Since ancient times, the Town Hall Square has been the centre of Tartu. It was the main trading area of the settlement between the castle on the Toome Hill and the riverside port on the Emajõgi. The tradition was upheld for centuries. In the Middle Ages the seat of municipal power – The Town Hall – was erected.
The present building is already the third one on the same site. In comparison with the long history of Tartu its buildings are relatively new: very seldom can you see buildings that date back to earlier than the last quarter of the 18th century, which is the result of numerous devastating wars and fires. The Great Fire of 1775 ravaged almost the whole central part of Tartu. After the fire, Tartu began to obtain its present configuration and the Town Hall was also built. The original Town Hall of Tartu was designed by the master-builder of the town, Johann Heinrich Bartholomäus Walter (1734-1802) from Rostock. The cornerstone was laid in 1782. Although the Town Hall was festively opened in 1786, the finishing touches were not made until 1789.
The Town Hall of Tartu was built at the time when the style of early Classicism reached the Nordic countries, including Estonia, replacing the earlier styles of Baroque and Rococo. The contest between different styles is also reflected in the Town Hall of Tartu.
The three-storeyed building with a high hip-roof and a ridge tower, follows the traditions of Baroque urban palaces in the Netherlands. The Town Hall of Narva, built in the 17th century, was inspired by the same example.
The tower of the Town Hall of Tartu, which was completed in 1784, is in the Baroque style and it is accompanied by the Rococo cartouche on the tympanum of the main façade. In the design of the walls, especially the interior walls, the Neo-Classicist style, being most fashionable at the time, prevailed.
The Town Hall had to perform several functions simultaneously and for this reason its planning was extremely economical. In the vaulted cellar and on the ground floor of the left wing there was a prison, together with the room for its guards. In the right wing – where a pharmacy has been open since 1922 – there was the city board of weights and measures.
To make access for the cart-loads possible to the public scales, there were gates in the back and side façades which, after being walled-up, are still noticeable.
The rooms for the Town Council were on the two upper floors which could be reached via the stairs directly at the main entrance of the building.
A traditional spacious foyer was not built because of the lack of space. On the first floor, there was a long corridor with court rooms and the Mayor’s office on either side. The most ceremonial room is the Hall of the Town Council, located on the second floor of the right wing. The Hall is decorated with rich yet unrefined stucco ornaments made in Walter’s workshop.
During its existence, the Town Hall has undergone several changes. The ground floor was fully rebuilt. In addition to the pharmacy, there were also temporary rooms for a bank. Smaller changes were undertaken on the first floor. Despite these alterations, the Town Hall has preserved its historical shape.
The Town Council and the Government continue to work in the Town Hall of Tartu, underscoring the idea that Tartu is a town of traditions.
- The coat of arms of Tartu is based on the medieval seal of Tartu. The key and the sword above the gates are the attributes of the Bishopric of Tartu and Tartu’s guardian saints, Peter and Paul.
- In the 16th century, Southern Estonia was ruled by the Poles. In 1584 Stefan Báthory, the King of Poland, granted Tartu its flag.