Magical Estonian Maritime Museum, Seaplane Harbour

The Lembit submarine in the Estonian Maritime Museum, Tallinn.
The Lembit submarine in the Estonian Maritime Museum, Tallinn.

A museum must be a calm and sacred place. It must have many walls for numerous masterpieces: paintings, engravings, frescoes, mosaics…. It must have high ceilings to allow gigantic statues from ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, or Mesopotamia to be placed here and there. You cannot run or jump in a museum, and of course you cannot touch its exhibits. Moreover, in some museums, you are not even allowed to take photographs. Right? Not always!

Would you like to:

  • let your children run and jump in a museum (and even fly in a flight simulator)?
  • visit a real submarine made in 1936?
  • look at an antique submarine which had a hand engine?
  • sit in a real navy anti-aircraft gun and even control it?
  • go down to the engine room of a real icebreaker that broke ice in the Baltic Sea from 1914, and visit several navy ships nearby?
  • drink a little champagne in a café surrounded by the sound effects of an air attack before inspection of the museum exposition?

If so, you should visit the Seaplane Harbour (Estonian Maritime Museum) in Tallinn, Estonia.

The Lembit submarine

The submarine is the main item of the museum exposition, at least, it was for me. I visited many ships, civil and military, small and big, sea and river. One time, I even lived in an enormous artillery cruiser. I have never been inside a submarine, but it was my wish, if not my dream. Although I have seen many submarines, it always was only their upper part, above the water, but not the whole vessel.

The Lembit submarine hovers in the middle of the Seaplane Harbour main hall. When you stand near it, almost under it, and look at it from such an unusual perspective, you understand that this is a woman; yes, already a grandmother, but still slim and beautiful.

Of course, the most interesting impressions await you inside the submarine. It was the low season, therefore I was alone onboard. A periscope, steering wheel, torpedo-tubes, an engine, captain’s cabin, sailors’ bunks, a kitchen—all are at your disposal. You can touch everything to imagine yourself a team member and understand that those 30 or so people were brave.

The engine of the Lembit submarine. Estonian Maritime Museum, Tallinn.
The engine of the Lembit submarine.

On board of the Lembit submarine. Estonian Maritime Museum, Tallinn.

The periscope of the Lembit submarine. The Seaplane Harbour, Tallinn, Estonia.

Torpedo compartment of the Lembit submarine. Estonian Maritime Museum, Tallinn.
Torpedo compartment of the submarine.

Lembit was built by the British shipbuilding company Vickers and Armstrongs in 1936 and arrived in Estonia in 1937. In the same year, the submarine took part in Finnish military exercises which constituted one part of the secret cooperation pact between Estonia and Finland. After the Soviet Union captured Estonia in 1940, the Lembit entered the Red Banner Baltic Fleet of the Soviet Navy. During the Second World War, Lembit conducted three successful attacks, torpedoing one ship, sinking another after it hit mines laid by the submarine, and damaging a third one.

After the war, Lembit was used as a training vessel, and after restoration in 1985 it was opened to the general public as a branch of the Red Banner Baltic Fleet Museum at Pirita Harbour of Tallinn. In 1992, Lembit became a symbol of the vessel No.1 of the Estonian Navy. This was the oldest submarine in the world still afloat until it was hauled ashore on May 21, 2011. The submarine is still preserved in almost its original shape with no substantial reconstruction.

A wooden submarine

However, you have an opportunity to take a look at an even more ancient museum item: the grandmother of every submarine on Earth. You will find this tiny wooden miracle outdoors, near the entrance to the museum.

The grandmother of every submarine on Earth. The Seaplane Harbour, Tallinn, Estonia.

During the Crimean War (1853-1856), a unified English and French fleet squadron entered the Baltic Sea and declared a naval blockade of the Russian Empire. To approach the enemy ships unnoticed and launch sudden attacks, an engineer, Ottomar Gern, constructed a tiny wooden submarine. It was run by four crew members: two spun the large flywheel; one manned the rudder and monitored the compass; and the fourth worked with a pump and explosives.

