The Town Hall Prison

The Museum of Photography, a branch of the Tallinn City Museum, is an interesting combination of rare buildings related to the administration of justice in the architectural history of Northern Europe and one of the most modern and accessible art forms of our time – photography.


The museum building is made up of two centuries-old buildings. The oldest of them is the Raekoja 6 – a former prison building (Odelie, Büttelei), which dates back to the early 14th century. The building was extensively rebuilt in 1441-1442, as can be seen from the building plans in the Tallinn City Archives. The old prison, however, remained within the new construction and for a long time part of it still bore the name ‘old prison’.


The completed building was a double cellar structure, with two narrow cells in the basement and on the second floor, the entire length of the building was covered by a cylindrical vault, which ended in the courtyard wall with a dansker (latrine). More or less the same spatial scheme is followed on the first floor, only the cells are narrower and there is a narrow archway between them to access the courtyard. The right-hand cell is also narrower, with a small vestibule in front of it, from where the masonry staircases leading to the basement and the second-floor start, and where the main door of the prison, with its simple railed staircase in the deep wall, opens. At the beginning of the century, the massive iron rings hanging from the walls of the cellars, to which prisoners were chained, still testified to the building’s ancient purpose.


The prison has been renovated several times. In 1752 it is described as being in a state of considerable disrepair; the cross beams visible on the street side of the first floor are probably the result of the renovation. The use of the prison was closely linked to the town hall, on the second floor of which sat the town court. To facilitate communication, there was a door in the rear wall of the town hall opposite the prison porch, which gave access to the cellar of the town hall and from there, via a staircase in the wall, to the town hall where justice was administered. In the 18th century, a new prison and detention house was opened on Rüütli Street, and the old one remained as a shelter for travellers and beggars. The name of the building changed in folklore and Büttele (prison) became Bottelei (begging).


In 1832 the building was sold into private ownership.

Next to the prison, with the address Raekoja 4, is an old prison warden’s and court servants’ house from the 14th century. To enlarge the earlier small building, a small building between it and the prison was bought in 1419 and rebuilt in the 1440s, merging the two small houses into a single building. Typical of dwellings, all the partitions of this building are of wood; the peculiarity is that both the entrance hall (diele) and the living room (dornse) face the street since the living room was usually located in the depths of the property behind the entrance hall. A system of straight staircases between the storeys at the back of the building and a kitchen corner with a mantelpiece in the entrance hall are characteristic of the dwellings. The portal of the building has been altered to a round-arched form, probably during repairs in the 16th century.