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For years, it was a closed, somewhat anonymous building. I walked by it in 2016, looked up, and wondered what it used to be. I wondered about the imposing, grey, serpentine statues on either side of its locked front entrance. What were they? How were they associated with this building?
It stood near the busy Barcode section of Oslo, a newly-renovated, high-end part of the city on the Port of Oslo (Oslo Havn). I have since learned that this building had a unique role in Oslo’s history.
I was fortunate to return this summer to observe its transformation into something new. The concrete, sand, and wood splinters, all remains of the past, were being cleared, but I learned it wasn’t a typical renovation or restoration.
It was the creation of a new hotel, interwoven with the original building’s past. The hotel’s name is Amerikalinjen, and it’s built on the foundations of a once-iconic building, the headquarters of the Norwegian-America Line. This shipping line carried hundreds of thousands of Norwegian emigrants to North America in the early 20th century.
The building housed the ticket offices, a luggage and cargo storage area, and was a place where courageous Norwegian emigrants waited for their ships to sail.
It was built in 1913 in the Neo-Baroque style, and the two large statues I wondered about were called portal sculptures. According to Janne Wilberg of the Oslo Cultural Heritage Management Office, they depict mythological beings of the sea.
One is a nereid, a sea nymph, who represents everything beautiful and peaceful about the sea. The other is Triton, a merman and son of Poseidon, ruler of the sea. The statues symbolized a wish for strength, kindness, and hope to accompany the emigrants as they began their nautical journey to the New World.
While walking through the halls and open spaces of this hotel-in-the-making, I also came to know the three visionaries who are now guiding Amerikalinjen’s living legacy.
The first is Petter Stordalen, founder and CEO of Nordic Choice Hotels, a hotelier who has created art hotels such as The Thief, in Oslo, and At Six, in Stockholm. He says, “What interested us most were the untold stories of all the people who left family and friends behind in search of new opportunities across the Atlantic.”
The Emigrant Story
“Norwegians did not emigrate primarily because they were oppressed, or persecuted, or poverty-stricken,” writes the late Einar Haugen, a Harvard professor who was born in Iowa to Norwegian immigrant parents. With the industrial revolution, increasing education, and a number of other changes in society, “They emigrated because they had learned to be dissatisfied, and because a changing world had provided them with a hope of escape from their dissatisfaction.”
Though many Europeans emigrated during this time, Norway had one of the highest rates of emigration, surpassed only by Ireland.
Haugen writes that many Norwegians brought “into American life an overwhelming sturdiness and intensity of purpose. This was an indispensable asset to immigrants who were at once assigned the heaviest labour and the hardest tasks. … They took hold of the wind-swept prairie of Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Dakota with little more than their bare hands.”
It was hard, but rewarding. Haugen writes, “There is a pride of accomplishment which sustains the immigrant through all difficulties.”
Temple of Stories
As I walked to the second floor of the building, I learned of the unique plans for this space: a portion of it will be transformed from the drab construction space it is now to a light, cheerful library space called the Temple of Stories.
The Temple’s designer, Aat Vos, said the room will be filled with books and documents that tell stories of emigrants who came and went from this building.
But also, he says, “For those hotel visitors who come to our Temple of Stories, they can leave behind stories of their own, in photo-tablets, in Twitter feeds, or just by exchanging books.”
Amerikalinjen, is set to open March 2019. Jaakko Puro, owner of Puroplan in Helsinki, is the principal designer, following Stordalen’s guiding vision. Puro explains how the exteriors and the interiors are coming together, with lighting being a major focus.
“When we look at the façade of the Amerikalinjen building, there are many Neo-Baroque elements, decorative reliefs and sculptures, large windows and doors, many of which have been lost in darkness,” he says. “But by using exterior up-lighting, we will raise this iconic building, lost in darkness, to one that lives in light again.”
holstered wall, the colour of “the deep blue sea,” Puro says. The black-and-white marble floor and brass details will recall early 20th-century décor and “retrieve memories of the steam ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean in the beginning of the 1900s.”
“All our design elements reflect a seafaring history of Amerikalinjen and will hopefully remind visitors of its past,” he says.
As we walked through the still, dimly lit halls and open areas, infused with emigrant dreams, it was easy to feel like an emigrant myself, saying goodbye to the fading shadows behind me.