The submarine was completed within a few months, but never served due to some construction problems; however, Gern was permitted to continue construction of submarines in St. Petersburg and he built four more.

The Suur Tõll icebreaker

Maybe, some of you have traveled by enormous cruise liners in the Caribbean or Mediterranean seas, but something tells me that you were not invited to go down to the engine room of a ship. I’m sure you will agree, that would be a very exciting experience. Well, you have this opportunity in the Seaplane Harbour Museum of Tallinn. If you like big and powerful things, the Suur Tõll icebreaker will impress you. The icebreaker, one of the museum exhibits, is not so enormous, but apparently very powerful. You will feel it after going down to its engine room (in fact, several rooms). Now, it is spotless there, so don’t worry about staining your white pants.

The Seaplane Harbour embankment, Tallinn, Estonia.

The Suur Toll icebreaker. The Seaplane Harbour, Tallinn, Estonia.

This museum ship, Estonia’s oldest and most dignified, is one of the three steam-powered icebreakers from the early 20th century that have been preserved in the Baltic Sea region. The ship was built in 1914 in the German Vulcan-Werke AG shipyard in Poland. One of the world’s most powerful icebreakers, this steamer worked under the flags of Imperial Russia, Finland, the Soviet Union, and the Republic of Estonia under the names of Tsar Mikhail Fyodorovich, Volynets, Wäinämöinen, and Suur Tõll.

The history of the Seaplane Harbour

In the Middle Ages, the city of Tallinn with its natural harbour was the most important trade center of the region, but in the 18th century, it became a vital military strongpoint. Peter the Great, the first Emperor of Russia began to reconstruct the port to suit the needs of the Russian Imperial Fleet. The next emperors continued his work. The cornerstone of the seaplane hangars was laid in 1916 by order of Nicholas II. Today, this is a museum and a globally unique structure: the first known steel concrete shell construction of this size in the world, 36.4 by 116 meters.

At the outset of the First World War, the Russian Tsar Nicholas II understood the potential of aviation in a war and decided to establish airfields across the enormous Russian Empire. In 1914, the Head of the Russian Naval General Staff presented his project of a facility for lowering hydroplanes into the water and suggested building hangars for their storage.

In March 1916, Colonel Alexander Yarona, a builder of lighthouses in the Baltic Sea region, oversaw the international competition for the best hangar (then referred to as “reinforced concrete shed”) design. Every hangar’s dimensions had to be at least 50 x 35 meters, and three hangars had to be grouped together. Such a size requirement was probably derived from the dimensions of the world’s first four-engine bomber developed in Russia and called llya Muromets.

The model of the Seaplane Harbour, Tallinn, Estonia.

A seaplane. The Seaplane Harbour, Tallinn, Estonia.

A navy anti-aircraft gun. Estonian Maritime Museum, Tallinn.
A navy anti-aircraft gun.

The project submitted by Christiani & Nielsen became a winner, envisaging three concrete-shell domes with the total floor area of 50 x 105 meters. That was the best option because there would be no columns inside.

Founded in 1904, the Christiani & Nielsen company became one of the largest engineering bureaus and construction enterprises in Denmark in the 20th century. The company specialized in the development of reinforced concrete structures, the building of bridges, and industrial and harbour installations. Among those whose careers took off at the London branch was construction engineer Ove Arup, later one of the authors of the world famous Sydney Opera House, Australia.

The Builder magazine wrote on 30.01.1920, “… to place a roof over a space 380 x 105 feet without any intermediate supports is an amazing achievement that could not have been attempted in the past without the aid of steel structures.”

The creators of the seaplane hangars were:

  • Herluf Trolle Forchhammer (1875-1958), Head of the Design Department;
  • Sven Schultz (1886-1932), Construction Manager;
  • Knud Hojgaard (1878-1968), Director of the St. Petersburg office.

