Sauna Arla in the hipster district of Kallio is one of the best public saunas of Helsinki. When you open the magnificent iron door of the building located at number 15 of Kaarlenkatu’s street, you can discover some paintings made by the finnish rock and blues singer Marjo Leinonen. They tell some nostalgic and funny stories of Kallio’s life during the last century, when it was still a working class district.
Sauna Arla was founded in 1929, at that time in the city, very few apartments had hot water and showers. Factory workers in the neighborhood of Kallio and Sörnäinen were washing themselves at public saunas. There used to be more than 100 of them in Helsinki between the 1920s and the 1950s.
Those days, public saunas were part of Helsinki’s life. They were opened from Tuesday until Saturday, and people were using them one or two time a week. Arla is one of the two oldest historic public saunas remaining from the 1920s in Helsinki. The other one, Sauna Kotiharju located in the neighborhood at Harjutorinkatu’s street, was founded in 1928.
Both saunas were heated by wood at that time, Kotiharju is the last traditional wooden-heated sauna remaining in Helsinki, Arla is now heated by natural gas. The building that were housing sauna Arla, had in 1929 about a hundred apartments, but also many offices and factories. There was among them a shoe factory called Kevyt-Kenkä Oy. The name of the factory had at that period a double meaning, it could mean light shoes but also women of easy virtue…
When Kimmo Helisto bought Arla in 2006, the place was totally forgotten and worn out. Helisto who lived in Kallio, had met by chance in the street at the end the 1990s, the former owner of the place Jorma Grönlund, who owned also since 1971 another sauna in Pietari’s street. Before managing saunas for nearly 35 years, Grönlund worked as a graphic designer in advertising. He also painted nameplates for companies.
In the 1990s Kimmo Helisto worked in film and music production. He also worked at Radio City since the mid-1980s. His interest in saunas goes back to this period.
“Radio City was located in a squat called Lepakko in the district of Ruoholahti in Helsinki. There was a sauna in Lepakko and with Tixa a colleague of mine, we were creating every week an event called: Höyry-klubi (steam club) with musicians, artists and poets. I understood at that time that sauna was a very unique and attractive place to create special events that bring people together”, explains Kimmo Helisto.
When Lepakko was destroyed in 1999, Kimmo continued to create sauna-related events around the world, including New York on the roof of the Gershwin hotel in Manhattan, but also in Germany and in the Netherlands. When he saw Arla for the first time, he felt in love straight away with the place.
“One of the reasons I felt in love with Arla, was that it was still old and authentic”, tells the owner of the sauna.
The place is carrying a lot of charm. Arla is like a real time capsule of Helsinki between the 1920s and the 1950s. Kimmo didn’t make any big renovations. He kept most of the sauna equipment, its doors and hanging wardrobes to maintain the aesthetic of the past.
“In Helsinki real estate developers often tend to destroy everything that is old to build something new. Helsinki and especially Finland’s cities are cities without any history. Everything is always new and shinny”, deplores Kimmo.
In the women’s dressing room, there’s a small back room where you can see some old relics of a former hairdressing salon. Originally, there was a hairdresser few days a week for the women that came to the sauna.
“I wanted to keep it that way. After the sauna session, women can put some makeup and comb their hair”, tells Kimmo Helisto.
Although Mannerheim never went to sauna Arla, you can find his portrait near the men’s dressing room. It’s a personal tribute to the Marshal, because Kimmo and him were born the same day on June 4th.
Arla is not only a place where you can relax and sweat. It’s also a place where you can occasionally participate to social debates, or see photography exhibitions, concerts, performances and stand-up artists.
From time to time, you can also see in Arla, groups of Iraqi and Syrian refugees. Volunteer workers of the Finnish red cross organize this event. In Karleenkatu’s street, there’s a refugee center and the Red Cross wanted to take refugees to the sauna.
“It is more a local district activity, rather than a politic statement. We show to the foreigners how a public sauna works and they come for free. I didn’t want to charge the Red Cross for this marginal event”, explains Arla’s owner.
In Arla you can get also some massage service upon request and also cupping. Cupping is an old finnish tradition of alternative treatment in which a therapist puts small cups on the skin usually on the back and the neck for a few minutes to create suctions. Sanna Kaisa Ilmarinen is the masseuse who lays cupping.
Most of Arla’s customers are from the district of Kallio, but some come also from other districts. Many foreigners living in Helsinki visit this popular public sauna as well as tourists coming from the States, Japan, Europe or China.
“They come here to live a unique experience of sociability. Public sauna is the place where Finns will discuss with foreigners. Finns will ask first: Have you ever been to a sauna before? Then they will ask you: Where do you come from? And after, they will speak with you about anything”, tells with fun Kimmo Helisto.
Finns become very social and talkative when they are in sauna. They don’t have any longer mobile phones or news papers in their hands. So if you are nearby, visit sauna Arla. It’s a place where you will really meet authentic residents from Helsinki and discover finnish contemporary culture. It’s an experience that you will remember for a long time.