Gardens, Landscape History, Parks, Public Realm

Kadriorg: The People's Park

August 1, 2014


“Who really owns public spaces?” begins a review of the exhibition Open to the Public: Civic Space Now on exhibit through September at the AIA New York Center for Architecture.  Posted on The Atlantic’s City Lab, the review describes the changing function of parks and other urban open space in light of the shift from public ownership to those developed through private initiatives, noting “A park is no longer just a park; as a stage for the theater of public life it has become more complicated.”

Complications aside, parks have served as “stages for the theater of public life” for a very long time and perhaps none for as long as Kadriorg Park in Tallinn.  Described as the most outstanding palatial park in Estonia, it has been open to the public for 300 years at the wish of Russian Tsar Peter the Great who acquired the land that became the park in 1714.

According to records, “After Peter the Great’s wish, anyone interested could freely walk in the park; thus the royal park was a public place from the very beginning.”



Located approximately two and half miles from Tallinn’s medieval historic center (nominated as a World Heritage site in 1997) Kadriorg Park is sited in a neighborhood that began as a summer enclave for  affluent merchants outside the city’s walls.  Here Peter the Great purchased a small building and large tract of land for a rural retreat to escape the confines of court life.  His vision of a composition that harmonized with nature left room for wilderness as well as the development of formal gardens.


The balance of formal and informal landscapes is evident in the plan of the park below.

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By 1718, a summer palace was planned on the site, named in honor of Peter’s wife, Catherine I (in Estonian Kadriorg translates as Catherine’s Valley).  To fulfill his vision of a seaside park and palace modeled after Peterhof in Saint Petersburg, Peter hired Roman Architect Niccolo Michetti and apprentice Gaettano Chiaveri.


The original gardens, inspired by Italian-French-Dutch design included a series of formal walkways, an oak grove, meadows and groupings of trees.  Chestnut trees, imported from Holland, were planted before being transported to Saint Petersburg.  The plan below is dated from 1823 and details the layout if the formal gardens.


As a setting for the Palace, three tiers of garden spaces were developed. These included a garden forecourt and lower and upper flower gardens to the rear of the Palace separated by the Mirage Fountain Wall.  Today the lower flower garden is the most tangible remnant of the original plan.



Beyond The Mirage Fountain Wall in the upper garden was the Mirage Pond.  Today this area of the garden is occupied by the Office of Estonia’s President who, I was told, rides his bicycle to work.  While I cannot confirm this, apparently he was out of the office on the day I visited as the flag was not flying.  The Office was built in 1937.


The Fountain Wall remains, adorned by sculptures depicting Olympic Gods while fountains in the shape of face masks modeled after Greek Gods line the wall panels.




“Poseidon” by sculptor Mati Karmin was placed in the fountain cascade in 2005″

Despite Peter’s elaborate plans and desire that “the park astonish visitors with the artistic cascade and its sculptures and water games,” upon his death in 1725 work on the gardens ceased.

At the end of the 19th century plans to renovate the park in the English Romantic style were developed reconfiguring the lower garden, reestablishing vistas to the sea and adding bicycle lanes and naturalistic landscape features.


In 1902 the “Russalka” monument, by sculptor Amandus Adamson, was installed at the end of one of the principle walkways to the sea in commemoration of the ship of the same name shipwrecked in 1893.



Russia ceded its assets in Tallinn to the Estonian Republic in 1920 “including moveables and immoveables, among them Kadriorg Palace and its land and park.”  Valuing the park as a representation of Estonian culture was seen as nationally important and “essential for expressing independence, dignity and awakening, all crucial at that time.”

A plan, to restore and redesign the park as a beautifully landscaped “People’s Park” suitable for hosting entertainment and political events was developed.  Buildings would be minimized to create a park equal to its European counterparts.


In 1934 the Kadriorg Committee was founded and a competition, won by Anton Soans, to create a truly modern park reflecting Estonia’s culture was held. A year later the State Parks Government was created and tasked (apparently without significant funding), to work with existing resources to develop a “comfortable and usable” park for “people of all ages and interests.”  Soans’ design was executed by Carl Kemkes and a German horticultural company.


The Swan Pond, prominently located near the park’s main entrance was refined and a decorative garden, the Kivilia Triangle completed.  Lawns, accentuated by a sundial and flower beds planted in traditional Estonian colors were added.

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A Youth Park, which also contains a children’s museum, was added near the Swan Pond and remains a popular destination for families.



Formal and informal elements were added to the landscape including monuments to Estonian political figures.  The Apollo Belvedere sculpture (seen below) was sited in a meadow.



Pathways lined with perennial plantings lead to the formal rose garden.

The Kadriorg Park small enterprise association was founded in 1990 to oversee renovations to the park and its structures. The restored Palace re-opened as an art museum in 2000 complemented by a restoration of the contiguous formal flower garden and fountains.  This was followed by a reconstruction of the Mirage Fountain Wall and the creation of the rose garden planted with 5,600 roses.  The Swan Pond and surrounding landscapes were also restored.


In 2010 approval was received through the EU to reconstruct a pond in the North-East corner of the park and create a Japanese Tea Garden as a special feature to attract walkers beyond the Swan Pond and upper gardens. The garden, designed by Kyoto garden master Aiakujundaja Masao Sone, has become so popular that when I inquired about visiting Kadriorg Park, everyone I spoke with mentioned it as the one place within the park I had to see.


According to the website (translated from Estonian to English) the garden’s design was inspired by the Tallin’s old town roof landscape and each element, mountains, stones, ponds, touched by the hand of the garden master.


The garden is scheduled to be completed in 2015 and gates, a traditional tea room, lanterns, pagodas and “hand washing” dishes installed.


Designed using traditional Japanese elements, the garden’s plantings have been selected to adapt with Estonia’s climate.  According to Tallinn’s 2011 annual report 1,192 trees and 928 shrubs were planted in the Japanese garden, which contains the largest collection of rhododendrons in the region.

To view a 360 degree view of the Japanese Garden visit 360 Cities.



In the same spirit of independence and nationalistic pride that maintained Kadriorg Park as a place accessible to the public for three hundred years, the Tallinn Song Festival grounds, built upon land that once supported a nursery for the park are located at the edge of the park and identified in the drawing below as number 10.


A public venue, the Festival Grounds were the site where the “singing revolution” occurred, leading to the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from Russia in the 1980’s. Here, upon the stage of a public space, political protests created real and lasting change.


My main objective in visiting Tallinn was to explore the medieval town center.  To my surprise 27% of Tallinn is green and in the Tower Square Park the Tallinn Flower Festival, on display from the end of May until the end of August, was in progress.



My afternoon in Kadriorg Park was an afterthought and my original goal was to visit the Japanese Garden.  Exploring the history of the park has been an adventure in and of itself a felicitous byproduct of my travels.

Additional information is available at Kadriorg Park where a schedule of 2014 events is listed.  On July 22nd the park celebrated its 296th anniversary.

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 Copyright 2014 Patrice Todisco – All rights reserved 

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  • Reply Gallivanta August 2, 2014 at 7:08 am

    Thoroughly enjoyed this visit to Kadriorg Park. Thank you.

  • Reply Shelley August 10, 2014 at 11:15 pm

    Wonderful to meet you today, Patrice, and learn about you – what a wonderful reference and I look forward to traveling public spaces brought your eyes. Fun that we met in one! Blessings!

    • Reply Patrice Todisco August 11, 2014 at 1:42 am

      Thanks Shelley. It was great to meet you as well. I look forward to keeping in touch and sharing insights about the gardening universe.

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