A Short History
Långholmen, or “Long Island,” is just to the north of Södermalm in Riddarfjärden, the bay leading to Stockholm from the extensive inland Lake Mälaren. For centuries, it was the last uninhabited stop on the way into the city, and was thus used as a strategic layover point for several important battles in the 1400’s and 1500’s.
In modern history, the undertakings on Långholmen have always had a civic focus. With time, Långholmen’s strategic location was no longer used by armies and navies but was instead utilized as a toll station where all of the boats on their way into Stockholm from the countryside were stopped and charged tolls for their cargoes (see Stockholm’s Tollhouses, #12 Långholmen Sjötull).
|The old and "new" tollhouses from the 16- and 1700's .|
After the island was donated from the crown to the city of Stockholm in 1647, the central part of the island was leased as a Malmgård (suburban farm) to Jochum Ahlstedt. The eastern end of the island was leased (without cost) for the foundation of Mälarvarvet, a ship-building yard. The shipyard was founded in 1685 and is still in use as a shipyard today! Eventually, the city bought back Jochum Ahlstedt’s farm and converted it into a prison. The prison was expanded several times during its 250 year history, but already in the 1870’s, the city slowly began converting the island to a public park. After the prison closed in 1975, the island’s future was uncertain—would it be developed or would it be preserved as a park?
Today, Långholmen is mostly a park, although it is sprinkled with private buildings including several residences, artists’ workshops, a hotel, a couple of restaurants, and a school. The giant Västerbron (West Bridge) divides the island into two, further disintegrating the island’s park-like atmosphere. While parts of the island are beautiful and nearly wild, I get a sense that there is an uneasy balance between public and private functions on the island. While I am not aware of any further discussion about what to do with the island, I would not be surprised if a debate sprang up in the near future.
Alstavik is much like any of Stockholm’s other Malmgårds from the 1600’s (see Malmgårdar). Its owner, Jochum Ahlstedt, was a successful brewer who rented the land from the city starting in 1657. Over twenty years, he built a farm from scratch, including a palace-like main house which was finished in 1670, a mill, a brew house, a horse barn, a livestock barn, and a smithy. Supporting the buildings were a farm, a kitchen garden, a fish farm, and a cherry orchard.
We do not know who the architect was for the main house, but it was large and stately enough to attract a lot of attention. It was even included in Gripenhielm’s Mälarkarta, a map of Lake Mälaren with accompanying illustrations of important landmarks that Gripenhielm created for the king. In keeping with the stately nature of the house, a linden allé led from the bridge toward Södermalm to the house.
|Alstavik as shown on Gripenhielm’s Mälarkarta, 1688.|
After Jochum’s death, Alstavik Malmgård was passed down through the family until the city bought the entire complex and converted it into a prison in 1724.
|Alstavik's facade from a 1681 drawing. Today, the house is hard to distinguish from the surrounding prison buildings which were added over time.|
Mälarvarvet—Mälar Shipyard (map 1)
|Fördärvet (The Ruin--named after the pub, 1762): workers’ housing, then pub, now apartments|
|Gula Raden (The Yellow Row, which is now red, 1834): workers’ housing, now apartments|
|Stenhuset (The Stone House, 1856): workers’ housing, now apartments|
|Nybygget (The New Building, 1876): – workers’ apartments, now apartments|
Today, Mälarvarvet is Stockholm’s oldest shipyard and it maintains, repairs, and rebuilds ships. While not technically part of the shipyard, the narrow canal between Långholmen and Södermalm is lined by historic wooden motorboats and sailboats during the summer, reminding visitors of Långholmen’s long nautical history.
Spinhuset—The Spin House (map 2)
The prison was established in 1724 when the city bought Alstavik Malmgård. During the famine years in the 1680’s and 1690’s, thousands of starving peasants migrated to Stockholm in hopes of finding work and a better life. Sadly, a better life was not to be found for most of them, and the numbers of beggars on Stockholm’s streets only increased.
At the time, begging was a crime, as was being a vagrant, or a woman without the protection of a husband or organized work. By these standards, Stockholm’s streets were lined with “criminals,” and something needed to be done about the worsening situation. Finally, in 1724, the city found the money to found a Spin House where vagrant women could spin wool into yarn and weave garments, partly covering their own costs while serving their sentences.
