On 4 May 1992, limestone was declared to be Estonia’s national stone.

Estonian limestone – grey and dull at first sight, is actually rather multi-coloured and multi-faceted, ranging from pure white to crimson, from seaweed green to chocolate brown. The shell lime of Tamsalu differs considerably from the yellow stone of Inju, the latter in its turn differs as much from Kaugatuma stone, as from the Lasnamäe and Soeginina limestone variants. Do all those non-grey stones have the right to be our national stone? There are tiny creatures in the stone: molluscs and moss animals, corals and shells and worms who have wriggled little tunnels in the stone. If limestone is our national stone, then those creatures should in a sense also be our national animals!

The first limestone buildings were erected in the 13th century when lime mortar began to be used. Medieval limestone is evident to everyone in Tallinn, from Toompea castle to the city walls.

The stonemasons’ guild was one of the oldest of all professional unions emerging in the 14th century. The elaborately treated limestone quickly became a major export product. It is known, for instance, that in 1384, 29 gravestones were transported from Tallinn to Lubeck. The charter of the new stonemasons’ guild in 1512 already had to set restrictions as to how much limestone to sell to foreign ships. In 1531, the town coffers received excise on no less than 11 000 treated limestones shipped away from the Tallinn harbour. This data can be found in Hubert Matve’s manuscript Estonian Limestone which was left unfinished due to the author’s death but which is certainly worth publishing.

During the 19th century historicism period, pure limestone also began to be used in Estonia, which was quite practical on the one hand, but raised the question of the material’s ‘honesty’ on the other hand. From among the 19th century limestone buildings, mention should be made of the city castle of the Ungern-Sternbergs at 6 Kohtu Street (1865, M. Gropius) and of the Kaarli church in Tallinn (1870, O.P.Hippius) and of numerous manor houses: in Vasalemma (1893) and Laitse (1894) in Harjumaa and the Inju manor house in Virumaa (1894), the latter thanks to its unique variety of limestone – the Inju yellow. Limestone was widely used in various outbuildings of manor houses, factories and bridges.

The 19th century national-romantic movement did not pass by building materials. Germany was in the lead here: granite became a national symbol. ‘Granite is a Nordic and Germanic stone,’ wrote the national ideologist Julius Langbehn, opposing German stone culture to the Greek marble culture and comparing the cyclopean stone buildings with German army where the soldiers, standing side by side, form an unfaltering mass (J. Langbehn. Rembrandt als Erzieher, 1890). The cult of a mythical rustic stone spread also in Scandinavian countries (the influence of the American Richardson is generally acknowledged) while at the turn of the century Finnish national romanticism reached us as well. The limestone façade of the Luther factory Club designed by Gesellius, Lindgren & Saarinen (1905) offers a wide range of fascinating treatments of limestone – from rough layers to fine reliefs, and not least the effective way they managed to use limestone to imitate a vertical window. To the same period belong the monumental building of the former German theatre (now the Drama Theatre, 1910, N. Vassilyev & A. Bubyr), the main body of the Russian Baltic Shipyard in Kopli (Technical University building, 1914, A. Dmitryev) and numerous turn of the century industrial buildings with highly remarkable façades, where an attempt to ennoble the building through the choice of material is quite clear. Thanks to the usage of limestone, several of the above do not seem like simple utilitarian buildings, but rather like temples – one of the best examples being the Rotermann’s Salt Storage, renovated in 1996 (1908, E. Boustedt) which now houses the Estonian Architecture Museum.

At the beginning of the century, Estonians did not yet associate limestone with nationality. We did not even manage to build our national theatre from limestone, because the Germans were quicker, and the Estonians’ Estonia certainly had to be different from the German theatre! Estonian city architecture took its first romantic steps with timber; after all, the farmhand’s cottage was of wood. Only in the 1930s, while striving for nationality in architecture at a state level, was limestone rediscovered. Suddenly limestone was the only option for national architecture. One of the best examples of limestone functionalism in Tallinn of the ’30s is the fire station by Herbert Johanson (1939), but also several of Johanson’s other limestone buildings astonish with their convincing vigour, even if they are no more than small chapels in Liiva (1935) and the Metsakalmistu cemeteries (1936). In the 1930s limestone began to be used as a smooth façade covering. The Vasalemma ‘marble’ – a variety of Estonian limestone that resembles marble, was used in Toompea castle, in the President’s Office in Kadriorg; as was Saaremaa dolomite on the Tallinn House Owners’ Bank (now café Metropol) in Vabaduse väljak, and on many other buildings.

After the war, the production of limestone was restored. In 1947, the Council of Ministers even issued a regulation called ‘Measures of replacing bricks as building material with limestone’. This resulted in nice high limestone plinths on the 1950s buildings (the sweet factory Kalev, administrative buildings at 1 and 7 Estonia Street). In the 1960s, industrial production of limestone slabs developed rapidly. A greater part of the production was exported, mostly to Russia. At the same time, limestone was to an increasing extent used merely as hardcore in road building which reduced the production of limestone slabs as the quarries began to use explosives. The production of limestone has not really recovered since. Although such remarkable buildings as the Tallinna Linnahall concert hall by Raine Karp (1980), the Sakala Centre (1985) and the National Library (1992) could be considered as examples of the renaissance of dolomite limestone.

Instead of the magnificent limestone buildings, contemporary Estonia prefers huge glass and metal ‘euro-style’ constructions, which sometimes feel a bit too set on achieving a modern appearance for its own sake. Against the background of today’s architecture, it seems important to redevelop an awareness of limestone as our national stone. Thus in summer 1997, the Museum of Architecture and the Estonian Limestone Union organised in the Rotermann’s Salt Storage a joint exhibition called Estonian limestone: geology and architecture. The photographs for the exhibition were taken by Peeter Säre, and design was by architect Emil Urbel. During the whole exhibition period the viewers could enjoy Lepo Sumera’s suggestive music, written specifically for the Salt Storage which seemed to emerge from the limestone walls themselves and which suited this particular exhibition especially well.