Tallinn Town Hall is the only surviving Gothic town hall in Northern Europe. Built in the heart of Tallinn, next to a marketplace, the Town Hall has witnessed trade and social activities for over 700 years. It has still remained the most important representational building in town.
The building history of the Town Hall goes back to the 13th century, but it acquired its medieval appearance in 1402–04. It was as early as 1248 when King Eric IV Ploughpenny of Denmark granted the Lübeck Charter to Tallinn. Relying on that document a town council was elected from amongst merchants of the Hanse and started convening in the Town Hall. It is possible to state on the basis of research findings that a meeting place of the magistracy and a goods depot in the form of a small, fortified town hall, constructed of local limestone, existed in its present location already in the mid-13th century.
The town hall first mentioned in a real estate record in 1322 had a large meeting room (consistorium) and, considering the times, a huge warehouse (cellarium civitatis). Three walls and seven windows representing Tallinn’s oldest secular architecture have come down to our days from that building.
In the first quarter of the 14th century the existing building was extended and the basement enlarged. The so-called diele-dornse (front-back room) system was established. In 1346 the King of Denmark handed over his supremacy over Estonia to the Teutonic Order. As a member of the Hanseatic League, Tallinn gained control of trade with the East by the so-called goods yard right. Fast development of trade and economic prosperity led to the need for new utility rooms in the Town Hall and its more dignified appearance.
In 1371–74 the Town Hall acquired its full present-day length and ground floor volume. From that time the Town Hall has its oldest and rarest pieces of medieval woodcarving: benches in the Gothic style. The carved side posts of the longer bench, featuring the story of Tristan and Isolde and Samson’s fight with the lion, are some of the most beautiful examples of medieval art in Estonia.
In 1402–04 the existing Town Hall was rebuilt into a two-storied building with festive halls, utility rooms and offices with the room layout defined by the foundations. Rough copies of the city’s calculations of the building work survive in the archives and so it is possible to closely follow the progress of construction. Even the amount of building materials has been recorded. A tower was put up at the east end. The projecting main floor was supported on an arcade, allowing the first-floor rooms to be built much more spacious. The Town Hall acquired the architectural appearance it has today. The carved bench ends with Samson and Delilah and Aristotle and Phyllis have been dated to that period.
In the 17th century the Town Hall acquired a new, Late Renaissance spire. In 1650–52 the main entrance was moved to the middle of the building, characteristic of the baroque age, and the main portal was closed. The arcade that earlier enhanced the stateliness and individuality of the Town Hall as well as the windows of the basement and the ground floor were walled up. Partitions were built into the medieval Entrance Hall (the Citizens’ Hall), turning its space into several separate rooms. A lot of the medieval architecture of the Town Hall was destroyed or distorted in the course of that reconstruction.
In 1667 the interior decor of the Council Chamber was modernised. Lunette paintings to themes of the Bible were ordered from painter Johann Aken and carved wooden friezes beneath them from Elert Thiele and Joachim Armbrust.
In the 19th century both the windows of the Town Hall and its eastern façade were rebuilt in the Gothic Revival style. The structure stepped into the 20th century with big changes in its exterior and interior decoration, and smaller changes followed in the first half of the 20th century. The spire of the tower was consumed in flames in a Soviet air raid on 9 March 1944. This triggered the start of restoration work after the war.