One hundred and twenty vagrant women were imprisoned in the Spin House, but the capacity wasn’t nearly big enough to meet the demand. Already in 1728, City Architect J. E. Carlberg designed a prison expansion around the original Alstavik house, but it wasn’t built until 1746.
|Carlberg's drawing for the prison expansion.|
|Carlberg's Spinnhus has been modified and expanded over the centuries.|
|Some of the auxiliary buildings from the 1700's.|
By the 1780’s, it wasn’t just vagrant women who were imprisoned at the Spin House: the commonest crime was theft, which could be punished with a lifetime sentence. The next commonest prisoners were “child murderers” who helped other women commit abortion, as well as the women who committed abortion or who smothered or abandoned their infants after birth. These crimes often earned a lifetime sentence at the Spin House. It was also a crime to run away from grueling factory work, and in 1780, 21 of the Spin House prisoners had been caught after lawlessly leaving their employment. The next most common sentence was due to begging on the streets and to “bad behavior” in public. Insubordination, impropriety, and laziness were also verdicts that could land a women at the Spin House. Lechery and prostitution were not uncommon, and these women were caught by uniformed men who patrolled the streets, arresting any and all who seemed suspicious. Drunkenness, poisoning, fraud, incest, religious fanaticism, and forgery were all crimes which had at least one representative in the Spin House in 1780.
In the 1820’s, the female prisoners were moved to a different prison and male prisoners were moved to Långholmen. Instead of spinning, the men worked as shoemakers, sock weavers, carpenters, blacksmiths, stone cutters, and, strangely, cork cutters. Especially demanding tasks included working the pedal-driven grain mill and the pedal-driven sawmill. The prison was expanded several times in the first half of the 1800’s by adding levels and wings to existing buildings, creating a capacity of 950 prisoners.
|The Kronohäktet was added to Carlberg's buildings in the 1860's.|
|Centralvakten from 1859.|
The Philadelphia System made its way to Sweden during this time period, changing how Sweden dealt with prisoners. Instead of sleeping in dorms with 16 beds, inmates now had separate tiny cells. The goal of imprisonment was no longer just to “clean up” the streets, but to reform criminals and to rehabilitate them into normal society through a program of isolation, hard work, and abstinence from alcohol. There was a simultaneous focus on education of both inmates and of the working classes in an effort to keep them employed and out of prison.
In 1874, an entirely new prison complex called Centralfängelset or The Central Prison was designed by prison architect V. T. Anckarsvärd to increase the capacity by 300 prisoners. In addition to the tasks listed above, prisoners were now also involved in basket weaving, printing, book binding, the fabrication of parts for baby strollers, and the fabrication of cartons for various industries.
|This plan shows the entire prison complex, with the new Central Prison at the top (windmill shaped).|
Throughout the early 1900’s many smaller additions were made to the prison complex. In 1912, the prison director received a new house designed by architect Gustaf Lindgren, who also designed additional housing for prison workers in 1924.
|Housing for prison workers|
Yet another building (Fasta paviljongen) was added to the complex in 1914 (probably by Lindgren), this one with cells large enough to encompass a carpentry workbench.
Eventually, in 1975, all of the prisoners were moved off the island and into more modern facilities. Stockholm’s first impulse was to demolish the entire prison complex and to erase that darker side of its history. However, Sweden’s department of antiquities and the Stockholm City Museum argued that it was important to keep the prison as a record of more than 250 years of penal history. A compromise was reached and the Centralfängelse and the Mental Institution were demolished while the oldest buildings including the Alstavik house and Carlberg’s additions were to be renovated into a hotel, a hostel, a restaurant, a pub, a café, a prison museum, ateliers for 30 artists, and a conference center. The Fasta Pavilion was converted into a trade school and many of the smaller axillary buildings were converted into highly coveted rental apartments.
Even today, the penal nature of the buildings is still distinct. A high stone wall separates the island into two halves to the north of the Spin House, and a stuccoed wall to the south of the Spin House encloses a large yard which is used today for parking and winter boat storage. Many of the buildings’ windows are small and the thick, dark mullions look like jail grilles in front of the windows. The contrast between the park-like nature of other parts of the island and the prison area in the middle of the island is stark.
Knaperstad (map 3)
This little complex in the Spin House gardens wouldn’t be so remarkable except for the fact that Immanuel Nobel, Alfred’s father, built the larger of the two buildings in the 1830’s. (The smaller building is from the 1700’s.) After Nobel was forced to leave Knaperstad for economic reasons, the complex became a school and barracks for prison officers. It is now divided into several apartments.
Karlshäll Malmgård (map 4)
Interestingly, Modéer built the main house using the “Rydin Method” which was a sort of proto-concrete patented by Rydin who was a factory owner, newspaper editor, and parliament representative contemporary with Modéer. The Rydin Method was also known as “poured limestone” and was a blend of limestone, water, and sand which was mixed to a mortar-like consistency. When the mixture was half dry, it could be poured into forms. After only a day, the forms could be taken away and the limestone mixture would continue to slowly harden. The limestone mixture was poured around timber columns which supported the building until the limestone mixture cured; afterwards the columns served as a type of reinforcement in the concrete-like mixture. Rydin claimed that this construction was just as “fireproof” as stone or brick construction because the wood columns were encased. The Stockholm building authority did not agree and buildings built with the Rydin method were charged the same fire insurance premium as regular timber structures.
