The Swedish House in Kavala
A historical overview
Handling of tobacco was the big industry of Northern Greece in the 1920s and 1930s, and the city of Kavala was in many ways its hub. At its height the industry employed more than 15.000 workers, and more than 60 trading companies, many of them foreign, were established in the city. The port of Kavala was busier than the one in Thessaloniki at this time. Many of the foreign companies built facilities in the city such as warehouses, offices, and residences for their employees, often in architectural styles which were popular in their home countries. One example of this is the Austro-Hungarian company Herzog’s building that is now the town hall of Kavala.
The Swedish Tobacco Monopoly, founded in 1915 in order to cover costs for a pension reform and increased military spending, was among the last foreign companies to establish itself in Kavala. The company rented space in warehouses, where the tobacco that was to be exported to Sweden was handled and stored, from the 1920s and onwards.
The handling was time consuming, and the company’s employees often had to spend months at a time in Kavala to supervise the procedure. As many of the other foreign companies had done previously, the Swedish company eventually decided to build a more permanent residence in the city, and to this end a building plot was bought in 1934. As opposed to the other foreign companies’ buildings, the Swedish house was not to be erected in the busy city center but just outside the city on a hillside overlooking the Aegean Sean and the island of Thasos.
The house itself, drawn by the Greek architect Panagiotis Manouilidis, was in the modernist style inspired by the German Bauhaus school as well as by contemporaneous private houses in Sweden, which the architect had studied. The furniture was bought from the most fashionable department store in Sweden, the NK of Stockholm, and shipped to Greece in time for the ceremonial inauguration of the house, then named Viking Palace, in 1936.
The Halcyon days of the late 1930s came to an abrupt end, as war broke out and Eastern Macedonia was annexed by Bulgaria, an ally of Hitler’s Germany in 1941. The Tobacco Monopoly continued its operations till 1943, when all import of goods from territories occupied by Germany or its allies to Sweden was eventually stopped. After the war the house was temporarily a base for United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration till the Monopoly was able resume its operations.
However, the demand for oriental tobacco diminished after the war as Western customers now favored tobacco of American type, the Virginia Blend. By the 1950s what was left of the industry in Northern Greece centered in Thessaloniki and no longer in Kavala. The Swedish Tobacco Monopoly therefore had no use for its house there. It was used for some time as a vacation home for the Swedish employees of the company, and also grants were given to writers and artists to spend time and work in the house. As even this type of activities proved unsustainable due to high costs for maintenance, the house was eventually donated to the Swedish Institute at Athens in 1976. The original idea of a sale had proved impossible due to the “capital controls” imposed in Greece during the junta years.
The house, now simply called The Swedish house or “Soyidiko spiti has ever since functioned as a guest house for Swedes active in the cultural or academic sectors of society. Thomas Thomell was employed as its first curator in 1980, initially for a period of two years. He stayed in 27 years and basically made the house into what it is today. Since 1976 more than 6000 guests have spent time in the house, many of them repeatedly. The Swedish associations of writers, photographers and illustrators give their members yearly grants to stay in the house, and many works of art and literature have therefore been created there. Excepting the warmest summer months the ten guest rooms of the house are normally more or less fully booked.
In 1984 the house was declared a protected building as a prime example of architectural tendencies in the 1930s. The house is unique thanks to its well preserved interior. Much of the original furniture is still in place, which lends the house an atmosphere of a bygone era. The Swedish Institute has managed to refurbish the building with funding from the Swedish government and private foundations. The garden of the house has been upgraded, and some of the furniture renovated with financial help from the Association of the Friends of the Swedish House, which was founded in 1984.