under the name Kino Engel, featuring old films to fit the context of museum. In 2001 restaurant Amadeus was rebranded as the Spanish-style Nuevo. These were the operators in the house until 2015, when the museum moved to the nearby Sederholm house and a thorough overhaul was begun.

Today, the building of Sofiankatu is over a hundred years old while the other houses of the block are even older. The location is still in the heart of the city. The adjacent Senate Square has hosted a number of large public events from concerts to the Tour of the Choirs, with the large restaurant terrace of 2020 being the latest event. Foreign tourists visit the square to see the stairs of the Helsinki Cathedral that they have seen in the Sandstorm music video by Darude.

In 1912 Stockmann designed the building at Sofiankatu 4 to be a space for creating progress, doing business and looking into the future. Sofia Helsinki is about bringing back the old purpose. The building is a place to work, a venue for meetings and events as well as a restaurant and café. New meetings create new memories, every day.

Compiled and edited by: Mikko Mattlar

Digitized issues of Helsingin Sanomat and Ilta-Sanomat in the Päivälehti archives
Birger Damstén: Stockmann sadan vuoden aikana 1862–1962.
Markku Heikkinen: Helsinki, Kiseleff-Sunn. Historiallisella kaupunkialueella (1640–) sijaitsevien rakennusten peruskunnostuksen arkeologinen valvonta.
Markku Kuisma, Anna Finnilä, Teemu Keskisarja, Minna Sarantola-Weiss: Hulluja päiviä, huikeita vuosia. Stockmann 1862–2012.
Kimmo Keskinen and Oula Silvennoinen: Helsingin poliisilaitoksen historia 1826–2001.
Georg Malmstén, Ea Rahikainen (editor): Duurissa ja mollissa.
Sinikka Vainio (editor): Kaupungin Leijona-sydän.


Sofia’s first steps were taken in 1771. At the moment we are getting ready for the 250th anniversary, with a program that will emphasize the history of our house and area and provide new points of view for the people. Stay tuned.