A later tenant was the “Schnapps King” Olsson. Olsson’s schnapps distillery was on Reimersholm, an island very near Långholmen, and Olsson used the Karlshäll Malmgård as a summer residence. He hired architect Magnus Isaeus in 1876 to design a horse barn, servants quarters, a greenhouse, a garden master’s house, a gatehouse, and a billiard hall.
|The Billiard Hall and Gate House|
|Today, the gardens are gone and the terraces are open lawns. They must have been magnificent, however, given their waterside locations. To the right: The garden master's house is perched between the garden terrace and the water's edge.|
After Olsson, Karlshäll Malmgård was used a mental hospital for nearly 70 years. With the 1974 plan for Långholmen, it was decided that the Malmgård should be accessible by the public. The mental institution moved out and the buildings served headquarters and meeting spaces for various non-profit organizations. Today, Karlshäll is a conference center and is available for parties, and the farm hosts occasional jazz festivals.
Sofieberg (map 5)
Västerbron—The Western Bridge (map 6)
I am guessing that due to the large and brooding presence of the prison, Långholmen seemed like a natural landing spot as the bridge spanned between the larger, more populated islands of Södermalm and Kungsholmen. No one cared if the prisoners were disturbed by traffic noise or by the bridge’s looming shadows. If the bridge were proposed today, however, I would think such a disruptive design would never be approved. City residents would never consent to splitting one of Stockholm’s largest and most central urban parks into two.
While the bridge does provide some interesting framed views of Kungsholmen, it is a very unfortunate presence on the island, disrupting the oasis that is Långholmen. Despite paths leading under the bridge which connect both sides of the island, and despite the fact that pedestrians can access the island from the bridge, Västerbro most decidedly reinforces the prison’s 250-year-old pattern of splitting the island into two separate pieces.
|The bridge towers above the water's edge, but it is about equal in height to Långholmen's rocky summit. The bridge forms an uncrossable barrier at the island's high point, dividing the island into two distinct areas.|
|Today, large portions of the park are manicured with lawns and paths, but there are also several "wild" patches, especially up on the rocky heights.|
City Garden Master Alfred Medin used mud that was dug out of the canal between Kungsholmen and the mainland to cover large tracts of rocky Långholmen. Between 1872 and 1884, he planted 2900 hardwoods including maples, elms, ashes, mountain ashes, cottonwoods, and cherries. During this time, Medin also leveled out tricky parts of the topography using trash and covering it with mud, covered additional areas of the island with mud dredged out from the canal between Långholmen and Södermalm, and planted grass and bushes amongst the trees.
A small peninsula on the northern side of the island has been used as an unofficial swimming and sunbathing spot since the early 1900’s. In 1916, the police became involved due to reports of naked bathing, and they tried to forbid bathing at this location. Much of the city protested and a compromise was reached: the city built two separate, official bathing spots on the island, one for men and one for women.
|A popular swimming spot today.|
After the prison closed and the buildings were converted into restaurants, hotels, and conference facilities, interest in the park began to warm up again. The lake's water quality improved throughout the 60's and 70's. In the 1990’s, a waterfront promenade was built around the entire island, and the amphitheater is now used throughout the summer for theater performances and rock concerts. The prison’s kitchen gardens were converted into popular “colony” gardens, or garden lots which are owned by and taken care of by urban dwellers (map 7).
I think that there are several reasons for this: Ironically, while the Västerbro bridge connects Långholmen to the city, it also cleaves the island into two parts and lends the island a negative impression. Also, Långholmen’s park hasn’t been a part of the collective consciousness for generations as other parks have; a long-standing tradition to picnic on the island just doesn’t exist. Additionally, the beaches and swimming spots are all north-facing—good for avoiding sunburns but Stockholm summers are rarely warm enough to seek out shade. Another factor is probably the absence of a large, sunny lawn. There are a few beautiful lawns on the island, but views of parking lots or the trafficked bridge as well as a lack of direct sunlight hamper summer picnics.
Most the names, dates, and historical info came from: Långholmen Den Gröna Ö edited by Carl-Johan Kleberg (1998)
All of the images are mine except for:
The two Alstavik drawings came from: http://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alstavik
The Carlberg drawing came from: Johan Eberhard Carlberg: Stockholms stads arkitekt 1727-1773 by Henrik Ahnlund (1984)
The Centralfängelset plan drawing came from: http://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%C3%A5ngholmens_centralf%C3%A4ngelse
The Centralfängelset plan drawing came from: http://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%C3%A5ngholmens_centralf%C3%A4ngelse