Friday, July 6, 2018

Pulvertornis, Rīgas powder tower

With so many of our friends and family members in Rīga for the Song & Dance Festival, I wanted to highlight one of the more memorable structures in the Old City, Pulvertornis. The Powder Tower was originally part of the defensive system of the town, but can easily be toured this day and age as it houses the Latvian War Museum.

The tower first makes an appearance in historical records in 1330, in those days known as the Sand Tower in reference to the sandy hills opposite the tower. After the Swedes attacked in 1621 not much was left other than the basement. It was on this foundation that the Powder Tower was built, a horseshoe-shaped construction with walls as thick as 10ft in parts facing outwards from the city center (bricks were an expensive choice, and so the wall facing inward was built of wood). The name Pulvertornis refers to its use as a powder storage facility since the 4th century, although there were also 11 cannons in the tower and a “cannonball catcher,” a ceiling between the 5th and 6th floor made of three layers of oak and pine logs. At one point the tower housed a prison, and until around 1883 it was used for the storage of weapons.

When the city’s fortifications were dismantled some years later (see the nearby Zviedru vārti, the “Swedish gate” one of the few remainders of the 17th century medieval fortification walls), the tower was abandoned. In 1892 the student fraternity Rubonia made a proposal to the city government to utilize the structure as their fraternity house, and the city agreed; in addition to needed repairs, the fraternity would have to pay a symbolic 1 ruble/year in rent. (Fun fact: according to Wikipedia, the fraternity sold the pigeon poop they removed from the tower for 612 rubles, a large sum in those days.)

Among the improvements made to the building were replacing the wooden wall facing the city with a brick façade and adding a roof somewhat resembling that of the present day. However during WWI the fraternity was relocated to Moscow along with the Rīga Polytechnic Institute, and in 1916 the tower was opened as the Latviešu strēlnieku pulku muzejs (the Latvian Riflemen's Regiment Museum) which was renamed the Latvian War Museum in 1919.

There is no admission to visit the war museum, one of the oldest and largest in Latvia. The museum’s mission is to “reveal to the public the complex military and political history of Latvia, with particular emphasis on the 20th century, during which the Latvian nation had to fight for its independence twice.” A significant portion of the museum’s collection consists of military and political artifacts from the 20th century, and permanent exhibits include WWI, WWII, the illegal Soviet occupation and the restoration of independence in 1991.

While geared more towards adults than children, kids will find portions of the museum interesting and possibly less frightening than other history museums in the city. The walls still contain cannonballs, bricked in to commemorate the Second Northern War, and the costumes/armor, weapons and historical trivia might be of interest to them while the adults do some more in-depth reading. We found it interesting to explore the interior of what is an icon of the Vecrīga streetscape, and the lack of admission meant we could duck in when our schedule allowed. I definitely recommend a stop at the War Museum for first-time visitors to Rīga, as it provides a comprehensive look at the history of this 800 year old city in an easily-digested format.

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