The building work had begun in the summer of 1916 and lasted until the autumn of 1917. In 1918, the German Navy captured the Seaplane Harbour and called it Flugstation Reval. Later, at the end of 1918, when Estonia gained independence (for the first time in its history), it created its own national air force, but … without airplanes. Germans sold all airplanes to the Finns. In the autumn of 1919, the Naval Flight Squadron became a part of the Estonian Air Force and was based in the Seaplane Harbor until 1940.

The Seaplane Harbour received many famous visitors with their fine flying machines. From 1918 to 1940, the venue was visited, among others, by:

  • Umberto Maddalena, the holder of the endurance flight world record;
  • Dieudonné Costes, the French former ace pilot;
  • Jean Batten, who held the record for the fastest flight from England to Australia.

But the most prominent guest of the Seaplane Harbour was the American, Charles Lindbergh, one of the world’s greatest aviators who first flew across the Atlantic Ocean solo, without intermediate landings. Charles Lindbergh, with his radio operator, navigator, and wife, arrived in Tallinn on September 29, 1933. They flew to Estonia in their Lockheed Sirius hydroplane from Moscow, the USSR. Lindbergh’s mission was to research possibilities for regular flight connections between America and Europe.

The Soviet occupation of Estonia in 1940 resulted in the decline of the Seaplane Harbour. Here, some auxiliary vessels of the Soviet Navy’s Baltic Fleet were based, and various mine and torpedo equipment, and supplies for a brigade of minesweepers were stored. At the same time, hangars were used for storage and their maintenance was neglected. The building framework began to disintegrate.

An old military car on the backyard of the Seaplane Harbour, Tallinn, Estonia.
An old military car on the backyard of the museum.
An old American car on the embankment of the Seaplane Harbour, Tallinn, Estonia.
An old American car on the embankment of the museum.

Professor of the Tallinn Polytechnical Institute, Heinrich Laul, brought the issue of the uniqueness of the hangars back to the attention of the thinking public in his book titled Reinforced Concrete II, published in 1962. He stressed that this complex is the first reinforced concrete structure with big shell frames in the world, a historically valuable edifice which had unfortunately and undeservedly been overlooked in the recent past.

The Seaplane Harbour became a focal point of public interest again in 1979 when art historian Jevgeni Kaljundi completed his survey of the hangars and confirmed the assertion that this is a unique object in the global history of construction and architecture.

ln 1990, Soviet authorities illegally sold the hangar area, and one of the most complicated periods in the hundred-year history of the Seaplane Harbour started simultaneously with the revival of independent Estonia. Ownership disputes had begun in 1997 and the matter reached its final court settlement only in 2006. The Supreme Court of Estonia decided in favor of the state. From that moment, all Seaplane Harbour land and buildings became the property of the Republic of Estonia.

The Seaplane Harbour embankment, Tallinn, Estonia.
The Seaplane Harbour embankment.

The Seaplane Harbour embankment, Tallinn, Estonia.

Anti-aircraft guns. Estonian Maritime Museum, Tallinn.
Anti-aircraft guns in the museum.

In 2009, KOKO won the architectural competition and started the reconstruction. The Seaplane Harbour was opened in the spring of 2012 and received a number of awards:

  • Estonia’s Most Tourist-Friendly Museum 2012
  • Europa Nostra Grand Prix 2013
  • 2013 Interior Design Association (IIDA) Global Excellence Awards
  • Special Commendation from the European Museum of the Year 2014

and several others.


Writing this post, I used information from the museum exposition, and I must confess that it was the most interesting technical museum visit of my life.

This post in Russian.

24 thoughts on “Magical Estonian Maritime Museum, Seaplane Harbour

  1. The immensity of these ships and subs would be something a visitor would never forget. I love the wonderful photos, Victor. It’s almost like being there. And the information helps us to make sense of our virtual visit. Thanks for a great post!

    Liked by 1 person

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